Motion Picture and Video Industries

Jobs, Salary and Education Information

Significant Points

  • Keen competition is expected for the more glamorous, high-paying jobs—writers, actors, producers, and directors—but better job prospects are expected for multimedia artists and animators, film and video editors, and others skilled in digital filming and computer-generated imaging.
  • Small or independent filmmakers may provide the best job prospects for new entrants.
  • Although many films are shot on location, employment is centered in several major cities, particularly New York and Los Angeles.
  • Many workers have formal training, but experience, talent, creativity, and professionalism are the factors that are most important in getting many jobs in this industry.

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Nature of the Motion Picture and Video Industries[About this section] [To Top]

Goods and services. The U.S. motion picture industry produces many of the world's feature films and recorded television programs. The industry is dominated by several large studios, based mostly in Hollywood. However, with the increasing popularity and worldwide availability of cable television, digital video recorders, computer graphics and editing software, and the Internet, many small and medium-sized independent filmmaking companies have sprung up to fill the growing demand for entertainment content.

Industry organization. In addition to producing feature films and filmed television programs, the industry produces made-for-television movies, music videos, and commercials. Other establishments provide postproduction services to the motion picture industry, including editing, film and tape transfers, titling and subtitling, credits, closed captioning, computer-produced graphics, and animation and special effects.

Some motion picture and video companies produce films for limited, or specialized, audiences. Among these films are documentaries, which use film clips and interviews to chronicle actual events with real people, and educational films ranging from "do-it-yourself" projects to exercise films. In addition, the industry produces business, industrial, and government films that promote an organization's image, provide information on its activities or products, or aid in fundraising or worker training. Some of these films are short enough to release to the public through the Internet; many offer an excellent training ground for beginning filmmakers.

Making a movie can be a difficult, yet rewarding, experience. However, it is also a very risky one. Although thousands of movies are produced each year, only a small number of them account for the majority of box office receipts. Indeed, most films do not make a full return on their investment from domestic box office revenues, so filmmakers rely on profits from other markets, such as broadcast and cable television, DVD sales and rentals, and foreign distribution. In fact, major film companies are receiving a growing portion of their revenue from abroad. These cost pressures have reduced the number of film production companies to the current six major studios, which produce most of the filmed television programs, as well as the movies released nationally. Smaller, independent filmmakers often find it difficult to finance new productions and pay for a film's distribution, because they must compete with large motion picture production companies for talent and available movie screens. However, digital technology is lowering production costs for some small-budget films, enabling more independents to succeed in getting their films released nationally.

Although studios and other production companies are responsible for financing, producing, publicizing, and distributing a film or program, the actual making of the film often is done by hundreds of small businesses and independent contractors hired by the studios on an as-needed basis. These companies provide a wide range of services, such as equipment rental, lighting, special effects, set construction, and costume design, as well as much of the creative and technical talent that go into producing a film. The industry also contracts with a large number of workers in other industries that supply support services to the crews while they are filming, such as truck drivers, caterers, electricians, and makeup artists. Many of these workers, particularly those in Los Angeles, depend on the motion picture industry for their livelihood.

Establishments engaged primarily in operating motion picture theaters and exhibiting motion pictures or videos at film festivals also are included in this industry and account for about a third of employment. Jobs in this sector are primarily for ushers, lobby attendants and ticket takers, cashiers, and food service workers. Most jobs are entry-level positions that require little training and are not covered in detail in this statement.

Recent developments. Most motion pictures are still made on film. However, digital technology and computer-generated imaging are rapidly making inroads and are expected to transform the industry. Making changes to a picture is much easier using digital techniques. Backgrounds can be inserted after the actors perform on a sound stage, or locations can be digitally modified to reflect the script. Even actors can be created digitally. Independent filmmakers will continue to benefit from this technology, as reduced costs improve their ability to compete with the major studios.

Digital technology also makes it possible to distribute movies to theaters through the use of satellites or fiber-optic cable. Bulky metal film canisters can be replaced by easy-to-transport hard-drives, although relatively few theaters are capable of receiving and screening movies in that manner now. In the future, however, more theaters will be capable of projecting films digitally and the costly process of producing and distributing films will be sharply reduced.

