DRI-315 for week of 9-22-13: What Has Happened to the Labor Market?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

What Has Happened to the Labor Market?

The performance of the labor market should be gauged using multiple indices, but is commonly judged by only one. The unemployment rate currently stands at 7.3%, having fallen from a cyclical height of almost 10%. Although that may seem like sizable progress, 7.3% unemployment is unheard of almost four-and-a-half years into a cyclical recovery. Even more startling is the swan-dive done by labor-market participation, which has declined to its lowest point since 1978. These data coincide with repeated extensions in unemployment-benefit tenure and increased enrollments in the food-stamp (SNAP) program. SNAP now provides food to about one in seven American families.

Taken together, these facts suggest an ominous change in the U.S. labor market. The Wall Street Journal recently brought that change into sharper focus by interviewing a leading expert-participant in the labor market.

Bob Funk owns Express Employment Services, headquartered in Oklahoma City, OK. EES is the fifth-largest employment agency in the country, with annual sales of $2.5 billion and 60 franchises scattered across the land. Funk estimates that EES will place about a half-million applicants in jobs over the coming year. Clearly, he has a vested interest, but that cuts both ways – his financial stake in the market hones his perceptions all the more keenly. And he cuts to the bone in his analysis of what is wrong with the U.S. labor market.

The Great Shift

Like many an interviewee, Funk is promoting a product in which he has a personal interest. EES will soon release a study called “The Great Shift,” which sounds the alarm about the deterioration of the U.S. labor market. Few men are better qualified to pronounce on this topic than Funk, whose company places both blue- and white-collar workers ranging from the lowest level maintenance worker to hard-hat construction workers to high-level executives.

In the simplest terms, the U.S. labor market is morphing from a market that works well into one that fails or works poorly. Many forces are bleeding the life out of the U.S. labor market. In the interview, Funk and interviewer Steve Moore highlight the most pernicious of these.

Loss of work ethic. “In my 40-some years in this business,” Funk declares, “the biggest change I’ve witnessed is the erosion of the American work ethic. It just isn’t there today like it used to be.” If this sounds suspiciously familiar, perhaps that is because it echoes the lament of every older man – successful or not – pining for lost youth. That is probably why it has not fired the imagination of the public at large.

But business owners have no trouble connecting with Funk’s message. Funk’s list of the specific attributes necessary to success on the job – being on time, taking a conscientious approach to the job, treating every task seriously and being willing to do anything including work overtime – will light a fire of recognition in the eyes of every employer who reads it.

According to Journal interviewer Stephen Moore, Funk “thinks the notion of the ‘dead-end job’ is poisonous because it shuts down all sense of possibility and ambition…If low-level employees show a willingness to work hard,” Funk maintains that “most employers will gladly train them with the skills to fill higher-paying jobs.” Neither Funk nor Moore trouble to explain why employers would be so generous, but the point is worth developing. Contrary to the impression created by politicians and the news media, most job training occurs on the job rather than in academic and vocational institutions. Since the employer will have to train anybody who fills a higher-paying position anyway, it will generally be easier and cheaper to train an internal candidate rather than import one who must be wholly indoctrinated into company procedures. But any employer wants a trainee whose can-do attitude, enthusiasm and demonstrated productivity make the investment in training odds-on to succeed. That’s why holders of so-called “dead-end” jobs can actually have a leg up on outside applicants, and why so many of the rich and famous got started at the entry level.

Alas, as Moore puts it, Funk “fears that too many of the young millennials who come knocking on his door view a paycheck as a kind of entitlement, not something to be earned. He is also concerned that the trendy concept of ‘life-balancing’ is putting work second behind leisure.”

