The primary sector of the economy refers to jobs that involve extracting materials. It spans everything from food extraction -- such as fishing and farming -- to taking items from the ground through mining or logging. As the economy has advanced, more Americans have moved up to more advanced sectors of the economy, leaving a small minority working in the primary sector.
Understanding the Primary Sector
The primary sector spans the most basic types of economic activity -- getting raw materials for food or other purposes. While the nature of farming has changed, a modern farmer produces essentially the same product as a farmer 5,000 years ago -- as does a fisherman or a gold miner. However, with advances in technology and more effective procedures, fewer people, relative to the size of the population, are able to produce more.
Primary Sector Employment
As of 2010, approximately 4.17 million people were employed in the primary sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data complied in the book "Service Management: An Integrated Approach to Supply Chain Management and Operations." These were split between the 3.42 million working in agriculture and the 0.75 million working in mining and logging activities. The number of workers is almost the same as it was in 1970, when 4.14 million people worked in extraction. However, 6 percent of workers were involved in extraction in 1970, while only 3 percent were doing it in 2010, also based on the compiled BLS data. The primary sector is, however, seeing growth in female workers as women turn to operating small-scale and organic farms for a number of reasons, including the desire to start businesses with a unique niche and the growth of movements like the eat-local movement, according to Michelle Napier-Dunnings from Michigan Food and Farming Systems.
Primary Sector Economic Output
The primary sector's role in the U.S. economy is roughly commensurate with its size. The 3 percent of the workforce involved in it generated roughly $396.5 billion worth of America's gross domestic product in 2010, according to "Service Management: An Integrated Approach to Supply Chain Management." In 1970, extraction represented $42.4 billion, or 4 percent of the country's economic output. While these figures are not adjusted for inflation, this means that roughly the same number of people were able to produce more than nine times as much in 2010 as they were in 1970, in terms of dollar value. Adjusted for the inflation rate -- which turned one dollar in 1970 into $5.62 in 2010 -- production grew from $238.3 to $396.5 billion over that time in 2010 dollars.
Secondary and Tertiary Sectors
Most of the population works in the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy. The secondary sector, which encompasses construction and manufacturing, employed 17.04 million people, or 13 percent of the workforce, in 2010. It created $2.21 trillion of economic activity -- 15 percent of the GDP. The tertiary, or service, sector, employed 84 percent of the workforce, or 112.12 million people. It was responsible for 82 percent of the economy, which is $11.9 trillion.
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