Esteem, equivalence and valuation of essential occupations

Michael Tiemann, Stefan Udelhofen, Lisa Fournier

Societal debates on occupations in essential work within the context of the pandemic have fuelled questions relating to the value and appreciation of occupational tasks beyond economic criteria. We compare two lists of essential occupations in order to describe their valuation on the basis of characteristics such as wages, prestige and workload together with an analysis of the qualification levels of employees in these occupations. Our aim is to widen the perspective on the equivalence of general and vocational education by addressing the question as to whether burdens or responsibilities are distributed evenly across workers at all qualification levels in times of crisis. The 2018 BIBB/BAuA Employment Survey serves as our database.

Essential occupations under discussion

Occupations relating to the provision of key supplies and services – otherwise known as “essential jobs” or “essential work” – are still new categories in the field of labour market and occupational research (cf. Herzog/Sold/Zimmermann 2023). Different occupational groups are subsumed under this heading depending on the context of a specific crisis situation. However, no clear definition exists. Essential occupations gained attention in the light of the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020. The Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance categorised them as occupations which “help ensure provision to the population of important and in some cases vital goods and services” (own translation, cited from Schrenker/Samtleben/Schrenker 2021, p. 12). Workers in these occupations enjoyed special rights (e.g. emergency childcare), but were also subject to restrictions (such as bans on taking a leave and the lack of opportunities for working from home). These “initial” (Koebe et al. 2020) lists of essential occupations were adjusted and extended as the pandemic continued. Teaching staff and financial services workers, for example, were added. Regional differences between individual federal states also emerged, such as in how agricultural occupations were considered.

Public perception mostly associated essential jobs with social sector occupations in healthcare and nursing (cf. Herzog/Sold/Zimmermann 2023) or in retail and transport (cf. for instance the speech given by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel on 18 March 20201). This was also one of the reasons why accompanying debates and first academic research analyses focused on the discrepancy between the occupations’ relevance and prestige, characterised by below-average remuneration and lower occupational prestige, as well as a high workload and unfavourable working conditions. Explanations as to why this should be the case included the lower level of qualification required for these occupations, particular emphasis being placed on tasks in the areas of cleaning and public services or on ensuring basic supplies in the retail trade and on transport provision (for more details cf. Schrenker/Samtleben/Schrenker 2021). The skill level also explained sectoral differences to the extent that “a longer period of qualification more frequently involves more complex tasks” (Koebe et al. 2020, p. 4) and that persons with certain qualifications are thus significantly more likely to work in essential sectors (cf. Lübker/Zucco 2020, p. 478).

Our article seeks to take this as a starting point in order to link a description of the valuation or esteem of essential occupations with the question of the distribution of requirements and qualification levels. A consideration of the categorical dynamics produced via the adjustment of lists of essential occupations appears to be of particular interest, also extending the focus of previous studies. For this reason, we use the Classification of Occupations (KldB 2010) to differentiate between two lists: a narrower list of occupations (referred to below as the “Berlin list”), which were defined on an ad hoc basis as being essential in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic (n = 20 occupations), and an extended list (n = 62 occupations), which takes account of subsequent additions made by policy makers and of the findings from academic research studies (cf. electronic supplement Tables 1 and 2).

We conduct a logistic regression analysis for each list based on data from the 2018 BIBB/BAuA Employment Survey (cf. Information Box). The probabilities of work in an essential occupation are calculated using the characteristics which we are able to link via the data to show whether a person works in an essential occupation. This is accompanied by an attempt to estimate or explain the probability to work in one of these occupations on the basis of the characteristics. Despite the restriction of only having access to data from the time prior to the pandemic, our analyses enable us to illustrate which differences would have occurred (even) without the influence of the pandemic and allow us to indirectly control for these in our analysis.

We focus on the characteristics which can be related to questions concerning (equal) esteem and valuation – remuneration, occupational prestige, workload and requirements, and qualification level. We also seek to investigate whether a mismatch exists between the requirement levels of the tasks and the employees’ qualification levels, something which could have negative effects on wages (cf. e.g. Rohrbach-Schmidt/Tiemann 2016).

