Story: Occupational structure

Page 1. Defining and measuring occupations

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In the early 1900s most New Zealanders worked in occupations in the primary sector – farming, fishing, forestry and mining. By the early 2000s just 7% of the workforce was in the primary sector; 12% was in manufacturing, and 81% in service industries, including retailing, office work, the media and information technology. The way occupations have changed from the era of the gum-digger to that of the software developer is part of the story of New Zealand.

Occupations and industry

 

An industry is a sector of the economy; and occupation is a type of work. A labourer might work in the primary sector or in manufacturing; while a book keeper might work for a manufacturer or a retailer.

 

Occupations versus jobs

Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, occupation has a broader meaning than job. Someone’s occupation is determined by the skills, training and qualifications they have for their work. However their job is determined by the specific use they make of those skills and qualifications. A worker could have several different jobs in succession with different employers – or several at the same time – while still working within the same occupation. For example, a nurse could have jobs in different hospitals, but the occupation would not change.

Groups of occupations

Occupations have typically been divided into the simple categories of manual (mainly requiring physical effort) and non-manual (mainly requiring mental effort).

In the past most workers had manual occupations, such as labourer, miner, forestry worker and, more recently, factory worker and plumber. Non-manual occupations have included salesperson, teacher, cook, nurse and journalist.

However, the distinction between manual and non-manual has become increasingly difficult to draw. Most so-called manual occupations, such as plumber, generally have some non-manual element requiring problem-solving skills and a significant level of education. Non-manual occupations, such as surgeon, may still involve some highly skilled manual work, requiring significant physical strength.

What colour is your collar?

 

A ‘blue-collar’ worker is employed in industrial or manual labour. They are so named because industrial and manual workers wear durable clothes such as overalls or jeans, traditionally navy blue or light blue, so they won’t be ruined by the stains of hard work. A ‘white-collar’ worker is a professional or office worker, because, from the 19th century male office workers were expected to wear a white shirt with a collar and tie. Recent terms include ‘pink-collar’, for occupations traditionally held by women such as a secretary or nurse, and ‘green-collar’, for an occupation in the environmental or conservation sector.

 

A more recent classification system groups occupations into three main types: routine production, in-person services, and symbolic-analytic services.

Routine production services involve repetitive tasks such as production-line work, but include routine supervisory positions such as foremen, line managers, clerical supervisors and section chiefs. These occupations can be found in traditional manufacturing industries and in high-technology industries such as manufacturing circuit boards. Much routine production work has been disappearing from economies such as New Zealand’s due to it being automated or transferred to countries with lower wages.

In-person services occupations, such as shop assistant or cleaner, generally do not require a high level of education, but often require some specific training and good inter-personal skills. These can be low-skill occupations but cannot easily be transferred to other countries.

Symbolic-analytic services involve handling data, words, sounds and images. These occupations, such as graphic designer, computer programmer or journalist, require an education that develops innovative thought rather than learning a vast array of facts.

Measuring occupations

There are a number of difficulties in trying to accurately measure the types of work people do. For example, should unpaid work count as an occupation? This vital and often demanding work was ignored by official surveys for many years. Since the 1960s people have lobbied to officially count categories such as full-time housewife as an occupation. Since 1986 a question about people’s unpaid work has been added to New Zealand’s five-yearly census. A survey of how people use their time, whether paid or unpaid, was first carried out in 1998, enabling unpaid work to be measured as part of the overall workforce.

Another difficulty in surveying occupations is that many surveys assume people only have one occupation at a time. However, someone might have one main job, but do other work in evenings or weekends. Or, they might work part-time in a number of occupations. The 2006 census indicates that 9% of men and 10% of women officially worked in more than one job. In addition, there will be some occupations, such as burglar, that people will not record in official surveys.

How to cite this page:

Paul Callister and Robert Didham, 'Occupational structure - Defining and measuring occupations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/occupational-structure/page-1 (accessed 28 April 2017)

Story by Paul Callister and Robert Didham, published 11 Mar 2010