It’s spring. Leaves are on the trees, a new crop of audio students are graduating into the workforce en masse, and it is time once again to review the just-released annual jobs data to find out where the best prospects in the audio industry lie.
Each May, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases its latest job numbers, which they collected in May of the previous year. The main figures here are based on the Occupational Employment Statistics (“OES”) survey, a questionnaire that is filled out by businesses about the workers that they employ.
Because this survey only tracks regular employees—excluding both freelancers and the self-employed—it leaves out far more jobs than it includes. So once again, we’ll supplement this post with data from the Current Population Survey (“CPS”) as well.
The CPS data is collected a bit less frequently, and the study is smaller in scale, but it tracks the responses of individual workers in real households, helping to account for both freelancers and the self-employed. Comparing these two sets of data can lead to some interesting insights.
So, how many jobs are there?
The first time we explored these numbers, back in 2012, we found that despite all the stories of big studio closings, the number of jobs for “sound engineering technicians” actually increased by nearly 50% in the first decade of the 21st century.
The most recent projections from the BLS are for 8% job growth for “sound engineering technicians”, 12% growth for “audio and video equipment technicians” and job losses of -6% for “broadcast technicians” through the 10-year period ending in 2024.
(Of course, if governments actually did a great job of predicting where markets were headed, there’s probably a major bubble or two that we could have avoided in recent memory. So we’ll take their estimates of where we’re going a little less seriously than their estimates of where we are and where we have been.)
As far as the total number of current jobs, the OES survey of employers counts just over 15,000 salaried “sound engineering technicians” in the entire country this year—up almost 10% from the roughly 14,000 figure released last year. That’s a pretty significant one-year increase. But it only tells a small part of the story.
If we take the most recent CPS survey into account (which does make an attempt to count freelancers and the self-employed) then estimates of the number of individuals working in audio is something more like 117,000 nationwide.
This disparity in job numbers suggests a ratio of just under 8 freelancers for every 1 salaried “sound engineering technician”.
Surprisingly, this ratio has been trending down slightly, but that is almost certainly due to having more recent numbers for salaried engineers than we have for freelance engineers, so it can probably be ignored as a misleading statistical artifact. If anything, it is reasonable to suggest that the proportion of freelance work has been increasing in recent decades.
Similarly, the 117,000 figure seems to represent a drop of more than 3.5% compared to the 121,000 figure available at the time of our 2015 report. But this also likely a statistical artifact due to the near-constant revisions that the Federal government makes regarding these kinds of rough estimates of job numbers.
(Remember that the next time you hear about “jobs data” or “GDP estimates” being released. They are often announced more optimistically and then revised downward at a later date.)
The OES survey data that we’ll largely be relying on today however, has gone through a year of checking before its released, so it tends to be much more stable, even if it only tells one part of the story.
How much do they pay?
When we first looked into the salary figures in 2012, we found that median salaries for audio engineers rose from $30,000 to $46,000 in the first decade of the 21st century.
By the time of our 2016 report, the BLS data showed that the median salary for audio engineers had continued to rise, reaching $53,000. That’s a 77% increase in 15 years, handily beating the “official” inflation number of 40% over the same period.
Now in 2017, the BLS estimates that the median salary for audio engineers has held steady since last time, right around the $53,000 mark once again.
The average salary ticked up however, up to $65,000 from $63,000, for an increase of roughly 3.5% from last year’s report.
As per usual, the average salary is higher than the median salary because the smaller number of engineers who earn more than the median can sometimes earn a lot more: The top 10% of earners averaged near $121,000 (up about 2% from $119,000), while the bottom 10% earned about $24,400 annually (up about 7% from just under $23,000).
When we first crunched the numbers in 2012, the highest incomes—and the highest levels of job growth—were in “Motion Picture & Video”. By our 2015 report, audio engineers in the “Software Publishing” sector beat them out by a hair, with average salaries of $79,000 for software compared to $75,000 for video.
For our 2016 report, incomes in these two fields increased again, putting the video sector back in the lead at just under $83,000, and the software field close at its heels at $81,000.
This year, “Motion Picture & Video” takes the lead once again with an average of just over $88,000 (up about 6% from last year) beating out “Software Publishing” just slightly again at $86,500. (Up 5.5% since last year.)
There are still a lot more audio engineers working in film & video than in software, but the gap has been narrowing from a ratio of roughly 100:1 in our 2015 report down to 38:1 in 2016’s report and a bit under 35:1 today.
Once you add in the fairly new category of “Computer Systems Design and Related Services” however, the ratio of engineers in film and video sinks to more like 18:1 over the computer and software sector.
This new category of “Computer Systems Design and Related Services” just entered into the statistics as of our last report. At that time, engineers in this small field there were making the beaucoup bucks with average salaries of roughly $100,000, putting this category in the lead overall. This year, their average salaries have fallen by about 2% to just shy of $98,000, but they still get to keep the #1 slot.
It’s worth noting that the Corporate A/V sector appears to be at least as large as the software and computer sector. The categories of “Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping, and Payroll Services” and “Other Information Services” alone accounted for about the same total number of jobs as the “Software” and “Computer Systems” categories, and commanded average salaries of about $72,000 and $68,000 each.
“Radio and Television Broadcasting”, which has been experiencing declines as new media overtakes the old, saw some of the lower salaries once again at around $56,000.
Interestingly, the very tiny category of “spectator sports” and “amusement parks” seems to have dropped out of the statistics entirely.
Last we checked, there was a slight drop in their average salaries, from $72,000 down to $71,000 in spectator sports and $69,000 down to $67,000 for amusement parks.
It seems reasonable to suggest that this may be due to a shift toward freelance work, rather than salaried work in these sectors, though automation of some tasks may also play a role. More information is needed to be sure.