It’s that time of year once again: Time when audio students begin graduating into the workforce en masse, and time to review the past years’ jobs data to see where the best prospects in the audio industry lie.
Each May—not too long before schools let out—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 are based on the Occupational Employment Statistics (“OES”) survey, a questionnaire filled out by businesses about the workers they employ.
Because this survey only tracks regular employees, and excludes both freelancers and the self-employed, it leaves out far more jobs than it includes. So as always, 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 the two sets of data can lead to some interesting insights as well.
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.
This was followed by a slowdown in job growth—and in projections for future growth. As recently as last year, the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook estimated that the number of “sound engineering technicians” would likely grow by just 1% through 2022. Faster job growth of 9% was anticipated when the categories of “broadcast technician” and “audio and video technician” were included.
This year, the BLS has nearly reversed its tune on this front: They are currently projecting 8% growth for “sound engineering technicians”, 12% growth for “audio and video equipment technicians” and job losses of -6% for “broadcast technicians” through 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. Alas, that does not seem to be the case. 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 is concerned, the OES survey of employers counts just shy of 14,000 salaried “sound engineering technician” jobs in the entire country once again. But this only tells a small part of the story.
If we take the CPS survey into account (which makes an honest attempt to count freelancers and the self-employed) then estimates of the number of people working in audio jumps up to something more like 117,000 nationwide. It is worth noting that this is a drop of more than a 3.5% compared to the 121,000 figure released last year.
This disparity suggests a ratio of just over 8.3 freelancers who do some meaningful audio work for every 1 salaried “sound engineering technician”. (Also a slight drop from last year’s 8.6-to-1 ratio.)
How much do they pay?
When we first looked into the 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 2015, the BLS reported that the median salary for audio engineers had continued to rise, reaching just shy of $50,000.
Now, in 2016, the BLS estimates that the median salary for audio engineers has gone higher still, up to $53,000, or a 6% increase from last year.
The average salary once again, was a bit higher than the median salary, rising nearly 9% from $58,000 last year to $63,000 in this year’s report. The average salary is higher than the median salary because the smaller number of folks who earn more than the median can sometimes earn a lot more: The top 10% of earners averaged near $119,000 (up about 11% from $107,000), while the bottom 10% earned just shy of $23,000 annually (basically flat since last year).
When we first crunched the numbers in 2012, the highest incomes—and the highest levels of job growth—were in “Motion Picture & Video”. But in 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.
In 2016, these two fields have both increased once again, and are neck-and-neck once more, with the video sector back in the lead at just under $83,000, and the software field close at its heels at $81,000. There are still a lot more audio engineers working in film & video than in software, but the gap has narrowed significantly since just last year, from a ratio of roughly 100:1 down 38:1.
But there’s a new entrant into the mix here: For the first time, audio engineers in the tiny category of “Computer Systems Design and Related Services” were making the beaucoup bucks with average salaries of roughly $100,000, putting them in the lead overall.
(Presumably, some reclassification of software engineers into the “computer systems design” category could be responsible for some of the slower salary growth in the “software” category when compared to video.)
The relatively small number of audio engineers working in “spectator sports” and “amusement parks” were once again among the highest earners even though both categories actually saw a slight drop since last time, from $72,000 down to $71,000 in spectator sports and $69,000 down to $67,000 for amusement parks. With such a small sample size however, it may not be worth reading too much into that small decline just yet.
What most people tend to ask about of course, are audio jobs in the music field. Sound engineering technicians who were identified as working in the “Sound Recording Industries” earned around $52,000, up from $47,000 last year. Once again, this was just slightly below the average for the audio field as a whole.
The much smaller number of audio engineers whose employers identified them as “Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers” earned an average of $60,000, which is down slightly from about $62,000 last time. Once again, the very small sample size for this category means we should take this change with a grain of salt, and avoid predicting a trend before one becomes clear.
If you are somewhat puzzled as to how each category is defined, don’t worry, you are not alone! Many of these category definitions are about as clear and transparent as the tax code.
At this point, it’s worth remembering that we’ve been looking at the “OES” data of salaried employees because it is based on mandatory employer reports, making this the most detailed and exacting data available.
The more casually-collected “CPS” data—which works to include freelancers and the self-employed as well—puts the median salary of the field a bit lower, at around $42,000 rather than $53,000.
While this may seem like a significant difference at first, it’s worth noting that many freelancers may work fewer hours in total each year. It’s also worth mentioning that the CPS survey likely suffers from greater reporting errors, a self-selection bias toward the least busy workers, and a greater likelihood for respondents to think in terms of net rather than gross pay. All of that is not to mention the greater propensity to round down one’s annual income when talking to a person who is representing the Federal government.