Archive for the 'Labor Market' Category

May 05 2009

3 million job openings! Good news… or is it?

Help Wanted: Why That Sign’s Bad – BusinessWeek

This week’s cover story in Business Week magazine tells an interesting story about unemployment in America. Listen to the podcast or follow the link above to read more of this story:

Surprising statistic: In the midst of the worst recession in a generation or more, with 13 million people unemployed, there are approximately 3 million jobs that employers are actively recruiting for but so far have been unable to fill. That’s more job openings than the entire population of Mississippi.

Sound like good news? It’s not. Instead, it’s evidence of an emerging structural shift in the U.S. economy that has created serious mismatches between workers and employers. People thrown out of shrinking sectors such as construction, finance, and retail lack the skills and training for openings in growing fields including education, accounting, health care, and government. At the same time, the worst housing bust in decades has left the unemployed frozen in place. They can’t move to get work because they can’t sell their homes.

In IB and AP Economics we teach that there are three types of unemployment an economy may experience, ranked roughly in order from the least undesirable to the most undesirable (from a macroeconomic perspective):

  • Frictional unemployment: This accounts for people who are “in between jobs” or fresh out of college looking for their first jobs.
  • Structural unemployment: This is caused by the changing structure of an economy. As America’s manufacturing sector shrinks and its education and health care sectors grown, those whose skills lie in manufacturing become structurally unemployed.
  • Cyclical unemployment: This is also called “demand-deficient” unemployment because it is caused by a fall in aggregate demand or overall spending in the economy.

America today is clearly experiencing all three types, but due to the particular circumstances of the recession, the American worker is finding it it harder than ever to match his skills with an appropriate job. Below are some of the industries with the most and the fewest job openings today:

Most openings:

  • Education
  • Health care
  • Government
  • Energy (such as wind, oil, natural gas)
  • “Analytics” (i.e. business data analysis by firms such as IBM)

Fewest openings:

  • Construction
  • Manufacturing

Unfortunately for the large numbers of unemployed construction and factory workers, the kinds of skills required to work in the fields with the most job openings are prohibitively different from those learned in their previous industries. In addition to a mismatch of skills between the industries in which jobs are being lost and those in which labor is in demand, there is also a geographic mismatch in the labor market. Below are the states with the least and the most job openings:

Most job vacancies (states with large energy sectors: oil, natural gas and windmills)

  • North Dakota
  • Wyoming

Least job vacancies (states with large manufacturing and construction sectors)

  • North Carolina
  • California
  • Michigan

Historically, the geographic factor has not posed an issue to American workers, and when jobs opened up in one part of the country, Americans would pack up and move where necessary to find work. Today, however, with the collapse of house prices, more and more Americans find themselves stuck with a house they can’t sell in a part of the country where they can’t find a job.

To paraphrase the podcast above, “the US in danger of looking like Europe. The European job market has been described as ‘sclerotic’; people don’t respond to want ads because of the generous long-term unemployment benefits offered by European governments. Europeans have historically been geographically immobile due to nationalist ties to their home countries.” Today, the US job market reflects some of the same “sclerosis” as that of Europe.

America is facing the perfect storm of unemployment. At the same time that the economy is undergoing its most significant structural change since the Industrial Revolution brought millions of American workers from the farm fields into factories, it is facing the most significant decline in private sector spending (consumption, investment and exports) since the great depression. Put this together with the relative immobility of the American worker caused by the housing crisis, and unemployment has climbed to its highest level in three decades.

This interesting story ends with a glimmer of hope for the American worker:

To fight this sclerosis, the White House is using $3.5 billion of the stimulus for training, while boosting support for community colleges. Classes for factory workers seeking entry-level health-care careers have shown some success.

The truth is, displaced workers may have to move down a few rungs as they switch careers because their skills are irrelevant in their new roles… Many laid-off Wall Street financial engineers still haven’t absorbed that, says Fred Wilson, a partner in Union Square Ventures, a New York venture capital firm. “For them to take a job that pays a lot less, they have to make a meaningful change in their lifestyle. And that is an issue.”

Employers need to bend as well, recognizing that the candidates they’re seeking may not exist. Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXRoads, a staffing strategy consulting firm in Kendall Park, N.J., tells employers: “You’re hiring potential….You’ve got to train them.”

A mismatch of work and workers is never a good thing. But smart policy—combined with realism on the part of employers and job seekers—can minimize the disruption.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what way may structural unemployment be a sign of a healthy economy, rather than a sick one?
  2. Part of the Obama stimulus package includes increased benefits for unemployed Americans. How may this pose an obstacle to reducing unemployment in America?
  3. Historically, the natural rate of unemployment in most European economies has been higher than that of the United States. Why is this?
  4. Do you think America’s NRU will return to its historic level (4-6%) when the economy eventually recovers from the current crisis? Why or why not?