2018 BIBB/BAuA Employment Survey

The Employment Survey 2018 is a representative survey of 20,012 employees in Germany on changes in work and occupations and on the acquisition and utilisation of professional and vocational qualifications. The data (cf. Hall/Hünefeld/Rohrbach-Schmidt 2020 a and 2020 b) was collected by Kantar Public of Munich via computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI) carried out between October 2017 and April 2018. Selection was based on a random procedure (Gabler-Häder sampling process) in order to ensure the design of the sample is representative. The statistical population comprises members of the labour force aged 15 and above (not including trainees). Employment activity is considered to be regular work activity of at least ten hours per week for which payment is received (“core workers”). Data was adapted to the structures of the statistical population via weighting in accordance with central characteristics on the basis of the 2017 Microcensus.

For further information, please visit: www.bibb.de/arbeit-im-wandel.

Indicators of occupational value

Initially, our comparative investigation of remuneration and occupational prestige as indicators of the valuation and esteem of individual occupations is essentially in line with findings from previous studies. In the essential occupations on the “Berlin list”, the average hourly wage is €16.32. This is significantly lower than that paid in the non-essential occupations (€19.22). This discrepancy is not revealed in the “extended list”. In this case, the average hourly wage in non-essential occupations (€18.38) does not differ significantly from the average hourly wage in non-essential occupations (€18.37). This is similar with regard to occupational prestige. The average ISEI value2 for occupations on the “Berlin list” is 40.15, significantly below the value of the other occupations (47.88). Although the average value for occupations on the “extended list” is slightly above that for all other occupations (47.05 as compared to 44.96), this difference is not significant.

It should be noted that employees in occupations on both lists are similarly likely to rate their work as important. Differences between occupations on the two lists are shown with regard to consideration of the employees’ situation. Workers in occupations on the “Berlin list” tend to evaluate their overall work conditions as being worse and also state that workloads are higher than average. They are also more likely to be less well informed about tasks and report that they enjoy a lesser degree of occupational autonomy (for more details cf. electronic supplement, Table 3).

The regression analyses further demonstrate that, although they assess their work as subjectively relevant, they also perceive the value of their tasks to be less positive and show themselves to be less satisfied the longer they work in an occupation. In the case of employees in occupations on the “extended list”, workloads are only perceived as being significantly worse in relation to physically demanding tasks and with regard to noise in the workplace (cf. electronic supplement, Tables 6 and 7). In contrast, work-life balance is perceived to be worse.

Academisation of essential occupations?

Issues regarding the value of essential occupations are linked to questions relating to their distribution across various qualification levels. Our consideration of the requirement levels of the tasks and of the qualification levels  of employees in essential occupations underline the significance of vocational qualifications (cf. already Helmrich/Kaliniowski/Brauni 2020), which in principle suggests unequal treatment for academically qualified employees. According to employees’ estimates, 53.5 percent and 52.4 percent for the occupations on the two lists respectively state a “vocational training” as the required qualification, which is above the level for all occupations of 51.5 percent.

Deviations in respect to requirement level proportions of “no vocational qualification” and “academic qualification” are more conspicuous. These also exhibit differences to the totality of occupations. Employees in occupations on the “Berlin list” exhibit a comparatively large proportion of 21.4 percent of tasks not requiring a vocational qualification (all occupations 17.5%). On the other hand, the proportion of employees with an academic requirement level (17 percent) lies below that for all occupations (24.4%). These ratios are reversed if we consider employees in occupations on the “extended list”. The requirement level of “no vocational qualification” is now significantly lower (14.5%), whereas the proportion of “academic qualifications” is higher (27.7%).

