Below Market Wages Belies Claims of Structural Unemployment

Continuing what has turned into a short series on unemployment and structural unemployment in particular (see Monday and yesterday’s posts), let us look at some of the claims that structural unemployment.

First up, Brad Delong points us to Kevin Drum who tells the following story:

Kevin Drum:

Skilled Jobs Go Begging? Not Quite: The Wall Street Journal has a piece up this weekend about the difficulty that many companies are having hiring skilled workers in certain areas…. Here’s a description of some skilled job openings at Union Pacific railroad:

When the railroad had openings for diesel electricians earlier this year, it took [Ferrie] Bailey 10 hiring sessions to fill 24 jobs….Known as “installation technicians,” the workers are responsible for putting in and maintaining a sprawling network of cable, microwave relays and related equipment that enables the railroad to monitor 850 trains running daily along its 32,000 miles of track.

This doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree but demands technical skills gained either through an associates’ degree or four years of experience in electronics. And it is grueling work. Technicians have to climb 50-foot communications towers, clamber up utility poles and work outdoors through Wyoming winters and Kansas summers. They put in 10-hour days, in clusters of eight or ten days, and are routinely away from home more than half of each month.

….Standing at the front of the room, Ms. Bailey described the deal. As installation technicians, they would earn $21.64 an hour, or close to $48,000 a year for the railroad’s regular work schedule.

Then there’s this:

After a website job posting, Ms. Bailey initially drew 58 applicants. Of them, she deemed about two dozen sufficiently qualified so that she invited them to take a $25 aptitude test, at their own expense.

Let me get this straight. Union Pacific is supposedly desperate for candidates and can barely fill all their open positions. And yet, when they identify 24 qualified applicants, they aren’t even willing to maximize their hiring pool by ponying up $600 to make sure they all take the aptitude test. Then, later in the story, there’s this:

Ms. Bailey faced more stiff competition at a job fair the next day, because then she was up against several other employers looking for the same sort skilled people as she was. “Make $70,000 – $80,000 the first year with FULL BENEFITS,” read a sign at a booth right across from Ms. Bailey’s at the job fair, put on by the U.S. Army in Fort Carson, Colo., largely to help departing soldiers ease back to civilian life.

So here’s the story. Union Pacific is offering $48,000 per year for skilled, highly specialized, journeyman work that’s physically grueling and requires workers to be away from home about half of each month. The competition is offering 50% more, but not only is UP not willing to increase their starting wage, they’re so certain they can fill all their positions that they make qualified candidates pay for their own aptitude test. And despite all this, they filled all 24 of their positions in ten hiring sessions.

It doesn’t sound to me like there’s a huge shortage of qualified workers here. It sounds to me like Union Pacific is whining about the fact that it took them all of ten hiring sessions to fill their quota even though this is a really tough job and they aren’t paying market rates for workers. It’s as if they think that actually having to make a modest effort to attract job candidates is an inversion of the natural order or something. Speaking for myself, I think I’ll hold off on breaking out the violins.

Kevin has done an excellent job of taking the structural claims apart, but I’ll pile on anyway.  The claim that unemployment is structural is a claim that the labor market is segmented into different labor markets for jobs with different skills.  Further it asserts that there is no elasticity of supply between these different labor markets – in other words, if either have the skills or you don’t, there’s no on-the-job training or adaptable skills possible.  Finally, if unemployment is structural then we are saying that there’s a shortage (lack of supply) of workers in that skill category in that geographic area.  The Wall Street Journal is claiming that because Union Pacific cannot find enough willing sellers (workers) at the price (wage) Union Pacific is offering then there must be a shortage of qualified sellers.  Umm, how do I put this?  No.  Rather it’s evidence that the Union Pacific simply wants to pay below-market prices to labor.  That’s all.  Saying this is evidence of structural unemployment is like me claiming there’s a structural supply shortage of new automobiles because no dealer will sell me a new Porsche for $15,000.

 

Fixes for Unemployment Depend on Whether It’s Cyclical (It Is) or Structural (It Isn’t)

Yesterday I recapped the November employment report. The employment picture remains grim.  The workers depression continues.