38 responses so far

Mar 05 2009

Some good news for Swiss businesses and workers during hard economic times

Two items consisting of good news from the local English language news in Switzerland. The first article says that small and medium-sized enterprises, in other words family owned businesses, are likely to come out of a global economic slowdown relatively unscathed and healthy.

Swiss SMEs are well placed to survive the economic recession. – swissinfo

Family-run firms in Switzerland are well set to survive the global recession having put long-term growth before quick profits in the good years, a report concludes.

Such small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which account for more than 88 per cent of all Swiss companies, are also cushioned by an aversion to taking on too much debt but still face succession problems.

The survey of 300 Swiss family-owned SMEs found that 68 per cent of companies are less motivated by making money than in maintaining the good name of the firm.

Some 83 per cent of owners put the healthy state of their company down to risk aversion and 39 per cent said long-term planning was crucial to success.

Swiss family business consultant Hakan Hillerström contributed to the study by Barclays Wealth and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Often, without a stock market listing, family businesses are insulated from the need to meet the short-term demands of investors and so are better placed to ride out volatility than their listed peers,” he said.

Second is a story about the mobility of skilled labor in Switzerland. When global demand for one of Switzerland’s most famous exports, watches, falls, Swiss watch makers are snatched up and employed by other industries in which demand is actually increasing during the recession: namely, rail car engineering and construction. Similar skills are required of workers in both industries, watches and rail cars. I suspect demand for rail cars has increased because of the multiple fiscal stimulus packages being initiated around Europe, many of which include funding for infrastructure expansion, including upgrading and expanding rail networks.

I am impressed by the flexibility of labor markets in Switzerland in times of economic hardship. Such labor mobility as demonstrated below helps Switzerland weather economic woes more easily than it would if workers laid off from one industry could not easily find employment in others, such as is the case in many countries.

Enterprises in Vaud to exchange workers to beat redundancies. – swissinfo

Skilled workers from the Swiss watchmaking industry could soon find themselves building locomotives instead.

A new project to meet the challenges posed by the financial crisis has been launched in the French-speaking canton of Vaud, with the backing of the major trade union and employers associations, as well as the cantonal government.

The idea is that businesses experiencing a temporary shortfall in orders will be able to lend their workers to others facing a shortage of labour.

“It’s pretty ridiculous to pay people to sit around and do nothing,” Yves Defferrard of the Unia trade union told swissinfo. “But when they have no work for them, employers can often think of nothing better than to lay them off. That’s the wrong way to manage a crisis. It’s what happened in the downturn of 2000.”

4 responses so far

Mar 03 2009

Recession’s effects on small vs. large companies: some evidence in support of the Classical view of self-correction

Why Are Large Companies Losing More Jobs Than Small Ones? – TIME

This is a fascinating, short article from TIME. Before reading it, see if you can answer the multiple choice question below:

Q: Why do small companies lay off proportionately fewer workers during a recession than large companies?

A) Because small firms are less likely to be in the industries hardest hit by a recession (such as manufacturing)?
B) Because small firms are less focused on maintaining profits to satisfy greedy shareholders?
C) Because small companies are able to hang on to employees and even hire new ones during a recession because of all the talent being laid off by big firms.

Still thinking? Well, it’s likely that all three are true to some extent. But it’s the third one that seems most intriguing as a student of economics. Here’s what the article says:

…small companies hire disproportionately more early on in an economic recovery because it’s easy for these firms to find good workers while unemployment is still high—and easy for workers to come across small companies since there are so many of them. Once the economy is chugging along at full-steam and the labor market is tight, larger companies regain the advantage, since they’re likely able to offer more money—and poach from smaller outfits.

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Sure, but the fact that small firms are likely to hire when unemployment is high supports one side in a long-running economic debate over the economy’s ability to “self-correct” in times of recession.

As any student of Macroeconomics learns early on, there are two dominant theories of macroeconomics, both which are represented in the aggregate demand/aggregate supply diagram that we learn and use in AP and IB Economics.

The two models below represent the two opposing views of macroeconomics. First we see the Keynesian model, which shows that when overall demand in an economy falls, unemployment increases drastically and output tanks, plunging the economy into a deep recession. This is primarily because of the “inflexible” nature of wages, meaning that even when unemployment rises, workers are unwilling to accept lower wages and firms therefore are unwilling to hire more workers.

