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Occupational structure

by Paul Callister and Robert Didham

If you were a man in 19th-century New Zealand, you would most likely be working as a farmer or miner, as the most common occupations were in the primary industries. By the early 2000s most people work in service industries. The changing structure of occupations reflects the way New Zealand society has evolved.

Defining and measuring occupations

In the early 1900s most New Zealanders worked in occupations in the primary sector – farming, fishing, forestry and mining. By the early 2000s just 7% of the workforce was in the primary sector; 12% was in manufacturing, and 81% in service industries, including retailing, office work, the media and information technology. The way occupations have changed from the era of the gum-digger to that of the software developer is part of the story of New Zealand.

Occupations and industry


An industry is a sector of the economy; and occupation is a type of work. A labourer might work in the primary sector or in manufacturing; while a book keeper might work for a manufacturer or a retailer.


Occupations versus jobs

Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, occupation has a broader meaning than job. Someone’s occupation is determined by the skills, training and qualifications they have for their work. However their job is determined by the specific use they make of those skills and qualifications. A worker could have several different jobs in succession with different employers – or several at the same time – while still working within the same occupation. For example, a nurse could have jobs in different hospitals, but the occupation would not change.

Groups of occupations

Occupations have typically been divided into the simple categories of manual (mainly requiring physical effort) and non-manual (mainly requiring mental effort).

In the past most workers had manual occupations, such as labourer, miner, forestry worker and, more recently, factory worker and plumber. Non-manual occupations have included salesperson, teacher, cook, nurse and journalist.

However, the distinction between manual and non-manual has become increasingly difficult to draw. Most so-called manual occupations, such as plumber, generally have some non-manual element requiring problem-solving skills and a significant level of education. Non-manual occupations, such as surgeon, may still involve some highly skilled manual work, requiring significant physical strength.

What colour is your collar?


A ‘blue-collar’ worker is employed in industrial or manual labour. They are so named because industrial and manual workers wear durable clothes such as overalls or jeans, traditionally navy blue or light blue, so they won’t be ruined by the stains of hard work. A ‘white-collar’ worker is a professional or office worker, because, from the 19th century male office workers were expected to wear a white shirt with a collar and tie. Recent terms include ‘pink-collar’, for occupations traditionally held by women such as a secretary or nurse, and ‘green-collar’, for an occupation in the environmental or conservation sector.


A more recent classification system groups occupations into three main types: routine production, in-person services, and symbolic-analytic services.

Routine production services involve repetitive tasks such as production-line work, but include routine supervisory positions such as foremen, line managers, clerical supervisors and section chiefs. These occupations can be found in traditional manufacturing industries and in high-technology industries such as manufacturing circuit boards. Much routine production work has been disappearing from economies such as New Zealand’s due to it being automated or transferred to countries with lower wages.

In-person services occupations, such as shop assistant or cleaner, generally do not require a high level of education, but often require some specific training and good inter-personal skills. These can be low-skill occupations but cannot easily be transferred to other countries.

Symbolic-analytic services involve handling data, words, sounds and images. These occupations, such as graphic designer, computer programmer or journalist, require an education that develops innovative thought rather than learning a vast array of facts.

Measuring occupations

There are a number of difficulties in trying to accurately measure the types of work people do. For example, should unpaid work count as an occupation? This vital and often demanding work was ignored by official surveys for many years. Since the 1960s people have lobbied to officially count categories such as full-time homemaker as an occupation. Since 1986 a question about people’s unpaid work has been added to New Zealand’s five-yearly census. A survey of how people use their time, whether paid or unpaid, was first carried out in 1998, enabling unpaid work to be measured as part of the overall workforce.

Another difficulty in surveying occupations is that many surveys assume people only have one occupation at a time. However, someone might have one main job, but do other work in evenings or weekends. Or, they might work part-time in a number of occupations. The 2006 census indicates that 9% of men and 10% of women officially worked in more than one job. In addition, there will be some occupations, such as burglar, that people will not record in official surveys.

Occupational change since 1840


During New Zealand’s colonial period most income-earning jobs came from the land and natural resources such as gold. Very early jobs included whaling and sealing. Occupations such as storekeeper and farmer emerged in the earliest days of settlement, among both European settlers and the Māori population. The most common occupation in the 1867 census was mining – reflecting the gold rushes of the time. Skilled professionals such as surveyors and clerks were scarce, and servants far outnumbered nurses.

Men filled most of the paid jobs, and women who migrated to New Zealand came either as wives, potential wives, or as a source of domestic labour.


