Occupation data describe the kind of work the person does on the job. These data are derived from responses to write-in questions that are autocoded and clerically coded by Census Bureau staff, using the Census Occupation Code List developed for Census Bureau household surveys. Beginning in 2018, this system consists of 569 specific occupational categories for employed people, including military, arranged into 23 major occupational groups.
The primary sources of occupation data are currently the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Puerto Rico Community Survey (PRCS), which collect the detailed data previously covered by the decennial census long forms until 2000. The ACS has collected occupation data since the first survey in 1996. For the Island Areas—the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, and American Samoa— the Island Areas Census, which uses a form based on the ACS and modified for these areas, is still the main data source.
These questions describe the work activity and occupational experience of the American labor force. Data are used to formulate policy and programs for employment, career development and training, and to measure compliance with antidiscrimination policies. Mandated reports for Congress on the labor force rely on the analysis of these characteristics. Further, the Bureau of Economic Analysis uses this information, in conjunction with other data, to develop its state per capita income estimates used in the allocation formulas or for eligibility criteria in many federal programs such as Medicaid, and plans to use the county-level information to develop its county and state per capita income estimates.
Information about occupation is also important for creating jobs as companies use these data to decide where to locate new plants, stores, or offices. Agencies use these data to plan job training programs. Federal agencies use these data in litigation where employment discrimination is alleged. Locally, data are used to estimate the demand for staff in healthcare occupations and their geographic distribution based on these data.
On the ACS, demographic occupational data are derived primarily from answers to questions 42 e and f. These questions are asked of all people 15 years old and over who had worked in the past 5 years. The text of these questions as they appear in the 2019 ACS questionnaire is as follows:
Question 42 e. - What was this person’s main occupation? (For example: 4th grade teacher, entry-level plumber) (Write-in field)
Question 42 f. - Describe this person’s most important activities or duties. (For example: instruct and evaluate students and create lesson plans, assemble and install pipe sections and review building plans for work details) (Write-in field)
For employed people, the data refer to the person's job during the previous week. For those who worked two or more jobs, the data refer to the job where the person worked the greatest number of hours. For unemployed people and people who are not currently employed but report having a job within the last five years, the data refer to their last job.
The Census Bureau has maintained its own code list since 1850. Written responses to the occupation questions are coded using the 2018 occupational classification system, which consists of 569 specific occupational categories for employed people, including 4 military codes, arranged into 23 major occupational groups. This classification was developed based on the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) Manual: 2018, published by the Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The SOC classifies paid work or work for profit into occupational categories based on the work performed. Every Census Bureau occupation code crosswalks to an SOC code. In 2010, the Census Occupation Code List included 540 occupation codes. In 2018, it included 570 occupation codes. Between 2010 and 2018, 125 occupation codes were deleted and 155 new occupation codes were added.
Some occupations are closely related to certain industries. Operators of transportation equipment, farm operators and workers, and health care providers account for major portions of their respective industries of transportation, agriculture, and health care. However, the industry categories include people in other occupations. For example, people employed in the transportation industry include mechanics, freight handlers, and payroll clerks; people employed in agriculture include truck drivers and bookkeepers; and people employed in the health care industry include janitors, security guards, and secretaries.
For full code lists and other technical information, please see our Guidance page.
Occasionally respondents supply occupation descriptions that are not sufficiently specific for precise classification, or they do not report on these questions at all. Certain types of incomplete entries are corrected using the Alphabetical Indexes of Industries and Occupations. If one or more of the three variables (occupation, industry, or class of worker) is blank after edit procedures, a code is assigned from a donor respondent who is a “similar” person based on questions such as age, sex, educational attainment, income, employment status, and weeks worked. If all of the labor force and income data are blank, all of these economic questions are assigned from a “similar” person who had provided all the necessary data.
Data on occupation, industry, and class of worker are collected for the respondent’s current primary job or the most recent job for those who are not employed but have worked in the last 5 years. Other labor force questions, such as questions on earnings or work hours, may have different reference periods and may not limit the response to the primary job. Although the prevalence of multiple jobs is low, data on some labor force items may not exactly correspond to the reported occupation, industry, or class of worker of a respondent.
Comparability of occupation data across time and across data sources is affected by a number of factors, primarily the system used to classify the questionnaire responses. Changes in the occupational classification system limit comparability of the data from one year to another, and with surveys that use older coding systems (see below). In 2016, the ACS underwent content testing for the class of worker, industry, and occupation questions. As a result, in 2019, the ACS implemented changes to the formatting, numbering of questions, and examples for the industry and occupation write-in questions provided on the questionnaire.
These changes are needed to recognize when new occupations emerge, the growth and decline in existing occupations, and the desire of analysts, researchers, and other users for more detail in the presentation of the data. Usually, the greatest cause of non-comparability is the movement of a segment from one category to another. Changes in the nature of jobs, respondent terminology, and refinement of category composition made these movements necessary. While the ACS occupation questions were slightly modified, the codes used for occupation have changed over the history of the ACS. This happened because of changes to the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system, which guides the coding structure implemented by all federal agencies.
The initial ACS used 3-digit census occupation codes based on 1990 SOC codes. In 2000, the ACS began using the 2000 Census Occupation Code list, which was based on the 2000 SOC. For more information on occupational comparability across classification systems between 1990 and 2000, see Technical Paper #65: The Relationship Between the 1990 Census and Census 2000 Industry and Occupation Classification Systems. After the revisions to the code lists for 2000, Census Bureau analysts anticipated the possibility of new occupations being added to the list of codes and the ability to have more flexibility in adding codes. Consequently, in 2002, census occupation codes were expanded from three-digit codes to four-digit codes. This entailed adding a “0” to either the beginning or the end of each occupation code from the 2000 Census Occupation Code List. In 2010, the ACS transitioned to the 2010 Census Occupation Code List, based on the 2010 SOC. To compare 2002 to 2010 occupation codes, see 2006-2010 ACS PUMS Occupation Conversion Rates (2002 to 2010 Occupation Census codes). The 2010 code list was used through the 2017 ACS. Starting in 2018, the ACS began coding occupation data using the 2018 Census Occupation Code List, based on the 2018 SOC.