According to Keynesians, the only way to get the economy out of the recession is by increasing overall demand through heavy doses of government spending (case in point, the $775 billion stimulus in the US).

Next is the Classical AD/AS model with a vertical long-run aggregate supply curve. The implication of the vertical AS curve is that regardless of the level of overall demand in the economy, output will always return to the full-employment level, and thus unemployment will always return to its natural level. The major assumption underlying the Classical model is that wages are in fact flexible in times of recession. As unemployment rises, workers will accept lower wages since they’d rather be making less than making nothing at all. As wages fall firms will begin hiring more workers, increasing overall output and decreasing unemployment until full-employment output is restored.

The implication of the model on the right is that government is NOT needed to get the economy out of a recession, because it will self-correct due to the new hiring and production by firms in response to falling wages in the labor market.

The reason this article stood out to me was that it seems to offer some evidence in support of the flexible-wage, Classical model of macroeconomic self-correction. There has been surprisingly little talk among news anchors, pundits and politicians about the likelihood of the US or ANY economy suffering in the global slowdown “self-correcting” as the Classical model would suggest it should. But the fact that small businesses are less likely to lay off workers in a recession and more likely to begin hiring them due to the large number of workers being laid of by big companies offers at least an inkling of evidence in support of the Classical model of flexible wages and macroeconomic self-correction.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is laying off workers the first thing big companies do when faced with falling demand for their products? Why don’t they shut down factories instead?
  2. What pressures does a publicly traded company (one that sells stocks to investors) face in times of recession that a small, privately owned business does not?
  3. When the global recession is finally over, do you think more people or fewer people will be working for small companies (less than 50 people) than before the recession? What would you rather work for, a small firm or a large one? Why?

262 responses so far

Oct 02 2008

Will limiting exectutive pay send American business leaders packing for Europe? Probably not…

This post is in response to my colleague and fellow WW blogger Steve Latter’s recent post titled “Private market compesation: AIG CEO vs. Kobe Bryant”. It’s always enlightening to read Steve’s excellent posts, which really put things in perspective. With regards to CEO pay, it is a bit ironic that while Americans are all worked up about the high pay of its top executives, no one’s up in arms about the exorbitant salaries received by America’s professional athletes!

However, I wonder if Steve’s claim that limiting professional athletes’ pay would send the country’s top basketball players packing for leagues in other countries is true. A while back I blogged an article that asked the question of whether Lebron James would be offered a contract from a European club. James claimed that in order for him to even consider playing in Europe, he would require an offer of at least $50 million per year, more than double what he makes playing for Cleveland. – Source: LeBron would consider European offer of $50M a year or more

…the Cleveland Cavaliers’ strongest competition for LeBron James’ long-term services could be the deep-pocketed new kid on the block — Europe.

A person close to James said Tuesday that the Cavaliers’ superstar would strongly consider playing overseas if he was offered a salary of “around $50 million a year.”

James’ current contract expires after the 2010-2011 season, but he can opt out after the 2009-2010 season, and while several NBA teams are working to create salary cap space for his impending free agency, none could offer a contract beginning at even $20 million a year.

So, would Kobe be on the next plane to Lithuania if the US government (or the NBA) limited his pay to $5 million? I doubt it. That brings us to the more urgent question: Would America’s top business executives begin shipping their families and all their belongings off to Jakarta or Dhaka, Delhi or Singapore, London or Paris, if the US government attempted to limit the compensation packages of its executives? Maybe, but there are many reasons to work and live in the United States beyond the salaries offered by firms for their top executives. And upon a little research, it turns out that European executives’ pay packages have in fact been under regulation by governments for quite some time, and as a result, the incentive for American executives to jump ship for European firms should US executive compensation come under regulation may not be as strong as Steve implies.

Executive pay in Europe | Pay attention | The Economist

How excessive is bosses’ pay in Europe? It has certainly risen sharply in the past ten years, as European firms have had to compete globally for talent.  Foreign bosses now run seven of the firms in France’s CAC 40 index and five of Germany’s DAX 30. American-style bonuses and long-term incentive plans are now the norm.

European firms now benchmark pay against international peer groups in their own industries, rather than against domestic rivals, according to Piia Pilv, a pay expert at Mercer, a consultancy. But they still pay a fraction of the sums trousered each year by American executives. According to Hay Group, a management consultancy, the median European executive earns just 40% as much as his equivalent in America (see chart).