Some readers will find this jaundiced picture too one-sided. Surely there must be some people who see openings for hard work as an opportunity for economic advancement and personal improvement. Sure enough, Funk unhesitatingly identifies just such a class of go-getters. “I guess I’m a little prejudiced to the immigrants and especially Hispanics,” Funk admits. (Note the refreshing use of the word “prejudiced” in its correct, non-pejorative sense.) “They have an amazing work ethic. They don’t want handouts and are grateful to have a job. Our company has a great success rate with these workers.” Moore, who has decades of interaction with academic and government economists, observes grimly that “this focus on work effort is seldom, if ever, discussed by policy makers or labor economists when they ponder what to do about unemployment. To most liberals, the very topic is taboo and is disparaged as blaming the economy’s victims.” Moore tactfully refrains from pointing out that the benefits of immigration, too, are taboo among mainstream conservatives; they see only a camera-negative vision of immigrants as criminal, disease-ridden, welfare-sucking, invasive forces of destruction.

The relative attractions of subsidized leisure. When Moore pressed Funk “to explain what Washington can do to get Americans back on the job,” Funk replied that “the first step would be to start shrinking the ‘vast social welfare state programs that have become a substitute for work. There’s a prevalent attitude of this generation of workers that the government will always be there to take care of them.'” Funk mentions unemployment benefits, health care and food stamps as examples of welfare-state subsidies that kill the incentive to take entry-level jobs, but he reserves special condemnation for the Social Security disability program.

Funk considers disability, which now serves some 14 million recipients, the most-abused federal-government program. EES has discovered that over half of the disability claims filed by its workers are fraudulent, he claims. When the company challenges claims in court, “we win over 90% [of the time].”

Government regulation. Funk characterizes the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) as “an absolute boon for my business.” Why? The legislation requires businesses with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health care for their employees. ObamaCare defines “full-time” employment as 30 hours (!) or more per week. This has led to the already-notorious business categories known as “49ers” (businesses that cap their full-time employment at 49 workers) and “29ers” (businesses that cap their employee work week at 29 hours). “Firms are just very reluctant to hire full-time workers,” Funk says. “So they are taking on more temporary help, which is what we do.” While ObamaCare is statutory law, it will be implemented by an executive agency, the IRS. Its provisions have the substance of regulation and legislators were acting exactly as regulators do when they passed it. Indeed, the overwhelming public opposition to the bill gives it even more of the substance of regulatory fiat.

As Moore notes, “the hundreds of thousands of temporary workers [Funk] places in jobs are EEC employees. He pays their salary, benefits and payroll taxes and the firms that hire the workers reimburse EEC for those costs plus a commission. This feature of the temporary-worker industry allows companies trying to fill job openings to do so in a way that sidesteps ObamaCare’s mandates. After an on-the-job trial of several months, companies often offer the workers permanent positions.”

The function now performed by Funk’s temp agency was formerly performed routinely by business firms themselves without need for a middleman. Workers were hired under terms called “probation,” which stated that if the relationship did not prove mutually satisfactory they would be discharged. But the federal government overlaid the employer-worker relationship with so many “protections” ostensibly designed to promote worker security that businesses couldn’t discharge workers who didn’t work out without running the risk of a lawsuit. And a lawsuit was sure to result in either a settlement or a trial; either way the business would incur a significant cost. So businesses simply stopped hiring. Workers became more “secure,” all right – if they already had a job. But workers looking for a job became less secure, because businesses no longer had the choice of hiring on a hunch with the fallback option of discharging the worker if the hire didn’t work out. Apparently most people lost sight of the fact that the probationary period also gives a worker the same chance to try the job on for size. (The implicit stance behind government labor-market regulation seems to be that “fairness” demands gross asymmetry – employers must meet tremendous obligations while workers enjoy lots of “rights.” This implies that fairness and freedom are incompatible.) This is still another of the many ways in which government itself contributes to higher and longer unemployment through its own policies.

