Whenever a factory shuts down, it seems, someone observes that the United States is deteriorating into a place where people soon will have to take in laundry, shine shoes or flip burgers to make a living.
But those who make such claims are committing an unfair slander on the emerging service economy, the overwhelming source of new jobs in Southern California and the rest of the nation in recent years.
What is a service job?
Well, nobody has a very good definition. Technically, it's anything that provides a service, as opposed to such other traditional areas of employment as manufacturing, agriculture and construction. And--criticisms to the contrary--service jobs, just like those they are replacing, pay from minimum wage all the way to six figures or more. The work can be dead-end drudgery or a rewarding challenge, just like anything else.
Indeed, it's hard to comprehend the tremendous range of occupations considered "services."
Dishwashers are service employees, as are highly paid restaurant executives. Hospital orderlies toil within the service sector--alongside surgeons and other medical specialists with years of training. Messengers are part of the service economy--as are the attorneys, bankers and accountants whose documents they haul through the city.
For all the debate about services, they're not very new. Travelers who took the bumpy stagecoach ride into California in the last century and found lodging at roadside inns were participating in an earlier version of the service economy. "Can we live off services?" asked Phillip E. Vincent, a vice president with First Interstate Bancorp. "As an economist, I say it's been going on for hundreds of years."
In fact, the vast expansion of services in recent decades may simply reflect economic strength, not weakness. As a society gains wealth, people are able to take care of their basic needs and still have money left over for other things. "As we get richer, we spend more of our income on services," Vincent pointed out.
Moreover, other forces are propelling the growth of services.
Households with two wage earners often can afford services to lighten their load. That can mean anything from grabbing a bite out after work, instead of preparing dinner in the kitchen, to dropping a young child off at a day-care center in the morning.
What's more, many services cater to the needs of business, not individuals. Multinational corporations and modest merchants both provide an enormous market for consultants, financial advisers, computer experts and other services. Indeed, business services were second only to retail trade as a source of job growth in Southern California between 1972 and 1986, according to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
A survey of Los Angeles and four neighboring counties by the chamber illustrates the breadth of the service economy. It found, for example, that the area's major employers included local government, universities, banks, department stores, telephone companies, restaurants and hotel corporations--all services of a sort.
Services are by far the largest--and fastest-growing--employer in Southern California. In Los Angeles County, for example, they now account for 2.9 million out of the 3.9 million jobs.
"In 1986, the biggest employment gains in L.A. County came in the huge category known as services," observed Jack A. Kyser, chief economist at the chamber.
It would be impossible to summarize the outlook for service occupations across the board. What follows is a glimpse at the jobs outlook in a few popular areas within the growing service sector. (The outlook for some service jobs in the high-paying professions appears on Page 11.)
One way the service economy touches everybody's life is through retailing, an area that has flourished along with the growth of population and income in Southern California. And that means jobs--an increase in Southern California last year of 45,100.
"Some of the most creative forms of retailing are beginning in California," said Bernard Codner, director of the Institute of Retail Management at California State University, Los Angeles. "Now, if you start a concept that works in California, it can expand very rapidly in other parts of the country."
All that adds up to a vibrant economic sector that is sure to share in the continued growth of the region. Retail sales includes everything from small specialty shops to such big department stores as the Broadway, with 14,500 employees at 43 stores and several clearance centers in Southern California. It entails virtually everything consumers buy, from the necessities of life to the luxuries.
The biggest retail stores employ a diverse work force that includes salespeople, managers, buyers, finance experts and those in marketing and promotion.