Most importantly, European companies appear to be more determined than American ones to link pay to performance. “Firms in Europe have tended to put more stringent conditions on long-term incentive awards than in America,” says Richard Bednarek, global director of executive remuneration for Hay Group. In America grants of shares are often not tied to performance, whereas European firms generally attach performance criteria to any grant of shares, typically depending on a comparison with a peer group. Such schemes often do not pay out at all, says Mr Bednarek. Dan Vasella, boss of Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, and a favourite target of pay activists, earned SFr17m ($14m) in 2007, down 33% from 2006, because he missed his targets.

Clearly, the incentive to head to Europe as a result of increased scrutiny of executive compensation in the US is not as great as it would be if there did not already exist a threefold gap between US and European executive pay.

The liberal in me wonders if there is such a thing as “unfair” CEO compensation. The free market advocate in me points to other markets governments have attempted to control prices in, and the clear inefficiency that such regulation creates. Governments limiting executive pay, in theory, should have a similar effects to rent controls, or price ceilings in other markets. The quality and quantity of apartments available under rent controls declines, and price ceilings on other goods often result in shortages, meaning there’s not enough to go around among consumers… the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied.

In the case of CEO pay in America, limiting compensation should, in theory, result in a shortage of highly qualified executives willing to head up American firms. But let’s be honest, even if the government placed highly stringent limits on the compensation of the country’s executives, the average executive in America would still likely be earning more than his counterpart in Europe. And since the average American CEO earns something on the order of 250 times what the average worker in his firm gets paid, increased regulation of CEO pay only help narrow this enormous gap slightly, but the incentive to make it to the top will still be strong among American workers.

Conclusions? It’s a tough issue. I want to have faith in the free market, in the price mechanism, in the efficacy of laissez faire economics. But the moral hazard of “golden parachutes” is a real concern. Should an American CEO be rewarded if he fails in his job? Steve makes the case that this “insurance” policy is necessary to attract the best and brightest to the firms willing to pay them most. Then again, something about the way the free market has created such a huge gap between executive pay and the pay of the average worker, and the threefold gap between America’s CEOs and Europes makes me think, “forget the free market, we need to get this insanity under control.”

2 responses so far

Apr 15 2008

The politics of free trade vs. protectionism

Bush pushes Congress to vote on Colombia trade pact. – Apr. 14, 2008The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Click on the graphs for full-size versions

The benefits of trade, while visibly demonstrated by two basic economic models, the production possiblities curve and a simple supply/demand diagram, are not as straightforward when politics is involved. Case in point: the Bush administration has been trying to push through a free trade deal with Columbia, one of our key allies in a region ripe with anti-American sentiment. The White House views the trade deal as a win-win for the American economy:

The administration insisted the deal would be good for the United States economically because it would eliminate high barriers that U.S. exports to Colombia now face, while most Colombian products are already entering the United States duty-free under existing trade preference laws.

On the surface it appears the US has nothing to lose from extending trade relations with Columbia, since few if any American jobs will be lost by such a deal; so why are some Democrats resisting the trade deal?

In explaining their opposition, Democrats have cited the continued violence against organized labor in Colombia and differences with the administration over how to extend a program that helps U.S. workers displaced by foreign competition.

As is so often the case, what’s best for the economy does not seem to be what’s in the best interests of Americans. Our values extend, in some cases, beyond our pocketbooks. The White House argues that the US/Columbia free trade agreement only promises to increase demand for American products while doing little to affect domestic employment. The fact that most Columbian imports are already tariff-free probably confirms this. But the Democrats oppose this deal on the grounds that it would appear that America endorses the anti-labor activities of the Columbian governments.

Labor is a touchy political issue in America, where union membership among workers has fallen from around 40% in the 1950’s to around 13% today. As Columbia and other developing economies become integrated into the global economy, there is increasing pressure for governments to liberalize their domestic labor markets, weaken unions, lower wages in order to attract more investment from abroad, lower the costs of production, thus increase the quantity of their exports demanded abroad. Labor market flexibility and liberalization is certainly an important step in attracting investment and demand to developing countries, but if it comes at the expense of the well-being of the citizens of a poor country, then perhaps standing against such anti-labor actions is a just cause.

The free trade deal with Columbia poses more of a moral dilemma than an economic one. From America’s stand-point, it appears to be a win-win situation. But from the perspective of international labor standards, approving a trade deal with Columbia threatens to undermine another set of American values: those of human rights.

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Discussion questions:

  1. Why do you think the White House is so adamant about pushing through the trade deal with Columbia?
  2. Are the Democrats correct to oppose a deal that could create jobs in America while at the same time make more goods available to Columbian consumers at lower prices?
  3. Should America be trying to dictate the labor standards of its trading partners? Why or why not?

4 responses so far

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