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Direct and Indirect Labor Overhead Costs
Definition, Meaning Explained, Examples


Accountants assign direct and indirect labor costs to products and services, using either traditional costing or activity-based costing. The chosen approach impacts profitability and estimated real "cost" of products and services.

Understanding the cost contributions of direct labor and indirect labor is crucial in budgeting and planning.

What are Direct and Indirect Labor Costs?

Indirect and direct labor are costing terms used in budgeting, planning, and financial reporting.

Direct Labor Costs

Direct labor costs are so named because they are associated directly with the production of specific units of finished goods. An assembly line worker's labor installing windows on automobiles, for instance, is direct labor on particular vehicles.

Indirect Labor Costs

Indirect labor (or overhead), on the other hand, usually refers to production support labor costs not so readily associated with specific units. Traditional cost accounting sees the mechanic repairing assembly line machinery, for instance, as indirect labor and a manufacturing overhead cost. 

The Role of Indirect and Direct Costs in Business

Understanding the cost contributions of direct labor and indirect labor is crucial, of course, in budgeting and planning. However, these concepts are also center stage in several other areas:

  • Understanding the profitability of individual products and services. For more on profitability analysis, see Profitability.
  • Setting prices. See the article Pricing for more on the role of labor costs in specific pricing models.
  • Evaluating financial accounting reports—especially the Income statement. See Income Statement, for a complete introduction to income reporting.
  • Estimating costs for business case analysis (including cost/benefit, financial justification, the total cost of ownership, and return on investment analyses). See the article Business Case for more on estimating labor costs for the business case.

Explaining Direct and Indirect Labor in Context

Following sections further describe direct and indirect labor classifications. Descriptions appear in the context of related terms and concepts including the following:

Cost of Goods Sold
Cost of Services
Cost of Services
Traditional Costing
Activity Based Costing
Business Case Analysis
Gross Profit



Related Topics

  • For more on reporting direct and indirect costs, see Income Statement.
  • For an alternative to traditional costing, see Activity Based Costing.
  • See Cost Allocation for an introduction to measuring indirect costs in traditional costing.
  • For more on reporting manufacturing overhead and administrative overhead, see Overhead.

Reporting Direct and Indirect Labor Expenses
Income Statement Expenses

Product and Service Production Costs

In financial reporting, both labor categories contribute to the cost summary of product production costs. For companies that produce and sell goods, this cost summary appears on the income statement as Cost of goods sold (COGS). However, firms that sell services, usually call the equivalent service production costs Cost of Services. And, firms that sell both goods and services may call these costs Cost of Sales.

Direct and Indirect Labor Costs are "Product Production" Expenses

Companies that manufacture and sell goods usually report direct and indirect labor costs under COGS, as the simple income statement below shows. And, just below COGS, Gross profit derives as net sales revenues minus COGS. Note that gross margin is gross profit, expressed as a percentage of net sales.

As a result, direct and indirect labor also impact operating income and net income in the example below.


Firms report gross profit to the public and tax authorities as the example above shows. However, the Income statement shows "Gross profit" for the company. Management, nevertheless, usually has a high interest in knowing Gross profits for individual product lines and specific products, as well.

Such information is crucial for managing products and product portfolios effectively. The product production cost structure is vital, for instance, for setting product strategy, pricing decisions, and product lifecycle management.

  • For Gross product profits, firms estimate actual sales and actual direct labor costs rather directly.
  • In traditional cost accounting, however, firms often resort to indirect measures for estimating the indirect costs. When indirect labor supports multiple products or product lines, however, firms determine indirect costs using somewhat arbitrarily allocation rules. As a result, such rules calculate indirect labor costs as percentages of another cost (a direct cost) that they can measure easily.

Activity Based Costing Alternative

In recent years, many companies have started using activity based costing as a means of turning some of the traditional indirect cost items into direct costs. See Activity Based Costing for an introduction to this approach with example calculations.

For more on reporting manufacturing overhead and administrative overhead, see Overhead.

Reporting Direct and Indirect Labor Expenses
Income Statement Expenses

Direct and Indirect Labor may be essential cost categories in business case analysis. They can have a significant impact on business case outcomes in studies such as:

  • General cost-benefit analysis.
  • Financial justification.
  • The total cost of ownership (TCO).
  • Return on investment (ROI) analysis.

Decisions about asset acquisition or asset lifecycle management, for instance, may rely on a business case analysis to predict total financial costs and financial gains under different possible actions. Some kinds of production-related assets bring sizeable direct labor costs and indirect labor costs for operation and maintenance over a long life cycle. Such expenditures can be excessive for factory machines, vehicles, aircraft, and buildings. As a result, direct and indirect labor costs may be the deciding factor in choosing one asset action over another.

Direct labor costs and indirect production labor costs also impact case results when the case looks forward to different product sales under different scenarios. Higher sales revenues usually require higher direct and indirect labor costs to produce the additional product units. The business case analyst, in other words, projects direct and indirect labor costs for each case scenario, in accord with the scenario's sales estimates.