In the 1896 census the two most common occupations were farmer and farm labourer, jobs that still exist in the 2000s. The third largest occupational group was domestic servant, and domestic service was the single largest employment category for women from the 1880s to the 1930s. After that the numbers of paid servants declined rapidly, virtually disappearing after the Second World War.

The 1896 census listed occupations that either do not exist in the 2000s, or have changed into another form. Navvies, who were ditch diggers, and ballastmen, who laid railway tracks, would have all become labourers; while the kauri-gum industry has disappeared. Although in the 2000s there are still people who could be classified as ‘Independent Means, Lady, Gentleman’, this is no longer an official occupation.


As the pioneering economy gave way to a more modern and comfortable society, occupations based on extractive industries such as forestry and mining became much less common, and industries employing clerks, shop assistants, teachers and nurses grew. New technology introduced occupations such as typist and stenographer (shorthand typist). Local manufacture of shoes, clothing and furniture had already begun to decline, but the predominantly female occupations of tailoress, dressmaker and milliner (hat maker) were still some of the most common.

Empty stations

Tracing the changes in some very specific occupations shows how the world of work is changing. In 1982, when the Railways Department became a corporation, it had 21,834 workers. By 2001 the workforce of its successor, Tranz Rail, had declined to 4,100. This dramatically reduced a number of specialist occupations. For example, in 1986 there were 93 railway station masters and by 2006 the number had declined to 15.


Farming remained the largest employing industry after the Second World War, but occupations in the service industries continued to expand. Teaching became the fourth most common occupation (up from 10th in 1896). The enormous increase in mechanisation meant there were now twice as many motor vehicle mechanics as domestic servants. Most significant of all was the great increase in manufacturing jobs such as storeman, packer and freezing works employee, and also in public service occupations. State services such as health, education, the Post Office, railways and ‘general government administration’ were among the largest employers in the country.


In the 2006 census there were several new jobs in the top 30: chief executive or managing director, policy and planning manager, chef and waiter – these last two reflecting the growth in eating out. The increase in the number of working women, and the associated rise in the number of children cared for outside of the home, saw the occupation of early childhood teacher enter the top 30.

Less common occupations

Alongside the larger occupational groups, the emergence of smaller occupations also showed something about how society was changing. New occupations in the 2006 classification included: snow-sport instructor (72 people), sex worker or escort (117), civil celebrant (111), footballer (204), family and marriage counsellor (192), web developer (993) and call- or contact-centre manager (525).

Some of these, such as web developer, were new jobs. Others, like sex worker, were very old ones. The inclusion of sex workers reflected a change in the law legalising this occupation. However, it remained an occupation that some people preferred not to acknowledge, so the numbers recorded as working in this area are likely to be much lower than the real figures. Another factor affecting numbers recorded is that information generally refers to people's main job, while occupations such as sex worker may often be secondary.

Qualifications and age

Educational qualifications

A person’s formal educational qualifications have a significant role in determining their occupation. In many professions a formal qualification is essential for employment. For example doctors must have medical degrees, lawyers must have law degrees, and university lecturers are increasingly expected to have a doctorate.

In 2006 professionals, such as lawyers, accountants or teachers, were the highest proportion of workers who held a degree or higher qualification, at 53%. The next highest qualified group were managers, with 20% having a degree or higher qualification. The lowest rate of these qualifications was found among machinery operators and drivers at 3%, and labourers at 4%. People working as technicians or tradespeople tended to have trade-related qualifications.

Machinery operators and drivers had the highest proportion of workers who held no formal qualifications, at 40% and 38%. But all main occupational groups had people with no formal qualifications. For example 15% of managers reported having no formal educational qualifications.

Age and occupation

Certain age groups are more commonly found in particular occupations, partly due to the qualifications and experience needed. Sales work is a popular job with young people who may be studying as well, and in 2006 more than a third of sales workers were under 25 years of age. In contrast only 7% of managers and 8% of professionals were aged under 25. Two other groups with a significant number of young workers were community and personal-service workers, and labourers, both at around one-quarter.

Some occupations such as farming, government and community services have a high proportion of their workers in older age groups. As these people retire, it may be difficult to find younger people to replace them. One example is doctors, particularly those who work in rural areas.

Time and place of work

Long working hours

Occupation type is one of a number of factors that influence working hours. Some of the areas of work that most often involve long hours – defined as 50 or more each week – include farming, fishing and truck driving.

In 2006 farmers, managers (of a variety of kinds, including hospitality and retail managers) and road and rail drivers were the most likely to work long hours. Clerical, administrative and sales workers were the groups least likely to work long hours.