Work Environment for the Motion Picture and Video Industries[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. Unusual hours are normal in this industry, with 22 percent of workers having part-time schedules and 14 percent having variable schedules. In 2008, workers averaged 29.6 hours per week.

Work environment. Most individuals in this industry work in clean, comfortable surroundings. Filming outside the studio or on location, however, may require working in adverse weather, and under unpleasant and sometimes dangerous conditions. Actors, producers, directors, cinematographers, and camera operators also need stamina to withstand the heat of studio and stage lights, long and irregular hours, and travel.

Directors and producers often work under stress as they try to meet schedules, stay within budget, and resolve personnel and production problems. Actors, producers, directors, cinematographers, and camera operators face the anxiety of rejection and intermittent employment. Writers and editors must deal with criticism and demands to restructure and rewrite their work many times until the producer and director are finally satisfied. All writers must be able to withstand such criticism and disappointment, but freelance writers work under the added pressure of always looking for new jobs. In spite of these difficulties, many people find that the glamour and excitement of filmmaking more than compensate for the frequently demanding and uncertain nature of careers in motion pictures.

Employment in the Motion Picture and Video Industries[About this section] [To Top]

In 2008, there were about 361,900 wage and salary jobs in the motion picture and video industries. Most of the workers were in motion picture and video production. They are involved in casting, acting, directing, editing, film processing, and motion picture and videotape reproduction.

Although six major studios produce most of the motion pictures released in the United States, many small companies are used as contractors throughout the process. Most motion picture and video establishments employ fewer than 5 workers.

Many additional individuals work in the motion picture and video industries on a freelance, contract, or part-time basis, but accurate statistics on their numbers are not available. Competition for these jobs is intense, and many people are unable to earn a living solely from freelance work.

The workforce of this industry is much younger than most, with 54 percent of employees being 34 or younger. In addition 13 percent of employees are aged 16 to 20 compared with only 4 percent of employees in that age group in all industries (table 1).

Table 1. Percent distribution of employment, by age group, 2008
Age group Motion picture and video industries All industries
Total 100.0% 100.0%
16-19 12.8 3.8
20-24 13.4 9.4
25-34 27.5 21.6
35-44 21.4 23.0
45-54 15.6 23.8
55-64 6.8 14.3
65 and older 2.5 4.1

Employment in the production of motion pictures and other films for television is centered in Los Angeles and New York City. In addition, many films are shot on location throughout the United States and abroad.

Occupations in the Motion Picture and Video Industries[About this section] [To Top]

The length of the credits at the end of most feature films and television programs gives an idea of the wide variety of workers involved in producing and distributing films (table 2). However, jobs in the industry can be broadly classified according to the three phases of filmmaking: Preproduction, production, and postproduction. Preproduction is the planning phase, which includes budgeting, casting, finding the right location, set and costume design and construction, and scheduling. Production is the actual making of the film. The number of people involved in the production phase can vary from a few, for a documentary film, to hundreds, for a feature film. It is during this phase that the actual filming is done. Postproduction activities take place in editing rooms and recording studios, where the film is shaped into its final form.

Some individuals work in all three phases. Producers, for example, are involved in every phase, from beginning to end. These workers look for ideas that they believe can be turned into lucrative film projects or television shows. They may see many films, read hundreds of manuscripts, and maintain numerous contacts with literary agents and publishers. Producers are also responsible for all of the financial aspects of a film, including finding financing for its production. The producer works closely with the director on the selection of the script, the principal members of the cast, and the filming locations, because these decisions greatly affect the cost of a film. Once financing is obtained, the producer works out a detailed budget and sees to it that the production costs stay within that budget. In a large production, the producer also works closely with production managers, who are in charge of crews, travel, casting, and equipment. For television shows, much of this process requires adhering to especially tight recording deadlines.

Directors interpret the script and develop its thematic and visual images for the film. They also are involved in every stage of production. They may supervise hundreds of people, from screenwriters to costume, lighting, and set designers. Directors are in charge of all technical and artistic aspects of the film or television show. They conduct auditions and rehearsals and approve the location, scenery, costumes, choreography, and music. In short, they direct the entire cast and crew during shooting. Assistant directors (or first and second assistants) help them with such details as handling the transportation of equipment, arranging for food and accommodations, and hiring performers who appear in the film, but have no lines. Some directors assume multiple roles, such as director-producer or writer-producer-director. Successful directors must know how to hire the right people and create effective teams.

