In a recent column at BloombergView, Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, asserted that US businesses, particularly manufacturers, protest too much about the skills gap. Their inability to source skilled employees could be solved, he argued, if they were simply willing to pay higher wages for the talent they need:
Wage growth is picking up, but it is lower than what many economists expect in light of overall economic conditions, and it is not soaring for specific industries.
Simply put, if businesses can’t find workers — or can’t find workers with the right skills — they should raise their wage offers. Basic supply-and-demand logic suggests that doing so will broaden the pool of workers interested in the job, and will make the job more desirable to applicants. In addition, raising wage offerings would likely draw in some of the millions of Americans who report they want a job but are out of the labor force. So unless wage growth picks up, the warnings about labor shortages will fall flat.
Strain is not the first economist to argue that the skills gap is a simple supply-and-demand problem that could be solved by raising the price of labor, or that the problem is on the demand side (not enough attractive jobs) as well as the supply side (not enough skilled workers). Stagnant wage growth may be a factor in US employers’ labor market woes, but in focusing exclusively on wages rather than training and hiring barriers, Strain’s claim oversimplifies the challenge employers are facing. Years of research consistently tell us that while competitive compensation is a large component of what attracts candidates to jobs, there’s no simple formula by which you can convince any given candidate to take a job simply by offering a high enough salary.
It’s easy to point to “basic supply-and-demand logic” to criticize manufacturing companies when you don’t actually understand their experiences in local labor markets, but who says manufacturers aren’t trying to raise wages already anyway? A 2015 study by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte showed that 80 percent of manufacturing companies were already willing to pay more than market rates to reduce the skills gap—especially for more skilled labor, such as machinists, craft workers, and industrial engineers. Yet according to our own research at CEB, now Gartner, only 23 percent of heads of HR in the manufacturing industry believe they can close critical skills gaps over the next 12 months.
The US economy added 223,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate fell to a post-recession low of 3.8 percent, the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed on Friday. May continued the US labor market’s growth streak into its 92nd month, the longest such expansion in history. New jobs numbers were also revised upward by a total of 15,000 for the preceding two months, to 159,000 jobs in April and 155,000 in March. Retail, health care, and construction were the leading sectors adding jobs last month.
Compared to the previous year, the unemployment rate was half a percentage point lower in May, with the total number of unemployed persons reduced by 772,000. The number of long-term unemployed was little changed from April to May, standing at 1.2 million, but this figure had also declined by 476,000 over the past year. Underemployment remains an issue, with 4.9 million US workers working part-time who would prefer to be working full-time.
In the first five months of 2018, the workforce has grown by an average of 207,000 jobs per month, the Wall Street Journal adds, beating the average monthly growth of 182,000 in 2017. May’s numbers exceeded the expectations of economists surveyed by the Journal, who had expected 190,000 new jobs and a 3.9 percent unemployment rate. The last time the US recorded a 3.8 percent rate was in April 2000, and the last time before that was in 1969. The falling rate reflects a mix of positive and negative developments, however, as the labor force participation rate ticked down from 62.8 to 62.7 percent and the number of people not in the labor force increased by about 170,000.
Wage growth remains real the sticking point in the US labor market. Average hourly earnings in the private sector rose by 8 cents last month, to $26.92, for a year-over year increase of 71 cents or 2.7 percent. This increase represents a slight improvement over the persistent stagnation in wages in the years following the recession, but annual wage growth has not cracked the 3 percent mark since 2009.
Most of this year’s annual graduation season surveys in the US have indicated that the class of 2018 will enjoy a bright start to their careers, with a tight labor market and lots of demand for college-educated talent enabling them to demand the highest starting salaries in years. A new analysis from Korn Ferry, using a large data set of 310,000 entry-level positions from nearly 1,000 organizations, finds that new entrants to the professional job market this year might not be making big gains after all, notwithstanding their excellent prospects for finding a job:
Based on the analysis, 2018 college grads in the United States will make on average $50,390 annually. That is 2.8 percent more than the 2017 average ($49,000). “With the 2018 U.S. inflation rate hovering just over 2 percent, real wages for this year’s grads are virtually flat,” said Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner Maryam Morse. “However, with competition for top graduate talent so fierce, it’s critical that companies pay competitively, create an engaging culture and provide clear paths for advancement.”
In other words, this analysis points to the fundamental quandary of the US labor market right now: employers have every reason to pay more for talent, but wages aren’t growing as quickly as the law of supply and demand should compel them to.
Korn Ferry’s analysis also highlights the variation in starting salaries among major US cities: A graduate looking for work in Atlanta can expect to earn an average of just under $50,000, compared to over $60,000 in New York and nearly $64,000 in San Francisco (not adjusted for cost of living). The study also calculated average entry-level pay in various professions: A new customer service representative earns on average $35,000, an accountant $48,000, a registered nurse just under $55,000, and a software developer $67,000.
Another new report, from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, considers this graduating class’s prospects by analyzing data on recent college graduates aged 21 to 24. While EPI does not dispute the strong labor market position of these graduates compared to recent years, it also argues that the class of 2018 can and should be doing better than the class of 2007:
Unemployment across the US fell to 3.9 percent last month, its lowest level since December 2000, the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed, as the economy added 164,000 jobs. The increase in jobs was below the average monthly gain of 191,000 over the prior 12 months and the median estimate of 193,000 provided by economists to Bloomberg. However, job gains from the previous two months were also revised upward by a net 30,000 jobs. A broader measure of unemployment, including those marginally attached to the labor force or employed part time for economic reasons, fell from 8 percent in March to 7.8 percent in April.
