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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

'It’s Not a Skills Gap That’s Holding Wages Down: It's the Weak Economy, Among Other Things'

Jared Bernstein:

It’s Not a Skills Gap That’s Holding Wages Down: It's the Weak Economy, Among Other Things: The inadequate quantity and quality of American jobs is one of the most fundamental economic challenges we face. It’s not the only challenge: Poverty, inequality, and stagnant mobility loom large, as well. But in a nation like ours, where wages and salaries are key to the living standards of working-age households, all these challenges flow from the labor market problem.
OK, but this is a supposed to be an article about technology. What’s the linkage between technology and this fundamental problem? As a D.C.-based economist who’s been working on the issue of jobs and earnings for almost 25 years, trust me when I tell you that most policy makers believe the following:
“Yes, there’s a problem of job quantity and quality, but it’s largely a skills problem. Because of recent technological advances, most notably computerization, an increasing share of the workforce lacks the skills to meet the demands of today’s workplaces.
What’s more, the pace at which technology is replacing the inadequately skilled is accelerating—think robotics and artificial intelligence. These dynamics explain growing wage stagnation, wage inequality, and the structural unemployment of those without college degrees.”
Problem is, most of that is wrong.
Technology and employers’ skill demands have played a critical role in our job market forever, but they turn out to be of limited use in explaining the depressed incomes of today, or of the past decade. ...

This is part of a post from three years ago when people were making similar arguments about the skills gap (another way of saying the problem is structural, not cyclical):

I wish I'd remembered point three when I wrote recently about the difficulty of separating cyclical and structural unemployment. I was saying, essentially, the same thing that Peter Diamnond says here (via):

...Third, I am skeptical of the value of attempting to separate cyclical from structural unemployment over a business cycle.... The tighter the labor market and the more valuable the filling of a vacancy, the more a firm is willing to hire a worker who is a less good match, who may need more training.... [A] worker who might be viewed as structurally unemployed, as facing serious mismatch in the current state of the economy, may be readily employable in a tight labor market. The common practice of thinking about the extent of unemployment as a sum of frictional, structural and cyclical parts misses the point.... [D]irect measures of frictional or structural unemployment... dependent on the tightness of the labor market... have limited relevance for the role of demand stimulation policies. The idea that the US economy is not adaptable and capable of dealing with the need for skills and jobs to adapt to each other is peculiar, given the long history of unemployment going up and down. When the labor market is tight and firms have trouble finding workers, they reach out to places they have not looked before and extend training in order to find workers who can fill their needs. ...

Here's (part of) the post of mine referred to above:

Cyclical and structural unemployment can be hard to tell apart. For example, suppose that a business owner would like to hire someone to operate a complicated piece of machinery, and needs someone with experience. The owner offers $10 per hour, but, unfortunately, no one applies. Interviewed by the local paper, the owner complains that qualified workers simply aren't available.
However, that is not true. There is an unemployed worker who has been running that kind of machine for 10 years. He's good at it, and only lost his job due to the fact that the place he had worked for the last 10 years shut its doors in the recession. At $15 per hour, or more, he would have taken the job. But $10 is just not enough to pay the bills and save the house, and he decides to hold out and hope that something better comes along.
So whose fault is it? Should be blame the worker for being unwilling to take a decent job due to the fact that it doesn't pay enough (perhaps unemployment compensation is helping the worker to wait for a job that will pay enough to support the household)? Should we blame the store owner for not paying enough to attract workers with families to support? Neither, the problem is lack of demand.
If times were better, i.e. demand were stronger, the business owner could afford to pay $15, and would -- problem solved. So, all that is needed is an increase in demand for the products the business sells (demand that would exist if the worker and others like him had jobs). But at current demand levels, which are depressed, it is not worth it to pay that much. The business owner would be losing money.
So is the problem cyclical or structural?  It will look like structural unemployment in the data, the owner can't find anyone who is qualified who will take the job at the wage being offered, but the heart the problem is a lack in demand. ...

Or, as I've told the story at other times, there is a worker in another city who is unemployed, well--trained for this job, but the wage that is offered does not provide enough income to justify moving. At a higher wage, it might. Again, a problem that looks structural is actually due to lack of demand. With more demand, and the ability to pay a higher wage, the firm would find the skilled worker it seeks.

But I like the way Peter Diamond said it best.

    Posted by on Tuesday, October 7, 2014 at 09:45 AM in Economics, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (73)


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