Preproduction occupations. Before a film or a television program moves into the production phase, it begins with an idea. Anyone can pitch an idea to a studio executive or an independent producer, but usually an agent representing an actor, writer, or director will have the best opportunity—and the best access—to pitch to someone who can approve a project.

Once a project is approved, whether developed from an original idea or taken from an existing literary work, screenwriters will be brought in to turn that idea into a screenplay or a script for a television pilot (a sample episode of a proposed television series). Screenwriters work closely with producers and directors. Sometimes they prepare a treatment, a synopsis of the story and how a few scenes will play out, but no dialogue. Before filming or taping can begin, screenwriters will prepare a "shooting script," which has instructions pertaining to shots, camera angles, and lighting. Frequently, screenwriters make changes to reflect the directors' and producers' ideas and desires. The work, therefore, requires not only creativity, but also an ability to collaborate with others, and to write and rewrite many versions of a script under pressure. Although the work of feature film screenwriters generally ends when shooting begins, writing for a television series usually continues throughout the television season with a new script required for each episode.

Art directors design the physical environment of the film or television set to create the mood called for by the script. Television art directors may design elaborate sets for use in situation comedies or commercials. They supervise many different people, including illustrators, scenic designers, model makers, carpenters, painters, electricians, laborers, set decorators, costume designers, and makeup and hairstyling artists. These positions can provide an entry into the motion picture industry. Many people begin their careers in such jobs in live theater productions and then move back and forth between the stage, film, and television.

Production occupations. Actors entertain and communicate with the audience through their interpretation of dramatic or comedic roles. Only a small number achieve recognition in motion pictures or television. Many are cast in supporting roles or as walk-ons. Some start as background performers with no lines to deliver. Also called "extras," these are the people in the background—crowds on the street, workers in offices, or dancers at a ball. Others perform stunts, such as driving cars in chase scenes or falling from high places. Although a few actors find parts in feature films straight out of drama school, most support themselves by working for many years outside of the industry. Most acting jobs are found through an agent, who finds auditions that may lead to acting assignments.

Cinematographers, camera operators, and gaffers work together to capture the scenes in the script on film. Cinematographers compose the film shots to reflect the mood the director wishes to create. They do not usually operate the camera; instead, they plan and coordinate the actual filming. Camera operators handle all camera movements and perform the actual shooting. Assistant camera operators check the equipment, load and position cameras, run the film to a lab or darkroom, and take care of the equipment. Commercial camera operators specialize in shooting commercials. This experience translates easily into filming documentaries or working on smaller-budget independent films. Gaffers, or lighting technicians, set up the different kinds of lighting needed for filming. They work for the director of photography, who plans all lighting needs.

Sound engineering technicians, film recordists, and boom operators record dialogue, sounds, music, and special effects during the filming. Sound engineering technicians are the "ears" of the film, supervising all sound generated during filming. They select microphones and the level of sound from mixers and synthesizers to assure the best sound quality. Recordists help to set up the equipment and are in charge of the individual recording devices. Boom operators handle long booms with microphones that are moved from one area of the set to another. One person often performs many of these functions because more and more filming is done on location and the equipment has become compact, lighter, and simpler to operate.

Multimedia artists and animators create the movie "magic." Through their imagination, creativity, and skill, they can create anything required by the script, from talking animals to flaming office buildings and earthquakes. They not only need a good imagination, but also must be equal parts carpenter, plumber, electrician, and electronics expert. These workers must be familiar with many ways of achieving a desired special effect, because each job requires different skills. Computer skills are very important in this field, as many areas of television and film production, including animation and visual effects, now rely heavily on computer technology. Although there was a time when elaborate computer animation was restricted to blockbuster movies, much of the three-dimensional work being generated today occurs in small to mid-size companies. Some specialists create digital characters that can be used in place of an actor, such as when a stunt or scene is too dangerous.

