A GENERAL wage level is a statistical fiction that is useful for certain purposes but misleading for others. The "real" world of labor consists of many wages--wage rates, fringe benefits, and similar rights and duties. "Wages" differ according to occupation, geographical area, industry, firm, sex, and color. To bring order to the sheer task of describing the maze of wages, it is helpful to use the concept of a wage structure, or the relationship of one wage to another in any given category of analysis. In this chapter we shall review three types of wage structures--occupational, industrial, and geographical--and in each case we shall be concerned with the extent of the differential, historical changes in the differential, and the reasons for the changes.
Because there are thousands of different occupations, the first step in a systematic description of occupational wage structures is to determine what key occupations should be selected for comparison. The wages of workers with skills in the construction trades can be compared with those of unskilled laborers only if the groups of workers form well-recognized and standardized separate categories. In many manufacturing industries where unskilled labor is less important, however, no common occupation may be apparent. One solution to this problem is the approach employed by Harry Ober of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, which uses the definitions of "skilled," "semiskilled," and "unskilled" shown on p. 341.