Hours of work

People’s occupations also affect when they work, and what time they start or finish work. Managers and professionals are most likely to work Monday to Friday and mainly during daylight hours. People working in hospitality industries are more likely to work in the evenings or weekends.

Some occupations, such as policing or nursing, require a presence 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so some people in these occupations work at least part of the time at night.

Workers in some occupations are likely to start very early in the morning, such as dairy farmers, fishers, bakers and builders.

Place of work

The place where someone works is closely linked to their occupations. Overall, professionals are more likely to work in large urban areas, while labourers are less likely to.

Working from home

By the early 2000s changes in information technology made working from home more feasible for some workers. Farmers have almost always worked from their homes, but by 2006 more than a quarter of non-farm workers also worked from home.

Some people who did most of their work in a separate workplace also worked for shorter periods at home in the evenings or weekends. Managers and professionals tended to work this way. Other people worked mainly in a separate workplace, but worked from home on particular weekdays. Real estate agents were often part of this group.

Others, such as writers, did most or all of their work at home.

There were also many occupations where it was difficult or not possible to work from home, including sales work and the transport industries.


Women in the paid workforce

During the 20th century the number of women in the paid labour force grew. This was related to a general shift towards people being employed in the service industries. However, since 1986 women have outnumbered men at university, indicating that they are also entering the professions such as architecture, medicine and law in increasing numbers.

Since 1990 increasing numbers of women have moved into non-traditional areas of work, including professional and managerial jobs, and some manual occupations that were historically male-dominated.

Gender and occupational distribution

Even so, there remain considerable differences in the occupational distribution of men and women. In 2006 men were more likely than women to be managers, technicians, trades workers, machinery operators, drivers, and labourers. Women made up a greater proportion of professional, community and personal service workers, and clerical and administrative workers. For both men and women, sales assistant was the biggest job category, but more women than men were in this occupation.

In 2006 there were still a few jobs that had more than 99% either male or female workers. These include the occupations of mothercraft nurse (a nurse trained to care for babies and young children), daycare worker and midwife for women, and railway-track worker, gasfitter and bulldozer operator for men.

Women in the professions

Some occupations have undergone considerable changes in the gender mix of workers. Teaching is one example – in 1982, 66% of primary teachers were female, but by 2007 this had risen to 82%. For secondary school teachers, women went from being a minority in 1982, at 39%, to a majority at 58% by 2007. This is likely to rise in the future – in 2007, 68% of secondary school teachers under the age of 30 were female.

A similar pattern can be seen with doctors. In total, the proportion of women doctors rose from 22% in 1986 to 40% in 2006. And there were more female than male doctors in the younger age groups. In 2006 55% of doctors in the 25–29 age group were female, but only 23% of those in the 55–59 age group. However, some strong gender differences remained in the speciality areas of medical practice. In 2006 women formed just under half of resident medical officers and 41% of general practitioners, but only 9% of surgeons and 29% of anaesthetists.


Historical differences between the occupations of Māori and Pākehā are not easy to track, since Māori occupations were not recorded by the census until 1926.

Te Aute College


The first schools set up for Māori aimed mainly to train them for manual and trade occupations. Te Aute College in Hawke’s Bay was an exception. Its principal, John Thornton, taught the same academic subjects as the country’s top schools, in order to give Māori their own doctors, lawyers and clergymen. From the early 20th century the school was pressured to provide more agricultural and manual training and a less academic curriculum, and reluctantly did so.


Māori in the workforce

Until 1945 three-quarters of Māori lived in rural areas. Most were likely to have worked on their own land and fishing grounds, supplemented with extra money earned from farm work such as shearing and casual labouring.

The wartime demand for industrial labour, and the post-war move of Māori to cities, changed this way of life. By 1976, 38% of the Māori workforce was in manufacturing. Since the 1990s there has been a growing representation of Māori in professions such as law, medicine and business administration.

Ethnicity and occupational distribution

The extent of occupational differences between Pākehā, Māori, Pacific peoples and Asians in New Zealand is partly a result of the different age structures of those ethnic groups. Managers tend to be, on average, older than sales workers, so ethnic groups with older age structures will tend to have a higher proportion of their population working in managerial positions.

Education also makes a difference in occupational choice and, although the gap is closing, Māori and Pacific people tend to have lower levels of education than Pākehā or Asian workers. Those factors account mainly for the different levels of representation in occupational groups.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Paul Callister and Robert Didham, 'Occupational structure', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Paul Callister and Robert Didham, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010