Economics, U.S. Economy

More evidence for the ‘skills mismatch’ explanation of high unemployment

To what degree is a disconnect between a) the skills employers need and b) the skills employees have contributing to the longest stretch of high unemployment since the Great Depression. The Atlanta Fed take issue with the New York Fed over at its blog:

Two New York Fed economists, Richard Crump and Ayşegül Şahin, writing in Liberty Street Economics, have shared some interesting findings regarding developments in the labor market during the ongoing recovery. Their conclusion is that unemployed construction workers, according to several indicators, seem to be doing better than workers who lost jobs in other sectors.

Based on their research, job-finding rates for unemployed construction workers have increased more rapidly than for the overall pool of unemployed. While flows out of the labor force for unemployed construction workers have remained flat, they have increased for those who lost jobs in other sectors. Also, using the Displaced Workers Survey (DWS) conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they show that construction workers who find jobs have the same distribution of earnings as other displaced workers who find a job.

These facts, according to the authors, provide support to the hypothesis that problems in the labor market cannot be blamed on the degree of mismatch between displaced construction workers and job vacancies in other sectors.

In this post, we present an alternative view of the fate of unemployed construction workers by looking specifically at unemployed construction workers who find jobs in other industries. Our conclusion is that unemployed construction workers are generally experiencing relatively large wage declines (relative to what they earned before becoming unemployed). Except for the lowest-skilled workers, losing a job and having to take a new job in a new industry generally involves a wage decline. That effect is especially pronounced for construction workers who become unemployed.

The Atlanta Fed view would seem to better fit the theory the U.S. economy is broken in a way that cannot be fixed with more Keynesian “aggregate demand.” We spent a decade creating jobs that turned out to be unsustainable in the post-financial bubble, post-housing bubble world. As Arnold Kling wrote in the WSJ recently:

Instead, I believe that the process of creating employment is explained not by the theories of Keynes, but rather by the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Smith famously described the advantages of specialization and division of labor. Ricardo pointed out the gains from trade that come from consuming goods that others produce more efficiently. From the perspective of Smith and Ricardo, real jobs emerge in the context of patterns of sustainable specialization and trade.

Unfortunately, the patterns of specialization and trade that had emerged five years ago were not sustainable. Many jobs in home construction, durable-goods manufacturing and distribution, and mortgage finance were dependent on housing markets with ever-rising prices. In the U.S. and the U.K. in particular, the finance industry expanded well beyond its true economic value. Once the property bubbles burst, these jobs were exposed as not viable. Meanwhile, ongoing creative destruction brought about by the Internet and globalization have continued to allow substitution of capital and emerging-market labor for industrialized countries’ labor in many sectors. Together, these phenomena have caused widespread dislocation.

More government spending will not bring back the days when supposedly triple-A-rated mortgage securities could be fashioned out of dodgy loans to unqualified borrowers. Doing so would not halt the ongoing improvements in productivity in manufacturing and retail trade. It would not facilitate the adjustments that are needed in the mix of skills in the labor force. The necessary adjustments can only be made by the decentralized efforts of entrepreneurs.

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