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Labor in the U.S.: Unions, Labor Markets & Professions

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Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

This lesson discusses the differences between the two labor markets in the United States - primary and secondary. It also defines labor unions and the characteristics of a profession. Updated: 05/07/2021

The Labor Market

The labor market in the U.S. has made a lot of progress since the 1900s. We no longer have child labor or dangerous working environments, and there are higher wages and more benefits offered. There are, however, still inequalities and issues with today's labor market.

The labor market in the United States can be divided into two segments - the primary and the secondary. Both of these markets offer a set of social mechanisms through which labor is bought and sold, yet there are definite distinctions between the two.

This lesson will differentiate between the primary and secondary labor markets. We will also discuss the role of labor unions in the United States and explore the characteristics of professions.

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  • 0:02 The Labor Market
  • 0:47 Labor Market Types
  • 1:45 Primary Market Barriers
  • 2:53 Labor Union
  • 4:06 Professions
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Labor Market Types

The primary labor market is comprised of highly skilled or well-educated members. Most of the individuals in the primary labor market belong to unions (which we will discuss later in this lesson) or professional societies and organizations.

The individuals in this labor market are employed in large corporations, have relatively high job security, high pay, and generous benefits. Members of this labor market are part of a profession, which generally requires some specialized or higher degree of education and training. A profession is different than a job, and we will discuss these differences a little later in the lesson also.

The secondary labor market tends to include unskilled laborers or those with less education. These members work in smaller firms where employment is less stable, pay is low, and benefits are inadequate.

Primary Market Barriers

Unfortunately, there is a cyclical nature of the labor market that reinforces the divide between primary and secondary markets. There are several barriers to entry into the primary labor market.

1. There are fewer entry-level positions in the primary labor market due to corporate downsizing and plant shutdowns. It is difficult to break into a primary labor market without already possessing skills and education.

2. Workers in the secondary labor market are less connected to networks that could contribute to them finding a job in the primary market. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70% of all jobs are found through informal networks. If individuals in the secondary labor market do not have connections, it's unlikely they will break into the primary labor market.

3. Workers in the secondary labor market usually lack the education, training, and/or certifications they need for jobs in the primary labor market, but because of their low pay and lack of free time, education and further training are hard to acquire.

Labor Union

A labor union, as mentioned above, is an organization of employees in a particular field or industry that chooses to join together to achieve common goals. Unions can provide a crucial function in the labor market.

Unions can:

  • Help employees work toward improving working conditions, wages and benefits, and hours
  • Resolve disagreements between the employer and employee

The premise behind a union is that by working as a collective group, the individual employee gains strength and has a louder voice about what he or she cares about. Unions negotiate contracts and help the employer adapt to the ever-changing workforce.

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