Fund adds “the problem isn’t just ObamaCare, though. It’s the entire assault on employers coming out of Washington – everything from the EEOC to the Dodd-Frank monstrosity. Employers are living in a state of fear.” One terrorized industry not mentioned by either Funk or Moore has been trucking, where the Department of Transportation has launched a veritable war on employment. DOT has revamped its regulatory modus operandi in favor of a statistical data base that has turned veteran drivers with previously spotless driving records into risky or even prohibitive employees. Frequent agency threats to require expensive health diagnostic checks for sleep apnea have cast a pall over the profession. DOT’s long delays in making up its mind on allowable hours of service for truckers left the industry hanging. And trucking firms have also felt the sting of the agency’s new regulatory scheme. Truck drivers already feel the breeze of a sword of Damocles swinging over their head, in the form of technological obsolescence impending due to eventual development of self-driving vehicles. The federal government acts as if duty-bound to beat technology to the punch by driving truckers out of the industry first.

The jobs mismatch. At one time, it was conventional thinking that an increase in job openings would lead to a decrease in unemployment and an increase in employment. The stunning exit of workers from the labor force has played hob with convention; the unemployment rate has fallen at the same time that the volume of employment has also declined sharply. When we probe for the reasons behind the out-migration of workers, the most striking datum is the mismatch between the types of workers sought and those now unemployed or no longer looking for work. When an unemployed worker’s job-search efforts are repeatedly met with rejection, surrender becomes easier to understand.

Funk claims that EES usually has around 20,000 jobs that it can’t fill owing to a lack of qualified applicants. Moore lists the most sought-after fields as “accounting (thanks to Dodd-Frank’s huge expansion of paperwork), information technology, manufacturing-robotics programming, welding and engineering. He’s mystified why EES has so much trouble filling thousands of information-technology jobs when so many young, working-age adults are computer literate.”

The idea of a mismatch between available job-seekers and available jobs has been around for at least a century. In economics textbooks, it is called “structural unemployment.” If the number of unfilled jobs is exactly equal to the number of unfulfilled job-seekers, this might mean that employer and employee just haven’t gotten together yet. But if this condition persists for a long while, this suggests that job and job-seeker are somehow incompatible. At first glance, this seems like the sort of problem that might arise in a modern economy due to the absence of central economic planning by government. After all, how do we know that the “right” number of engineers, accountants and welders will be trained and packed off to the labor market? Doesn’t this require rational planning by somebody – or bodies – who can see the whole “big picture” on a gigantic planning board?

It turns out that free markets are supremely qualified to handle this sort of problem because only free markets can transmit the information about the kind and quantity of jobs needed to the precise people who can help to solve the problem – namely, the would-be engineers, accountants, welders, et al. And the problems of matching are far too big to be solved by central planners – not merely too big, but too subtle and complex, as much a matter of subjective perceptions as objective information. That is why private for-profit agencies like EES, which exploit both the incentives and the information offered by the price system, outperform the state employment agencies.

The persistence of imbalances, whether structural or frictional, implies that prices are not being allowed to do their job. In the low-skilled segment of the market, the minimum wage is the longtime culprit. Recent increases in both the federal and state minimum wages would be bad enough under any circumstances, but in this climate they constitute criminal economic-policy malpractice. At the executive level, the recurring attempts to legislate CEO pay do nothing to improve the welfare of consumers but do hinder the workings of the market for executive talent.

It is the middle of the labor market that has suffered most conspicuously, and acutely, from meddlesome non-market forces. In order to get and hold a job as an accountant, engineer or IT specialist, fluency in mathematics is an absolute prerequisite. (Mere numeracy no longer suffices in accounting, since today’s accountant must command enough computer-related expertise to service his clientele.) The only thing American schools teach worse than mathematics is reading, which is another prerequisite for most high-end jobs. In contrast, foreign students tend to be well versed in mathematics, which explains the agitation to make visas available to high-skilled immigrants.  The educational deficit may not explain the entire skills deficit, but it is surely the beginning of wisdom on the issue.

