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Survey: Low-wage workers gloomy about future

Wednesday - 3/20/2013, 10:00pm  ET

JENNIFER AGIESTA
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- While lower-wage American workers have accounted for the lion's share of the jobs created since the 2007-2009 Great Recession, a new survey shows that they are also among the most pessimistic about their future career prospects, their job security and their finances.

The two-part Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of both employers and employees found high levels of anxiety among those earning $35,000 annually or less. Many of these workers say they're worse off now than they were before or during the recession.

And there's no question that workers see the world differently than do their bosses.

Seventy-two percent of employers at big companies and 58 percent at smaller ones say there is a "great deal" or "some" opportunity for worker advancement. But, asked the same question, 67 percent of all low-wage workers said they saw "a little" or "no opportunity" at their jobs for advancement.

The survey revealed that many people on the lowest rung in the workplace view their jobs as a dead end. Half were "not too" or "not at all" confident that their jobs would help them achieve long-term career goals. And only 41 percent of workers at the same place for more than a decade reported ever receiving a promotion.

Yet 44 percent of employers surveyed said it's hard to recruit people with appropriate skills or experiences to do lower-wage jobs, particularly in manufacturing (54 percent). And while 88 percent of employers said they were investing in training and education for employee advancement, awareness and use of such programs among the lower-wage workers was only modest.

Although President Barack Obama made it a national goal to "equip our citizens with the skills and training" to compete for good jobs, the survey shows a U.S. workforce that has grown increasingly polarized -- between the haves and the have-nots and between employers and their employees.

Through last month, the economy had recovered only about 5.7 million of the 8.7 million jobs shed in the deepest downturn since the Great Depression. Low-wage jobs are usually the first to come back following a recession. While the outlook clearly is improving, economic growth remains anemic and unemployment is a still-high 7.7 percent.

Ronald Moore, 48, of Lebanon, Ind., is among those who have seen their situation improve. He started his own home-inspection company three years ago after he couldn't find enough work as a truck driver. But "nobody was buying homes, so no one needed an inspection," he said. "It was pretty rough in the beginning." Now he operates a custom cabinet business, where business is starting to improve. Slowly.

To gauge the experiences and perspectives of lower-wage workers, the AP-NORC Center conducted two separate surveys. A sample of 1,606 workers earning $35,000 or less annually was surveyed last summer, while a companion poll of 1,487 employers of such workers was conducted from November through January.

Roughly 65 percent of the jobs the U.S. economy added since the recession officially ended in June 2009 have been lower-wage ones.

Despite those numerical gains, "lower-income households have been hit very hard and have not benefited as much from the recovery," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "Their real wages are going nowhere. And this is a group that has more debt, fewer assets, is less likely to own a home or stocks and with little capacity to absorb higher gasoline prices."

Economists also say low-wage workers were hit particularly hard by an increase in Social Security payroll taxes resulting from "fiscal cliff" negotiations late last year between Obama and Congress.

A degree of economic "self-righting" will happen as more middle-income and higher-income jobs come back and economic growth accelerates, said Robert Trumble, director of the Labor Studies Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. "But the situation we've been facing for the last half-dozen years or so has been tough. And the lower your income, the tougher it is."

"Some things are better. But there are still some things that are still hard," said Sarah Mueller, 33, of Palm Harbor, Fla., who found work as a Montessori teacher two years ago after working as a part-time and substitute teacher. "With student loans, people are still struggling -- I'm one of those people -- to pay back student loans that are astronomical," she said.

Seventy-four percent of lower-wage workers say it is "difficult" or "very difficult" for them and their families to get ahead financially. Half thought their financial situation was somewhat or much worse than in 2008, when the recession was worsening.

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