National Compensation Survey - Wages

People are asking...

What is the role of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Federal pay administration process?

Answer: For more than half a century, BLS has supplied data on non-Federal pay from its on-going survey programs to those agencies charged with Federal pay administration. To do this, BLS selects a sample of establishments; collects, reviews, and tabulates wage data; and transmits estimates to the appropriate authority (currently, the Office of Personnel Management) for its use in comparing Federal and private pay. Recommendations about adjustments to Federal pay are the responsibility of the President’s Pay Agent and its advisory group, the Federal Salary Council. For a more detailed description of the Federal pay-setting process and the BLS role, refer to www.opm.gov/flsa/oca/pay/html/UsingBLSData.asp.

A September 2009 article in the Bureau’s Monthly Labor Review, "Fifty years of BLS surveys on Federal employees’ pay,” (PDF) describes the changes in the Federal pay adjustment process over the years and how the changes affected the Bureau’s occupational wage survey programs.

When compared with other occupations the hourly earnings for some occupations, such as teachers and airline pilots, seem higher than expected. Why is this?

Answer: Hourly earnings are just one means of comparing the wages of different occupations. This method has the advantage of treating all occupations with a common denominator — a single hour. Unfortunately, this method may not work well for certain occupations with unusual hours. Teachers who often work only 9 or 10 months per year are an example of this problem. Another example is the airline pilot occupation. The earnings for aircraft pilots include flight pay and flight hours only and may not reflect the total earnings and hours worked. Because of these issues, comparisons of annual salaries published by the National Compensation Survey (NCS) might be more appropriate when considering certain occupations.

The National Compensation Survey publishes the number of weekly and annual hours worked for occupations. How is the number of hours worked determined for occupations with unusual work schedules such as airline pilots and teachers?

Answer: The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on earnings and associated hours directly from employers (typically human resource professionals) either through a personal interview or telephone conversation. BLS requests that employers provide the appropriate hours that comprise all the duties of the occupation. The collection of hours is more difficult for some occupations. In the case of airline pilots, the number of hours is restricted to flight hours which are highly regulated and carefully recorded. In the case of elementary and secondary teachers, hours of work include preparation time, administrative time, and professional days. For college and university professors, research time and office hours are included with class time in the total number of hours worked.

Why do average wages and salaries for some occupations seem to fluctuate widely from year-to-year in the National Compensation Survey?

Answer: The estimates from the National Compensation Survey are derived from a scientifically selected probability sample. As a sample survey, the estimates are subject to sampling errors. The relative standard error, published for each estimate, indicates the precision with which an estimate approximates the average result of all possible samples. The estimates may also be affected by employment shifts among occupations and industries. Layoffs and hiring can also influence wage changes. For example, less tenured lower paid employees generally are laid off first; the result is a higher paid incumbent work force. Conversely, hiring a large number of new employees at the minimum rate for an occupation can lower average pay for the job, even though experienced workers are still earning the same, higher wages.

To measure compensation costs over time free from the influence of employment shifts among occupations and industries, the NCS produces the Employment Cost Index (ECI). The ECI, using a standard Laspeyres fixed-weighted index, is calculated with fixed employment weights unlike the method with which wage series are calculated. Designated as a principal Federal economic indicator, the ECI is the preferred method of measuring compensation changes. The ECI, however, does not publish series for individual areas or occupations.

Are there any tables that reflect the national compensation for men and women?

Answer: The National Compensation Survey does not produce wage estimates by sex or any other demographic characteristic. The BLS Current Population Survey uses data from a household survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau to produce data by demographic characteristics, including by sex. See www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat39.htm and www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat39.pdf.

Where can I obtain statewide occupational survey data?

Answer: Statewide occupational pay data are available from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey. See www.bls.gov/oes/current/oessrcst.htm. The National Compensation Survey produces data for metropolitan areas and for the nation as a whole.

Where can I find wage differentials for specific cities?

Answer: The National Compensation Survey provides wage differential data showing how wages vary in metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas throughout the United States. See www.bls.gov/ncs/ocs/compub.htm.

Last Modified Date: October 30, 2008

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