There’s No “Skills Shortage”

There are plenty of reasons why higher education in the US needs to change. There are plenty of good reasons why community colleges in particular deserve greater investment. But the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) gets it wrong when they claim

There is a skills gap in our country, causing employers to have unfilled positions and too
many Americans unable to find family wage supporting jobs.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.  This is a zombie economic idea.  It’s enormously disappointing when leaders in higher education can’t even get the basic economic thinking straight.  First, let’s just apply some basic economic thinking to it.  Although there are good heterodox reasons for not thinking of the labor market is not an ordinary market (i.e. it’s institutional, not transaction-based), but let’s roll with the idea since so many purveyors of the “skills shortage” myth act like it is.  The implication is that there are multiple “job markets” and that many, perhaps, most are suffering a “shortage”.

So what’s a “job market”.  A simple definition would identify the nexus of potential workers and potential employers in a specific geographic region in a particular occupation.  For example, “welders in metro Chicago” or “CNC machine operators in SE Michigan” or “software developers in Houston” would be examples. Now if there’s a “shortage” in one of these job markets, it means there are fewer sellers (smaller quantity offered, to be technical) and more buyers demanding a larger quantity at the going market price.  Now what happens in both theory and practice when a market has a persistent shortage? Anybody? Yes, the price rises.  Price goes up to attract more sellers and discourage buyers.  And the price keeps going up until equilibrium between quantity offered for sale and quantity demanded become equal and eliminate the shortage. If there were shortages in job markets we should see wages going up!  We should see companies tripping over themselves to offer more and better benefits.  But we don’t see that do we? Wages are stagnant across the board.  That’s because there really isn’t any widespread “skills shortage”.

What we have is business owners and managers reporting a shortage of highly skilled workers who would be willing to work for below-equilibrium and falling wages.  Remember as a nation we’ve drastically cut back on public funding of education and over the last generation  companies have drastically cut their spending on training and apprenticeships.  Those businesses now expect a free-ride from others.  They want workers to pay for their own education and training without paying the wages needed to make that human capital investment worthwhile.  If there were truly a skills shortage, not only would we see rising wages but we’d also see rising college enrolments as the rising market wage encouraged students to invest.  But we don’t see either rising wages or rising enrolments.  In fact for the last couple (few?) years, enrolments have been declining.

I’m not the only one pointing out how bad this zombie “skills shortage” myth is.  Paul Krugman pointed out recently:

    …this new EPI report is a useful reminder of the extent to which another doctrine that sounds serious retains a grip on discourse — namely, the notion that we have big problems because our work force lacks essential skills.

This is very much a zombie doctrine — that is, a doctrine that should be dead by now, having been repeatedly refuted by evidence, but just keeps on shambling along. EPI presents some very interesting evidence from a survey of manufacturing, but they’re hardly the first to show that the data don’t at all support the skills-shortage hypothesis.

But it’s not just Paul Krugman and progressives saying that the “skills shortage” idea is bunk, its leading conservative economists too, like Ed Lazear in this 2012 paper.   Even the Boston Consulting Group, who we might expect to take push the “skills shortage” idea since business owners like to push the idea, seems constrained to follow the data and their data show that:

So what accounts for the high and lingering unemployment?  The Economic Policy Institute looked at the whole issue and surveyed the literature and research in this January EPI report.

There is a sizeable literature on whether a skills mismatch is a driver of today’s weak jobs recovery, and the strong consensus is that the weak labor market recovery is not due to skills mismatch (or any other structural factors). Instead, it is due to weakness in aggregate demand.

That’s it.  We have a shortage of aggregate demand. We have a shortage of customers who spend. We have a shortage of spending. We don’t have a shortage of skills.

Higher education leaders who position their plans based on the false premise of a skills shortage do themselves and their institutions a dis-service, so we may have a shortage of higher education leaders willing to do their own critical thinking and rely on research instead of parroting politically popular zombie ideas. I can understand the temptation of many higher education leaders to use push the idea because they think it will help them get funding. But that’s a losing strategy. By embracing such zombie ideas, they destroy their own credibility with the faculty, the very people they need to implement the changes they’re advocating.