As my favorite graph from Calculated Risk shows here, regardless of what happens to the unemployment rate, our recovery from the jobs lost in the recession is incredibly slow.  At the pace we have been on for the last 2-3 years, we won’t recover the jobs lost in the recession until around 2018 – a full lost decade.

Thanks partly to the #OccupyWallStreet movement, these 14 million unemployed aren’t so invisible as they seemed last summer when the policy debates were all about debt and deficits.  Since denial of a problem has failed, folks who argue against any attempts by the government to stimulate the economy need a different pitch.

That revised pitch is that the unemployment problem is “structural”, not “cyclical”.  Now before I move on to show the problem is not structural, let me explain the difference. I’ve looked at structural vs. cyclical before here and here, but I’ll summarize.  In economist-talk, “unemployed” means you are part of the labor force but you don’t have a job.  To be part of the labor force, you must be actively looking (“willing and able”) to work.  Those numbers come from government surveys. Economists unofficially classify those unemployed workers according to why they don’t have a  job.  There’s four possibilities:

  1. Frictional – there’s a job for them, they simply haven’t been matched with it yet.
  2. Seasonal – the job will exist again next year when the season is right (think downhill ski instructors in July)
  3. Structural – empty jobs exist but the unemployed workers either don’t have the right skills or aren’t in the right location.  Train the workers or move them and unemployment disappears.
  4. Cyclical – there simply aren’t enough empty jobs for the number of unemployed workers.  If the GDP were larger and spending greater, then jobs would be created and the people put back to work.

For policy reasons we aren’t concerned with frictional or seasonal. Time cures those individual unemployment situations. But if we only had frictional or seasonal unemployment, our unemployment rate would be much, much lower – 4% or even lower.  Clearly we have either have a lot of structural or cyclical or both.

Which we have matters for policy reasons. If unemployment is structural, then we can effectively blame the unemployed for their fate.  They didn’t get the right skills. They chose to live in the wrong place. From a policy standpoint, the government might adopt policies that support re-training but that’s about it.   If, however, unemployment is cyclical, then government has plenty of room to reduce unemployment through stimulus programs, either effective tax cuts and/or increased government direct spending.

Brad Delong points us to David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal who tells us how and why today’s high unemployment is not structural. In other words, we could bring down the unemployment very dramatically and very quickly if we chose to.  Politicians in Washington simply choose not to do so. (bold emphases are mine)

DW:

Untangling Long-Term Unemployment: Herman Cain, the Republican presidential candidate, avoids carefully calibrated talking points. “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself,” he said in a Wall Street Journal interview.

Beneath Mr. Cain’s blunt words lurks an economic hypothesis: that there’s nothing much government policy can do to bring unemployment down from today’s 9.1% rate…. [I]f the unemployed aren’t willing or able to fill jobs that muscular stimulus might produce then there’s little wisdom in borrowing more money or chancing inflation. We just have to suck it up.

But according to Fed governor Daniel Tarullo, a veteran of the Clinton White House and Obama presidential campaign who has spent the past few months consulting with Fed and other labor economists for a speech on the job market he is to deliver Thursday at Columbia University, there is little evidence that the bulk of today’s unemployed would still be unemployed if the economy were growing faster or that the bulk of today’s unemployment is, in the jargon of economists, “structural.”…

The Labor Department counts 14 million unemployed and 3.1 million job openings, or 4.6 jobless workers per job opening. Before the recession, the ratio was 1.5. If every opening were filled instantly, there would still be many unemployed.

Wages aren’t rising. “We don’t see rapid wage growth almost anywhere, which is what you would expect if firms were bidding up the wages of qualified workers and were unable to find qualified workers among the unemployed,” said Harvard University’s Lawrence Katz.

Unemployment is up across ages, occupations, industries and years of schooling. “We had a fast-advancing economic decline with layoffs and hiring freezes in a broad range of sectors of the economy. That is not consistent with an increase in structural unemployment being the big explanation,” Mr. Tarullo said…