The top 3 industries in the U.S. are critical to American life — yet among the most underpaid

The labor market has been in flux this year, but one thing hasn’t changed: Three industries have remained on top — education, health care, and social assistance.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by finance site Zippia, “education” — which actually encompasses health care, educational services, social assistance — is the category with the highest number of people employed in the U.S. overall and across all states, all bar two.
The complex category comprises 23.1% of the total U.S. economy, followed by the retail trade (11.4%), and professional, scientific, management, administrative and waste management services (11.3%).
Most manufacturing jobs, which rank as the fourth biggest industry comprising 10.3% of the U.S. economy, are confined to the Rust Belt, a swath of land in the Midwest that includes Wisconsin and Michigan down to Missouri and Mississippi.
Health care remains strong
Overall, health care is the largest and fastest growing occupation in America, said Chris Kolmar, a spokesman for Zippia. “With a population that continues to age and a record number of people hitting retirement, this industry will remain the biggest in America for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Health-care practitioners and technical occupations including registered nurses, physicians and surgeons, and dental hygienists make a median annual wage of $64,770, higher than the median annual wage for all occupations in the economy of $37,690, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The sector is expected to grow 18% by 2026, adding 2.4 million new jobs.
The median weekly earnings for full-time education workers is $957 per week or around $49,000 per year.
Educational services, as defined by the BLS, is comprised of 3.7 million employees including education administrators, elementary school teachers, middle school teachers, and high school teachers. The figure does not include higher education. The median weekly earnings for full-time education workers is $957 per week or around $49,000 per year.
Social assistance, meanwhile, is comprised of 3.9 million employees making an average of $16.76 an hour for 29 hours a week, equating to under $25,000 per year — less than the median wage of $49,000 per year. Except for the highest-paid physicians and executives in these fields, these three industries are paid less than the median wage, particularly in health and education.
A gender breakdown
Many of the fields in this top category are dominated by women, who earn approximately 83 cents on the dollar compared to men, per government data. Healthcare practitioners are 75% women and education workers are 73% women, according to BLS data. Some 66% of workers in social service occupations are women.
Many of these fields are dominated by women, who earn approximately 83 cents on the dollar compared to men.
What’s more, 38.2% of physicians and surgeons were female and 90% of registered nurses were female. The latter are paid far less. In education, only 7.4% of administrators were women, the BLS said, while 97% of preschool and kindergarten teachers, 79% of elementary and middle school teachers, and 58% of secondary school teachers are women.
These three industries are the biggest in every state in the U.S. except Nevada, where the top industries are “arts, entertainment, and recreation, and accommodation and food services,” and Washington D.C., where the top industries are comprised of “professional, scientific, and management, and administrative and waste management services.”
Education remains one of the most poorly paid
Meanwhile, education is also one of the most poorly-paid industries and, arguably, among the most profession in the country. Public-school teacher jobs, wages, and school funding have not recovered since the recession. A “teacher employment gap” persists, according to a 2018 report from progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute.
Public-school teacher jobs, wages, and school funding have not recovered since the recession, according to the EPI.
“State and local government austerity since the recession has contributed to a significant shortfall in education employment,” it said. “There are still 116,000 fewer public education jobs than there were before the recession began in 2007. If we include the number of jobs that should have been created just to keep up with growing student enrollment, we are currently experiencing a 389,000 job shortfall in public education.”
This has contributed to a “significant shortfall in education employment,” it found, which leads to overcrowded classes, fewer teachers, and fewer extra-curricular activities. It can also lead to poor working conditions for teachers, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of teachers, the second-largest teaching union in the U.S. after the National Education Association.
“Education is at the heart of the American dream — it provides the vital knowledge, instruction and supports students need to thrive as engaged members of society,” she said. “Sadly, our aspirations and expectations for education chafe with the reality of systematic under-investment and declining pay and conditions for educators.”
State legislatures have slashed education spending to finance other tax cuts, a separate paper released by the EPI last month found. It highlighted a “crisis in teacher pay” and said providing teachers with a middle-class salary commensurate with other professionals with similar education is critical for teachers and the students. “Effective teachers are the most important school-based determinant of student educational performance,” the paper said.