Many individuals get their start in the industry by running errands, moving objects on the set, controlling traffic, and helping with props. Production assistants and grips (stagehands) often work in this way.

Postproduction occupations. One of the most important tasks in filmmaking and television production is editing. After a film is shot and processed, film and video editors study footage, select the best shots, and assemble them in the most effective way. Their goal is to create dramatic continuity and the right pace for the desired mood. They must have a good eye and understand the subject of the film and the director's intentions. The ability to work with digital media also is becoming increasingly important because editing is done on a computer. However, few industry-wide standards exist, so companies often look for people with skills in the hardware or software they are currently using.

Assistant editors or dubbing editors select the soundtrack and special sound effects to produce the final combination of sight and sound as it appears on the screen. Editing-room assistants help the film editors with their simpler tasks. Some television networks have film librarians, who are responsible for organizing, filing, cataloging, and selecting footage for the film editors. There is no one way of entering the occupation of editor; but experience as a film librarian, camera operator, sound editor, or assistant editor—plus talent and perseverance—usually help.

Sound effects editors or audio recording engineers perform one of the final jobs in postproduction: Adding prerecorded and live sound effects and background music by manipulating various elements of music, dialogue, and background sound to fit the picture. Their work has become completely computer driven. The best way to gain experience in sound editing is through work in radio stations, with music groups, in music videos, or by adding audio to Internet sites.

Even before the film or television show starts production, marketing managers develop the marketing strategy for the release. They estimate the demand for the film or show and the audience to whom it will appeal, develop an advertising plan, and decide where and when to release the work. They also may follow the filming or review film while in production, looking for images to use in movie trailers and advertising. Advertising and promotion managers, or "unit publicists," write press releases and short biographies of actors and directors for newspapers and magazines. They may also set up interviews or television appearances for the stars or director to promote a film or television series. Sales representatives sell the finished product. Many production companies hire staff to distribute, lease, and sell their films and made-for-television programs to theater owners and television networks. The best way to enter sales is to start by selling advertising time for television stations.

Large film and television studios are headed by a chief executive officer (CEO), who is responsible to a board of directors and stockholders. Various managers, such as financial managers and business managers, as well as accountants and lawyers, report to the CEO. Small film companies and those in business and educational film production cannot afford to have so many different people managing only one aspect of the business. As a result, they usually are headed by an owner-producer, who originates, develops, produces, and distributes films with just a small staff and some freelance workers. These companies offer good training opportunities to beginners, exposing them to many phases of film and television production.

Table 2. Employment of wage and salary workers in motion picture and video industries, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
Number Percent
All occupations 361.9 100.0 14.1
Management, business, and financial occupations 43.9 12.1 14.8
  Top executives 12.3 3.4 3.7
  Advertising, marketing, promotions, public relations, and sales managers 3.5 1.0 18.4
Professional and related occupations - - -
  Computer specialists 7.5 2.1 18.1
  Multi-media artists and animators 8.9 2.5 29.0
  Graphic designers 4.7 1.3 17.2
  Actors 11.0 3.0 15.4
  Producers and directors 23.7 6.5 17.2
  Writers and editors 5.4 1.5 17.4
  Audio and video equipment technicians 6.0 1.7 15.9
  Camera operators, television, video, and motion picture 6.7 1.9 16.8
  Film and video editors 12.4 3.4 16.9
Service occupations - - -
  Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food 5.0 1.4 12.3
  Counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop 30.9 8.5 11.8
  Janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners 3.9 1.1 1.6
  First-line supervisors/managers of personal service workers 5.0 1.4 11.8
  Motion picture projectionists 9.4 2.6 1.1
  Ushers, lobby attendants, and ticket takers 36.2 10.0 11.8
Sales and related occupations 36.3 10.0 12.0
  Cashiers, except gaming 23.2 6.4 10.7
  Advertising sales agents 4.2 1.2 17.1
Office and administrative support occupations 36.3 10.0 11.9
  Customer service representatives 3.6 1.0 28.7
  Secretaries and administrative assistants 11.2 3.1 13.3
  Office clerks, general 5.1 1.4 16.5
NOTE: Columns may not add to total due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement in the Motion Picture and Video Industries[About this section] [To Top]

Formal training can be a great asset to workers in filmmaking and television production, but experience, talent, creativity, and professionalism usually are the most important factors in getting a job. Many entry-level workers start out by working on documentary, business, educational, industrial, or government films or in the music video industry. This kind of experience can lead to more advanced jobs.