A consideration of the qualification level also produces a similar structure. Initially, a significant preponderance of 65.23 percent of employees with vocational qualifications can be observed in occupations on the “Berlin list”. In the “extended list”, this proportion stands at 55.35 percent (all occupations 55.67%). In occupations on the “Berlin list”, 10.75% of employees have no vocational qualification. The corresponding proportion for the “extended list” is 7.3%. These figures are respectively above and below the value for all occupations (8.9%). It thus may not be an exaggeration to impute that, over the course of the pandemic, an “academisation” of essential occupations has enabled the entire labour supply to obtain comparable access opportunities to essential occupations. 

A comparison of the matching of requirements and qualification level (cf. electronic supplement, Tables 4 and 5) also shows differences between the two lists. In objective3 terms, employees on the “Berlin list” do not tend to be under-qualified for the work they do. Subjectively4, they believe that they may not be deployed appropriately. By way of contrast, employees on the “extended list” are objectively more likely to be appropriately deployed rather than being under-qualified. Subjectively, however, their perception is that it is more likely that they are over-qualified and that their deployment does not match their qualification. We were, however, unable to ascertain any statistically significant mismatch between requirements and qualification level.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Likelihood of working in an occupation on the “Berlin list” Foto-Download (Bild, 596 KB)
Figure 2
Figure 2: Likelihood of working in an occupation on the “extended list” Foto-Download (Bild, 549 KB)

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate that there is a gradation between the highest vocational qualifications. Persons with advanced training or an academic qualification are less likely to work in an essential occupation. It is therefore possible to say that they are not treated equally at this point. We also see that a lower occupational status increases the likelihood of work in an occupation on the “Berlin list”. A quite different picture emerges with regard to the “extended list” adapted because of the impressions left by the pandemic. In this instance, higher occupational status raises the likelihood of being employed in an essential occupation. Gradation between the qualifications alters only slightly. Only advanced training and academic qualifications converge.

Therefore, as far as the “Berlin list” is concerned, the lower the occupational status, the more essential it will be. However, the opposite applies to the “extended list”. In the case of both lists, we see that higher vocational qualifications (advanced training programmes) tend to provide “protection” against working in an essential occupation.

Conclusion and future research needs

Overall, our evaluations indicate a more differentiated picture of essential occupations than the one hitherto addressed in societal discourses or in academic research. Over the course of time, and in a way, which diverges from the public perception of essential occupations at the beginning of the pandemic, we can assume an increase in occupations with an academic requirement level and in employees with academic training.

With respect to the distribution of burdens and responsibilities among different levels of qualification, our analyses suggest that an initial absence of equivalence between vocational and academic training amongst essential occupations has levelled out, albeit from a direction which differs from that mostly pursued in debates centering on equivalence between vocational and academic training. Negative effects, such as lower remuneration and occupational prestige, are also no longer discernible in comparison to all other occupations. This can also be deducted from the relatively low overall explanatory capacity of our models (between 11 and 17 percent). Our analyses are thus somewhat sobering against the background of societal debates on essential occupations now being discussed. Nevertheless, this should in no way contradict the circumstance that certain  essential occupations are too poorly remunerated and that working conditions, particularly in the social sector or in retail, need to be improved.

We view two subject areas as being particularly relevant for future research. Firstly, an investigation must take place as to whether discourses within the context of the coronavirus pandemic have been able to bring about an effect on the perception, acceptance and recognition of essential occupations on the “Berlin list”. This will need to be revealed by future analyses which will be able to have access to more current data than that used by us. In turn, closer consideration of historical data could produce a more detailed picture of the value and equivalence of essential occupations over the course of time. Ultimately, essential jobs were in existence before ever being designated as such. On the other hand, the question of interpretative power and of interpretational sovereignty of the value of occupations appears to us to be of key relevance. Occupations with higher requirement and qualification levels were increasingly categorised as essential as the coronavirus pandemic progressed. The reason for this may be that, given the highly complex nature of the division of labour and internationally linked economic chains, “almost all occupations” would become essential in the long-term (Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft 2020, p. 7). However, our results also lend support the assumption that “a number of newly added occupational groups had well-functioning lobbyists who exerted pressure for their inclusion in the list of essential occupations” (Schrenker/Samtleben/Schrenker 2021, p. 12), and this seems to us to be another research issue of intrinsic (labour market) policy significance.