The long-running failure of American public schools. Public-school reform in America now enters its second century. The breath of fresh competitive air blown in by charter schools and vouchers has brought the first genuine, effective reform to K-12 education. But the education establishment dies hard. With the death of the old telecommunications monopolies, teacher’s unions are the leading political force in many statehouses. The stubborn persistence of labor-market imbalances in math-, reading- and computer-skilled jobs has its corollary in the stubborn persistence of the political power of teachers’ unions.

How do teachers’ unions hurt educational performance? They are structured to favor incumbent teachers over newcomers, which means that they insist upon seniority as the basis for pay and advancement rather than actual teaching productivity. Even worse, it means that the tenure system reigns unchallenged. “Teacher is by far the most corrupt social institution in our time,” Funk flatly declares. “It doesn’t reward excellence or weed out bad teachers.”

Contrast tenure with the rule of free markets, in which business failure is penalized by financial failure. Success is rewarded with high(er) profits, which encourages entry of new firms and imitation by other businesses. All this is utter anathema to public schools, which abhor failure and exit by a public school – unless the school district itself decrees it for cost reasons, of course. There is no particular, automatic reward for successful teaching performance – in particular, no immediate and unequivocal financial reward for good teachers. (Indeed, in higher education it is axiomatic that good teachers usually fail to achieve tenure because they spend too much time concentrating on teaching and not enough worrying about the “research” that will lead to tenure.)

While it is true that change is finally coming, it proceeds at a glacial pace because it moves along the choked roadway marked “politics” rather than the speedy autobahn of free markets. Unions dictate the terms on which vouchers are allowed to exist (if at all) and operate; they dictate the funds allocated to charter schools. This is akin to running a poultry farm by appointing the fox foreman and letting him control access to the chicken house.

What Does This Pattern Remind You Of?

When we put the pieces of this labor-market pattern together, they form a familiar picture. For decades, Europe has produced the same picture: dreadful work ethic, open-handed government subsidies killing off the incentive to take entry-level jobs or work at all, smothering government regulation, declining academic performance, powerful unions blocking reform, increasing mismatch between available jobs and worker skills. Not only that, but the Continent’s long-running virus of sluggish growth and high unemployment has recently spread to the U.S.

Most ominous of all is the serial banking and financial crises experienced by countries within the Eurozone. They began with tiny, insignificant little Greece, whose troubles couldn’t possibly be big enough to harm anybody else. Besides, Greece was an outlier, an exception. Its people were exceptionally lazy, its banks horribly inept, its regulation unusually lax – or so the party line ran among the commentators and mainstream news media.

Soon, though, the financial woe spread to Portugal, Spain and Italy. France began to look shaky. Every few months a new crisis flared up. Each time, finance ministers and heads of state appeared to assure us that this new fix has achieved financial peace in our time – until the next crisis. And then came recession – again.

For years, the American labor movement has been holding up Europe as its model. Incredible as this may seem, labor leaders have pooh-poohed the high rates of unemployment and low rates of economic growth in Europe. They have maintained that people in Europe were happier than Americans. They were more secure. Wasn’t this worth putting up with a little more unemployment, a little less material wealth? Goods and services weren’t all that important, were they, when stacked up against the really important values in life?

Lately, though, we haven’t heard much of this rhetoric. Partly this was because riots and discord in Europe were blatantly at odds with the party line about the bovine placidity and content of the populace there. Partly it was because the American Left was now peddling a new party line about the rapine and plunder of the 99% by the 1%, and they needed to extend this paradigm internationally in order to demonize the phenomenon of globalization. And it’s pretty hard to harmonize the picture of happiness with one of rape and plunder.

The real importance of our growing resemblance to Europe, however, is that is raises the specter that we will follow in their financial footsteps. The mainstream news media has a history of disregarding the views of men like Bob Funk. But the carbon-copy example of Europe lends a chilling credence to his views. It happened there and is still happening there, which makes it that much tougher to pretend that it can’t happen here.