In addition to colleges and technical schools, many independent centers offer training programs on various aspects of filmmaking, such as screenwriting, film editing, directing, and acting. For example, the American Film Institute offers training in directing, production, cinematography, screenwriting, editing, and production design.

Promotion opportunities for many jobs are extremely limited because of the narrow scope of the duties and skills of the occupations. Thousands of jobs are also temporary, intermittent, part time, or on a contract basis, making advancement difficult. Individual initiative is very important for advancement in the motion picture industry.

Preproduction occupations. There are no specific training requirements for producers and directors. Talent, experience, and business acumen are very important. An ability to deal with many different kinds of people while under stress also is essential. Producers and directors come from varied backgrounds. Many start as assistant directors; others gain industry experience first as actors, writers, film editors, or business managers. Formal training in directing and producing is available at some colleges and universities and from professional organization.

Screenwriters usually have had writing experience as freelance writers or editors or in other employment settings. As they build a reputation in their career, demand for their screenplays or teleplays increases, and their earnings grow. Some become directors or producers. Although many screenwriters have college degrees, talent and creativity are even more important determinants of success in the industry. Screenwriters need to develop creative writing skills, a mastery of film language, and a basic understanding of filmmaking. Self-motivation, perseverance, and an ability to take criticism also are valuable. Feature-film writers usually have many years of experience and work on a freelance basis. Many start as copywriters in advertising agencies and as writers for educational film companies, government audiovisual departments, or in-house corporate film divisions. These jobs not only serve as a good training ground for beginners, but also have greater job security than freelancing.

Production occupations. Actors usually are required to have formal dramatic training or acting experience. Training can be obtained in acting conservatories, university programs, theatre-sponsored training programs, and independent dramatic arts schools. The National Association of Schools of Theatre accredits over 150 colleges and universities that offer bachelor's or higher degrees in dramatic and theater arts. However, many reputable studio programs offer training on a course-by-course basis or that do not lead to a formal degree. Many professional actors who are between acting jobs obtain additional advanced training through private sessions with an acting coach or by participating in a master class to focus on a particular challenge or to broaden their skills.

Training in singing, dancing, or stage combat, or experience in modeling, stand-up comedy, or acting in commercials is especially useful, and helps an actor stand out among the many resumes being considered. But actual performance credits, even those for performing in local and regional theater productions, can be the most useful in getting into an audition. Many actors begin their career by performing in smaller markets and commercials and working as extras. Most professional actors rely on agents or managers to find auditions for them.

Film and video editors often begin as camera operators or editing-room assistants, cinematographers usually start as assistant camera operators, and sound recordists often start as boom operators and gradually progress to become sound engineers. Computer courses in digital sound and electronic mixing often are important for upward mobility. Cinematographers, camera operators, and sound engineers usually have either a college or technical school education, or they go through a formal training program. Computer skills are required for many editing, special-effects, and cinematography positions.

Postproduction occupations. The educational background of managers and top executives varies widely, depending on their responsibilities. Most managers have a bachelor's degree in liberal arts or business administration. Their majors often are related to the departments they direct. For example, a degree in accounting or finance, or in business administration with an emphasis on accounting or finance, is suitable academic preparation for financial managers.

For top-level positions in marketing, promotions, or general or human resources management, employers prefer individuals with an undergraduate degree in a field related to the department in which they will work, such as degrees in marketing, advertising, or business administration. Experience in retail and print advertising also is helpful. A high school diploma and retail or telephone sales experience are beneficial for sales jobs.

General managers may advance to top executive positions, such as executive or administrative vice president, either in their own firm or to similar positions in a larger firm. Top-level managers may advance to chief operating officer and chief executive officer. Financial, marketing, and other managers may be promoted to top management positions or may transfer to closely related positions in other industries. Some may start their own businesses.