Wage growth remained slow, however, with average hourly earnings rising 4 cents to $26.84, representing a 2.6 percent year-over-year-increase. That figure has dwindled from 2.9 percent in January, dampening hopes that the tight labor market would finally lead to accelerating wage growth for American workers. Nonetheless, Josh Wright, Chief Economist at iCIMS, tells the Washington Post that it’s “an exciting headline for the worker”:
“A real Goldilocks number, with job growth being great.” But pay stayed flat, so the Federal Reserve won’t likely feel pressure to raise rates before June. In other words, Wright said, the markets should respond favorably. “What we’re seeing here is steadiness,” he said. …
If the expansion further gains steam, analysts at the Fed said the unemployment rate could reach 3.7 percent this year, a figure not seen since 1969.
Also, the New York Times points out, “A year-over-year increase of 3 percent in hourly earnings is considered the trip wire that could prompt the Federal Reserve to raise its benchmark interest rate more aggressively than it has signaled”:
In the UK, as in the US, persistent wage stagnation has been a painful long-term consequence of the financial crisis and the Great Recession. A new survey from XpertHR finds that employers there are increasingly optimistic about the raises they will be able to offer this year, predicting an average increase of 2.5 percent, Ashleigh Wight reports at Personnel Today:
A survey of more than 200 private sector employers found that they were more optimistic about the pay increases they plan to offer their staff in 2018 than six months ago, when they expected to offer a 2% pay rise. Of the organisations surveyed, the most common pay award prediction remained at 2%, with 28.9% of employers expecting to offer this level of increase. One in 10 (11.4%) employers forecast a pay increase of 4% or more, while just 5.3% of employers predicted a pay freeze.
In the three months to the end of February, XpertHR found there was a 2.5% median basic pay increase, based on data from 169 pay awards. … XpertHR pay and benefits editor Sheila Attwood said: “It is several years since employers have been so optimistic about prospects for pay rises. If private sector pay awards stick at 2.5% over the course of the year, this will mark the first time since 2012 that increases have been consistently above 2%.”
These findings mirror a survey of US employers conducted in the last quarter of 2017, which registered growing levels of business optimism and predicted that wages could rise 4.27 percent in the coming year, compared to the 3.39 percent figure PwC found in Q3 and just 2 percent a year ago.
Reports issued recently by two leading think tanks paint very different pictures of the economic outlook for UK workers, however. In early November, the Resolution Foundation asserted that the average pay package in Britain in 2022 would still be £20 lower than it was before the financial crisis, according to the Guardian:
The February employment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, released on Friday, depict a strong labor market, with the US economy adding 313,000 jobs: the largest monthly increase since July 2016 and extending the longest recorded labor market expansion in US history into its 89th month. Job growth figures were also revised upward for December and January by a total of 54,000. The unemployment rate held steady for the fifth month straight at 4.1 percent, the lowest rate since December 2000.
Economists had expected growth of around 200,000 jobs. Some observers attribute the spike in hiring to the massive corporate tax cut passed by Congress in December, but this is not a consensus view, the Washington Post reports:
“This is a result of fiscal stimulus — in other words: a $1.3 billion tax cut,” [Glassdoor chief economist Andrew Chamberlain] said. “Businesses are making decisions on a forward-looking basis. Even if the dollars aren’t in the pockets of companies yet, they’re making plans.”
Cathy Barrera, head economist at ZipRecuiter, an employment site, questioned that interpretation, asserting it’s still too early to see an impact from the tax measure. “Really for businesses, what matters is demand for their products,” she said. “If demand for products hasn’t gone up, there’s not more work for these companies to be doing.”
The only piece of not-so-great news in Friday’s jobs report was that February did not deliver the acceleration in wage growth that many economists were hoping for. Average hourly earnings for private nonfarm employees rose by 4 cents to $26.75, for a year-over-year figure of 2.6 percent, lower than the 2.9 percent figure reported for January (revised downward in this month’s report to 2.8 percent).
The combination of large job growth and low wage growth was reassuring news for Wall Street, the New York Times adds, as it points to continued economic expansion but eases fears of runaway inflation:
The January jobs report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that average hourly wages had risen 2.9 percent over the preceding year. Though not quite the 3.5 or 4 percent growth economists would like to see, that figure represents an encouraging sign that the American labor market’s perplexing combination of low unemployment and stagnant wages might finally be abating.
A new analysis from Reuters expands on the good news, finding that last year’s wage gains were geographically broad, not concentrated in a small number of states or cities. Ann Saphir, Jonathan Spicer, and Howard Schneider report:
The Reuters analysis of the most recent data available found that in half of the 50 states, average hourly pay rose by more than 3 percent last year. That’s up from 17 states in 2016, 12 in 2015, and 3 in 2014. Average weekly pay rose in 30 states, also up sharply from prior years, the analysis showed. Unemployment rates are near or at record lows in 17 states, including New York, up from just five in 2016, the Reuters analysis shows. …