Labor Day Brings Strong Jobs Forecast from the Travel Industry

Travel is a boost to the economy, but many jobs pay well below average.

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Americans traveling this Labor Day weekend will be supporting one of the key industries in the economic recovery, says a new report.

Travelers spent $813 billion in 2011, supporting 7.5 million jobs, or around 7 percent of all private-sector workers. When those workers spend their earned money, it boosts the economy even more, supporting 14.4 million jobs, or roughly 1 in 8. Those figures from a new study from the U.S. Travel Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of the travel industry.

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The report claims that travel "can lead a path to future prosperity," but the question is how much prosperity a person gains working in the travel industry.

The largest share of jobs supported by travel tend to be at restaurants and hotels, says David Huether, chief economist at the U.S. Travel Association. but the jobs that the travel association counts run the gamut from amusement park ride operators to airline pilots.

Many of those jobs pay well below average, according to statistics from the Labor Department. While the annual hourly wage for all occupations as of May 2011 was just under $22, waiters and waitresses made less than half that, at $10.05. Maids and housekeepers made around $10.30. Restaurant hosts and hostesses earned only $9.45.

Some did a little better: travel agents earned around $17.18 per hour, and chefs managed to earn a little above average, at $22.40. Lodging managers pulled in $26.50.

Whatever the pay, one common thread connects many of these jobs, says one economist: they are not going anywhere.

A hotel maid is "a very low-paying job, but I don't see at all anything soon doing a better job in folding a blanket than a human being," says Gad Levanon, director of macroeconomic research at the Conference Board.

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"Many jobs in this industry—you can't offshore them, and you also can't replace them with machines," he says. That may set up jobs in industries like leisure and hospitality for more resilient future growth than manufacturing, however, where many jobs have been automated or sent overseas. The report projects that travel-related jobs could account for as many as one in seven new jobs over the next 10 years.

In addition, while many travel jobs don't yield massive paychecks, they provide employment to the people who need it most, says David Huether,

"If you look at where the employment problem is, it's not for those who are 25 years or older and have a college degree. It's for those older workers who don't have college degrees or younger workers," he says.

Young workers without college diplomas make up a disproportionately large portion of the labor force that is supported by travel, he says. He also adds that the fact that some of these jobs are part-time, and that many rely in part on tip income (which is often unreported, he says), helps to make the reported wages lower. Huether also adds that these jobs often support people who are seeking further education or training.

Levanon agrees that in a tight labor market, any additional jobs—especially for unskilled workers—are a boon. He also points out that, low-paying or not, there is plenty of potential for yet more jobs in this industry, as emerging economies create growing hordes of tourists.

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"As the emerging world is becoming more affluent, we'll see more and more tourists from China, for example," he says. "In general, as the middle class develops from those countries, they'll travel more to the U.S."

Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at dkurtzleben@usnews.com.