Job Outlook for the Motion Picture and Video Industries[About this section] [To Top]

Keen competition is expected for the more glamorous, high-paying jobs—writers, actors, producers, and directors—but better job prospects are expected for multimedia artists and animators and others skilled in digital filming and computer-generated imaging. Small or independent filmmakers may provide the best job prospects for new entrants.

Employment change. Wage and salary employment in the motion picture and video industries is projected to grow 14 percent between 2008 and 2018, compared with 11 percent growth projected for wage and salary employment in all industries combined. Job growth will result from the increase in demand for programming needed to fill the rising number of cable and satellite television channels, both in the United States and abroad. Also, more films will be needed to meet in-home demand for videos, DVDs, and films over the Internet. Responding to an increasingly fragmented audience will create many opportunities to develop films. The international market for domestic films is expected to continue growing as more countries and foreign individuals acquire the ability to view U.S.-made movies. While employment growth will lead to new opportunities, many more job openings will arise through people leaving the industry, mainly for more stable employment, since employment in this industry can be a bit erratic.

Employment growth will also continue in movie theaters as attending a movie is still one of the most popular forms of entertainment in this country. Additionally, as theaters switch to digital screens they will have to hire technicians to operate and maintain them.

Job prospects. Opportunities will be better in some occupations than in others. Computer specialists, multimedia artists and animators, film and video editors, and others skilled in digital filming, editing, and computer-generated imaging should have the best job prospects. There also will be opportunities for broadcast and sound engineering technicians and other specialists, such as gaffers and set construction workers. In contrast, keen competition can be expected for the more glamorous, high-paying jobs in the industry—writers, actors, producers, and directors—as applicants outnumber available jobs. Small or independent filmmakers may provide the best job prospects for new entrants, because they are likely to grow more quickly as digital technology cuts production costs.

Motion Picture and Video Industries Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Earnings of workers in the motion picture and video industries vary, depending on education and experience, type of work, union affiliation, and duration of employment. In 2008, average weekly earnings of nonsupervisory workers in the motion picture and video industries were $627, compared with $608 for workers in all industries combined.

On the basis of a union contract negotiated in June 2009, motion picture and television actors who are members of the Screen Actors Guild earned a minimum daily rate of $782, or $2,713 for a 5-day week. They also received additional compensation for reruns. Annual earnings for many actors are low, however, because employment is intermittent. Many actors supplement their incomes from acting with earnings from other jobs outside the industry. Some established actors get salaries well above the minimums, and earnings of a few top stars are astronomical.

Salaries for directors vary widely. Producers seldom have a set salary, because they get a percentage of a show's earnings or ticket sales. Wages in selected occupations in the motion picture and video industries appear in table 3.

Table 3. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in motion picture and video industries, May 2008
Occupation Motion picture and video industries All industries
General and operations managers $51.17 $44.02
Producers and directors 41.32 30.98
Multi-media artists and animators 31.54 27.08
Actors 28.72 16.59
Film and video editors 27.00 24.31
Executive secretaries and administrative assistants 21.31 19.24
Motion picture projectionists 9.39 9.46
Cashiers 8.11 8.49
Ushers, lobby attendants, and ticket takers 7.87 8.35
Counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop 7.76 8.42

Benefits and union membership. Smaller employers usually offer limited employee benefits. Larger employers offer benefits that are more comparable with those offered by employers in other industries and can include vacation and sick leave, health and life insurance, profit sharing, and pension plans.

Unions are very important in this industry. Virtually all film production companies and television networks sign contracts with union locals that require the employment of workers according to union contracts. Nonunion workers may be hired because of a special talent, to fill a specific need, or for a short period. Although union membership is not mandated, nonunion workers risk eligibility for future work assignments. Actors who appear in filmed entertainment—including television, commercials, and movies—belong to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), while those in broadcast television generally belong to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). SAG and AFTRA, however, share jurisdiction over several types of film work, including industrial/educational film work not for broadcast, interactive media (computer games), and freelance television commercial work. Actors from either union may qualify for this work; and many actors belong to more than one union. Film and television directors are members of the Directors Guild of America. Art directors, cartoonists, editors, costumers, scenic artists, set designers, camera operators, sound technicians, projectionists, and shipping, booking, and other distribution employees belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE), or the United Scenic Artists Association.

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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