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Do inflation-proof jobs exist? Experts are ‘skeptical’—it all depends ‘on the circumstances’

Many people’s wallets took a hit these last few years as inflation spiked higher than it’s been in decades. Overall, prices rose 13% between April 2021 and April 2023, according to a CNBC Make It analysis. That growth has slowed down since the spring — prices climbed 3.7% year over year in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But many consumers are still feeling that difference.

That’s in part because wage growth hasn’t been keeping up. Bankrate recently compared various industries’ wage growth from January 2021 to the present versus inflation over the same period and found that, overall, wages lagged behind about 3%. Among the industries that faired the worst was education, which saw a 7.2% lag.

According to Bankrate’s analysis, however, three industries’ wage growth outpaced inflation. That was retail, leisure and hospitality, and accommodation and food services. Here’s why they fared better than other industries and whether or not experts think, big-picture, inflation-proof industries actually exist.

‘They needed the bodies’

The wage growth in these three industries reflects what happened on the ground during the pandemic.

These were the industries that “were severely disrupted by the pandemic,” says Sarah Foster, U.S. economy and personal finance reporter for Bankrate and the author of the report. The leisure and hospitality sector lost more than 3 million jobs between 2019 and 2020, for example, according to BLS. “These were the workers who were displaced, they were let go on the onset of nationwide lockdowns. And then when the economy emerged from those lockdowns, employers wanted to bring them all back in an instant.”

How much have earnings changed for workers compared to inflation?
Wage growth across sectors and the consumer price index since 2021
Wage growth for all sectors
Change in CPI
Leisure + hospitality
Accommodation + food service
Financial activities
Professional + business services
Health care + social assitance

But, at that point, workers didn’t want to come back to retail, leisure and hospitality, and accommodation and food services. All three offer comparatively low wages. According to, as of 2023 a retail worker in the U.S. makes an average of $15 per hour. These workers were also feeling burned out and underappreciated.

In order to lure them back in to meet demand after the pandemic, employers in these industries “had no choice” but to hike wages, says Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and senior fellow at Brookings. All three still face staffing shortages.

They had to make these jobs more attractive because “they needed the bodies,” he says.

Big picture, experts do not believe there’s such a thing as inflation-proof industries.

“I’m skeptical that there are industries that you can be confident are going to be inflation-proof,” says Holzer. “I think it depends simply on the circumstances.” Are there labor shortages, are firms’ profit margins big enough that they can hike wages, etc.

Overall, “America has become more of a low-wage economy and more of a low-wage labor market than it was, you know, 30, 40 years ago,” he says. “I think automation is part of that story. I think globalization is part of that story. I think the weakening of labor laws and the weakening ability of workers to unionize is part of that story.”

As far as finding the best job to weather inflation, then, “a job within an industry that can offer you more upward mobility,” says Foster, “because that can maybe be a better indicator of whether your pay as an individual can keep up with inflation.” Though industries like the aforementioned outpaced inflation this time around, they still pay comparatively low wages — including in managerial positions — even now.

“At the end of the day, the best way to make sure that you aren’t fragile with inflation is to just make sure that you’re making as much money as you can,” she says.  

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