  • 1

    Transcript: Fernsehansprache von Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel.

  • 2

    The “International Socio-Economic Index of Occupational Status” (ISEI) maps the social status of an occupation by providing a value between 16 and 90 and thus ranks occupations according to status. Further information is available at: metadaten.bibb.de/de/classification/detail/11.

  • 3

    “Objective” relates to the type of measurement. A comparison is drawn between highest vocational qualification and the requirement levels according to the Classification of Occupations (KldB 2010).

  • 4

    “Subjective” also refers to the type of measurement. In this case, a comparison is made between highest vocational qualification and the response to the question as to which qualification is normally necessary for the exercising of one’s own occupation.


Hall, A.; Hünefeld, L.; Rohrbach-Schmidt, D.: BIBB/BAuA-Erwerbstätigenbefragung 2018 – Arbeit und Beruf im Wandel. Erwerb und Verwertung beruflicher Qualifikationen. SUF_1.0. Bonn 2020a. URL: doi.org/10.7803/501.

Hall, A.; Hünefeld, L.; Rohrbach-Schmidt, D.: BIBB/BAuA-Erwerbstätigenbefragung 2018 – Arbeit und Beruf im Wandel. Erwerb und Verwertung beruflicher Qualifikationen. SV_1.0. Bonn 2020b. URL: doi.org/10.7803/501.

Helmrich, R.; Kalinowski, M.; Braun, U.: Bedeutung und Beitrag der Berufsbildung in der Krise. Nicht nur in der Krise brauchen wir Berufe, die helfen und Strukturen erhalten. Bonn 2020

Herzog, L.; Sold, K.; Zimmermann, B.: Essential Work: A Category in the Making? Unsettling the Ways We Think about Jobs, Labor, and Activities. In: Herzog, L.; Zimmermann, B. (Eds.): Shifting Categories of Work. Unsettling the Ways We Think about Jobs, Labor, and Acitivities. New York und Abingdon 2023, pp. 252–264 

Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft (Eds.): “Versorgungsrelevante” Berufe in der Corona Krise. Fachkräftesituation und Fachkräftepotenziale in kritischen Infrastrukturen. Köln 2020

Koebe, J.; Samtleben, C.; Schrenker, A.; Zucco, A.: Systemrelevant, aber dennoch kaum anerkannt: Entlohnung unverzichtbarer Berufe in der Corona-Krise unterdurchschnittlich. Berlin 2020

Lübker, M.; Zucco, A.: Was ist wichtig? Die Corona-Pandemie als Impuls zur Neubewertung systemrelevanter Sektoren. In: WSI-Mitteilungen 19 (2020) 6, pp. 472–484. URL: www.wsi.de/data/wsimit_2020_06_luebker.pdf

Rohrbach-Schmidt, D.; Tiemann, M.: Educational (Mis)match and skill utilization in Germany: Assessing the role of worker and job characteristics. In: Journal of Labour Market Research 49 (2016) 1, pp. 99–119

Schrenker, A.; Samtleben, C.; Schrenker, M.: Applaus ist nicht genug. Gesellschaftliche Anerkennung systemrelevanter Berufe. In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 71 (2021), pp. 13–15


Further links

The analyses mentioned in the text are available as an electronic supplement at www.bwp-zeitschrift.de/dienst/publikationen/en/material/11923.

Figures are available to download.

Figure 1: www.bwp-zeitschrift.de/dienst/publikationen/en/material/11926

Figure 2: www.bwp-zeitschrift.de/dienst/publikationen/en/material/11929


(All links : status 07/03/2023)

Dr. Michael Tiemann
Academic researcher at BIBB

Stefan Udelhofen
Academic researcher at BIBB

Lisa Fournier
Research assistant at BIBB


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 1/2023): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin