Friday, September 17, 2021

In These Tumultuous Times, What Are Employees and Employers Trying?

Especially if you have been reading this blog, you know what on this subject is happening.  Positions, ever more plentiful, are staying open, and numerous companies continue resisting raising pay to get the personnel they need.  Possible workers, between child-care problems, holding out for more money, benefitting from high unemployment payments, and having changes of heart about what they want to do, are staying jobless.  Covid-19 has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated, with so many of them getting sick that infection, hospitalization, and death rates threaten the highest points America reached in total, before shots were widely available.  Our president is trying to get the vaccine into more people, and working to increase overall safety, by requiring it for many jobs. 

Some responses, such as complaining and giving in, are expected.  Yet a handful are more noteworthy.  Which countermeasures have reached the press lately?

First, employers are paying or just plain requiring employees to take their off-work days.  Per “The limits of vacation” (Jenny Gross, The New York Times, August 14th), firms as prominent as LinkedIn and Intuit “have introduced weeklong companywide shutdowns so employees can fully disconnect,” and another, PwC, “is offering workers $250 each time they take 40 consecutive hours off.”  None of this time is additional to what people have already been guaranteed, but, at PwC at least, they are then being asked to lay off their office email accounts.  That is more important than forcing employees to step away for lengths of time that may not be convenient for them.  As Gross pointed out, it is better still to ask workers what would help them, which could result in less along the lines of “installing a volleyball court on the rooftop of an office” (to get people to spend more after-hours time there) or “providing free food during the day” (to facilitate more lunchtime work), when what people really wanted “was receiving fewer emails from bosses during evenings and weekends.”

Second, businesses now have a real and unusual opportunity to experiment with different ways of togetherness.  That was the thesis of Priya Parker’s August 20th New York Times “How Should We Meet?  And Who Decides?”; ideas she mentioned, without much judgment, included assessing a group’s needs before every meeting, implementing new knowledge of what is best done remotely, and shortening the workweek with a commensurate reduction in tasks.  More than anything else, Parker conveyed the value of management trying different things. 

Third, “New surveys show how pandemic workplace policies are shifting” (Sarah Kessler, The New York Times, September 1st).  Such changes include, with percentages of organizations including those now practicing them, requiring vaccinations (52%), tracking worker inoculation status (78%), considering passing along some health-insurance financial impacts to workers (17%), and cutting travel costs even after the pandemic is minimized or ended (84%).  Planned or not, these changes may not be implemented, let alone lasting. 

Fourth, some companies are saying “We’ll Give You a Week Off.  Please Don’t Quit” (Tiffany Hsu and Lauren Hirsch, The New York Times, September 6th).  What’s missing here is whether or not these breaks, often companywide, are bonus holiday time, in place of individually scheduled vacations, or unpaid furloughs.  These efforts, in various significant but not household-word firms, are designed to cut burnout, but sadly often help only temporarily, as employees often return to piles of emails and the same cultural situation.  Worthy experimentation, but no panacea.

Fifth, more are saying goodbye even from good jobs, as noted and investigated in “Why Are So Many Knowledge Workers Quitting?,” by Cal Newport in the August 16th New Yorker.  One cause may be money saved through fewer pandemic spending opportunities.  Another related reason, Newport mentioned, was that “this particular class of workers were thrown into their own Zoom-equipped versions of Walden Pond” as “diversion and entertainment were stripped down to basic forms,” cutting their need for money.  I won’t hold my breath waiting for dumping well-paying positions in favor of financial leanness to become widespread, but it’s hardly out of the question.

Finally, sixth, the fun one, especially to this long-time remote-work hawk: “Some white-collar workers are secretly balancing 2 full-time jobs and earning up to $600,000, a report says.  They drop in and out of multiple meetings to avoid getting caught” (Grace Dean, Business Insider, August 17th).  Isn’t that a fitting response to poorly controlled telecommuting?  This, by the way, is legal, only something that “could breach employment contracts and get people fired.”  Dean’s perhaps unintentionally humorous accounts of tactics include a teacher-technician who dealt with one boss’s request for a video call while running a class for the other by asking his students to take a break and then firing up his second computer, attending simultaneous meetings online and by voice, and traveling, not for training as represented, but to work part-time jobs.  As long as all employees are treated as fervently productive and scrupulously proper, we will get this sort of ingenuity, and it may prove to be remarkably difficult to identify.  Ha ha – who says news about workplace trends can’t be hilarious?

Friday, September 10, 2021

A Summer of Changes in Hiring, With More to Come

With Covid-19 as the root cause, over the past couple of months there has been at least a decade’s worth of developments in how employers and employees get together.

For a summary, see David Autor’s September 5th New York Times “The Labor Shortage Has Empowered Workers.”  This scarcity, if you can even call it that, is not from a lack of people able to take positions – our country’s population growth has slowed, but it is still positive.  We have seen a groundswell of potential applicants wanting more money especially for low-level labor, proximately caused by, in Autor’s view, high unemployment benefits, insufficiently available childcare, and simply that “people’s valuation of their own time has changed.”  For the first time since the early 1950s, “the U.S. doesn’t have a job quantity problem:  instead, it has a job quality problem” (italics his). 

That last sentence explains, as well as anything that short could, “Why America has 8.4 million unemployed when there are 10 million job openings” (Heather Long, Alyssa Fowers, and Andrew Van Dam, The Washington Post, September 4th).  The first answer the authors gave is that “there is a massive reallocation underway in the economy that’s triggering a “Great Reassessment” of work in America” from both sides, as “the pandemic and all of the anxieties, lockdowns and time at home have changed people.”  After learning that the available positions are often in less desirable geographical areas, pay is often below new increased market levels, and many more are in business services and health care than there are unemployed workers with related careers, the disparity makes more sense.

In a USA Today article printed September 5th in the Times Herald-Record, “Labor Dan quiz:  When will the worker shortages end?,” Paul Davidson concluded that this real or imagined phenomenon would run until the end of 2023.  As he did not mention the frequent need for higher pay, or potential policy-loosening moves, it is an open question how much quicker it could be.

Hiring requirements have changed as well.  Per “DealBook:  No vaccine, no job” (Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times, August 28th), “the share of job ads that require new hires to be vaccinated have (sic) nearly doubled in the past month.”  Some companies make exceptions for remote workers, and companies, especially large ones, have been more hesitant to impose that requirement on existing staff.  A more momentous shift has started, also per Davidson from and appearing in the same publications on the same dates, in “No degree?  No experience?  No problem.”  Both requirements are due for frequent elimination, perhaps starting a return to the days when most business positions required no education after high school, and when employers were more willing to leverage the knowledge, as put to me by a career counselor almost forty years ago, that people could be trained for 80% of jobs within three weeks.  From an unexpected direction, we discovered that “an Oregon McDonald’s is so desperate for workers it hung a huge banner outside calling on 14-year-olds to apply” (Mary Meisenzahl, Business Insider, August 31st), a tactic matched by at least one Burger King.  That, though, brings its own restrictions, as, per the New York Department of Labor as a sample, workers aged 14 and 15 are limited to “a maximum 3-hour day and 18-hour week when school is in session,” with 40 weekly hours allowed only when school is closed “for the entire calendar week.” 

Have high unemployment checks held down the numbers of people seeking and accepting work?  We are about to conclusively find out, as, as of Labor Day, “Federal Jobless Aid, a Lifeline to Millions, Reaches an End” (Ben Casselman, The New York Times, September 2nd).  We should see at least part of this change’s effect in the next set of employment numbers, to be released October 8th and reflecting mid-September survey outcomes. 

What changes have been happening on the job?  Barring a preemption from urgent news, I will look at those next week. 

Friday, September 3, 2021

August Jobs Report: Almost Everything Got Smaller, and the AJSN Showed Latent Demand Off 1.2 Million to 18.8 Million

This time, nearly all the numbers in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary decreased.  Starting with net new nonfarm payroll positions, which at 235,000 hit neither one-third of the consensus 750,000 projection nor one-fourth of July’s 943,000 rise, that polarity was also matched for better by seasonally adjusted unemployment (down 0.2% to 5.2%), unadjusted unemployment (down 0.4% to 5.3%), the total number of officially jobless (down 300,000 to 8.4 million), and those out for 27 weeks or longer (down 200,000 to 3.2 million).  Staying even were the labor force participation rate, at 61.7%, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to such jobs while thus far unsuccessfully seeking full-time ones, still 4.5 million.  Increasers were the number on temporary layoff, up 100,000 to 1.3 million, the employment-population ratio, strange since the number working fell, up 0.1% to 58.5%, and average private nonfarm payroll hourly earnings, with an adjustment gaining 19 cents to $30.73.  This time, higher pay seems to have reflected higher wages at the bottom instead of such jobs going away, as employers are, if slowly and grudgingly, raising pay to keep positions filled.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure of how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, also shrunk, decreasing 1,188,000 as follows:


Of its 11 components above, ten decreased.  The only exception was spectacular – the count of those saying they did not want a job soared almost 2.2 million, possibly its largest monthly change ever.  That, which had declined almost 1.7 million over the previous two months, more than rebounded, showing that many people rejoining the labor force from mid-May to mid-July and not finding what they wanted went back on the shelf.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless, 40.8%, edged down 0.6%.

On the Covid-19 front, the interval from July 16th to August 16th, in percentage terms, was by far the worst 16th to 16th one so far.  The seven-day daily average of new cases shot up 361% from 30,901 to 142,414, that for hospitalizations jumped 264% from 22,641 to 82,519, and deaths, going from 280 to 704, climbed 151%.  The average daily number of vaccine doses administered rose 47% from 519,678 to 765,555.  A map of the worst places in the country looks much like an 1860s one of Confederate States supporters, with almost all of the highest rates in or near the Southeast.  It is now very much a pandemic of the unvaccinated, with the 38% of Americans with no shots at higher risk than they have ever been.

What can we make of this data?  The statistic that explained the others was the fall in those not wanting to work – that fit with lower counts of both unemployed and marginally employed people, which, with higher latent demand percentages, accounted for the AJSN’s otherwise surprising drop.  It was a sort of consolidation month, with a disappointing number of new positions but others not bad overall and looking more like they did, though with half-again-higher unemployment, before the pandemic.  I can no longer trade heavily on how we have been doing with the coronavirus, as the massive majority of cases are preventable through convenient and long-available vaccinations, so we are left with a moderately progressive outcome.  Accordingly, the turtle took a medium-sized step forward.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Surveillance: We’ll Need to Get Back to It Pretty Soon

Back in February 2021 – that was a long time ago, wasn’t it?  – the largest national issue we faced was the rapidly growing capability of people, companies, institutions, and our governments to track us.  Indeed, that month I wrote a three-part series on electronic surveillance.  Since the pandemic started, this concern has almost disappeared from the press.  What have been the exceptions?

If it were released when we could deal with it more comprehensively, Shoshana Zuboff’s January 29th New York Times “The Coup We Are Not Talking About” would be a good place to start.  The author called for an end to the situation in which “companies can stake a claim to people’s lives as free raw material for the extraction of behavioral data, which they then declare their private property,” as it has been followed by “epistemic inequality, defined as the difference between what I can know and what can be known about me” and “coordinated streams of disinformation,” to result in life where “epistemic dominance is institutionalized, overriding democratic governance with computational governance by private surveillance capital.”  Ultimately, “if we are to defeat the epistemic coup, then democracy must be the protagonist,” through “the democratic rule of law” and recognizing that “new conditions summon new rights” and “unprecedented harms demand unprecedented solutions.”  As with the Covid-19 effort, we will probably need to take more chances with less-than-100%-proven solutions. 

Soon afterwards, the Times also published Cade Metz and Kashmir Hill’s “Here’s a Way to Learn if Facial Recognition Systems Used Your Photos” (January 31st).  Well, sometimes.  Anyone can use the tool Exposing.AI to determine if specific pictures were involved, but only if they “were posted to Flickr, and they need a Flickr username, tag or internet address.”  There are of course billions of photos online, and almost any could, legally or not, be stored for identification.

Now, near the beginning of anti-surveillance legislation, “Massachusetts is one of the first states to create rules around facial recognition in criminal investigations” (The New York Times, March 1st).  There, currently, “police first must get a judge’s permission before running a face recognition search,” and who can do such is limited.  Other cities, though, including Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, and Minneapolis, already “have banned police use of the technology” entirely.

Early this month, per “The Lesson to Learn From Apple’s Tool to Flag Child Sex Abuse” (Brian X. Chen, The New York Times, August 11th), “Apple introduced a software tool for iPhones to flag cases of child sex abuse” by tracking uploads from “a database of known child pornography” to that company’s iCloud storage utility.  The title is inaccurate, though, as child abuse is not the same as viewing or even moving photos originating from others.  There are easy countermeasures, mainly using “a hybrid approach to storing your data,” but the issue here, whether people not under investigation can be electronically surveilled, is at best ripe for a legal challenge and at worst is clearly against the law.  The slippery slope – what other crimes could people be monitored for, what sources can be flagged, and in what other ways could activity be examined – is obvious, and is once again a subject for clarification, discussion, and, with state boundaries meaningless here, for setting national policy.

At the same time, the coronavirus has resurged, with, despite over half of Americans fully vaccinated, threats to set new all-time highs in hospitalizations and new cases.  The seven-day-average of the latter has surged more than 13-fold since its July 5th low.  Everyone is tired of wearing masks, and few, though some, of those refusing the vaccine have relented.  Even assuming that those who have had the shots continue to be safe, we could easily be looking at another six months of national emphasis and distraction.  Where will electronic surveillance be when Covid-19 largely leaves us alone?  We don’t know, but it, instead of the virus, may then be out of control.  We need help there quicker – will we get it? 

Friday, August 20, 2021

Automation: Little Press Recently, but Still a Real Pending Problem

In my 2012 Work’s New Age, I wrote extensively about the coming of machines and expected them soon to take over tens of millions of jobs.  That hasn’t happened – yet.  There has still been some of that, and continued sporadic public concerns over the past six months.

The first I can offer is “The Robots Are Coming for Phil in Accounting,” by Kevin Roose in the March 6th New York Times.  Most here reads as if it were from around the time of my book above, including mentions of automation taking over positions much higher paying than the industrial production work where it started, that machines get more “disruptive potential” as they “become capable of complex decision-making,” that “A.I. optimists” have long expected the absurd outcome of an equal number of positions to be created after robots eliminate many, and that it is valuable to select careers “harder to automate.”  What’s new is outcomes of studies which “compared the test of job listings with the wording of A.I.-related patents, looking for phrases like “make prediction” and “generate recommendation” that appeared in both,” endangering largely “better-paid, better-educated workers in technical and supervisory roles.”

Next, we have a National Bureau of Economic Research paper “Tasks, Automation, and the Rise in US Wage Inequality,” by Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, issued in June.  In the abstract, the authors said “that between 50% and 70% of changes in the US wage structure over the last four decades are accounted for by the relative wage declines of worker groups specialized in routine tasks in industries experiencing rapid automation.”  That should be scary.

Low-level service workers are now enjoying higher demand and pay than they have had maybe ever, but that may turn out to be short-lived, per Ben Casselman’s July 3rd New York Times “Pandemic Wave of Automation May Be Bad News for Workers.”  We have for years seen kiosks and phone apps allowing fast-food customers to order without involving anyone at a counter, and, as the cost of employees jumps, automated solutions get more cost-effective.  As pay levels have shot up suddenly, and software and devices take time to develop, we can expect many more of those to reach management’s input streams within the next year or two.  Whether companies are willing to pay people current market rates or not, they will have ever-better alternative options.

Three days later, also in the Times, “The pandemic has brought more automation, which could have long-term impacts for workers” provided a good summary and set of examples, including “an automated voice” taking Checkers drive-though orders and suggesting additional purchases, supermarket “robots to patrol aisles for spills and check inventory,” a Kroger’s warehouse with “more than 1,000 robots that bag groceries for delivery customers,” and even remote factory troubleshooting, allowing technicians to cover larger geographical territories.  In all, “technological investments that were made in response to the crisis may contribute to a post-pandemic productivity boom, allowing for higher wages and faster growth” – at the expense of jobs bringing in relatively little revenue.

There are reasons why companies do not automate as much as they could, starting with maintaining good public relations.  It could be that no great post-Covid spurt of technology eliminating workers will materialize.  But there is plenty of justification for it, especially when management sees production-level compensation as an unpredictable budget-buster.  Accordingly, permanent automation could, indeed, turn out to be the coronavirus’s most widespread and lasting legacy.  Bet against that at your peril.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Six Months of Artificial Intelligence News: Not Much, But Don’t Ignore It

Before the pandemic struck, I called the use of artificial intelligence, after but related to electronic surveillance, the second most important current American issue.  The problem is not AI itself, but what we will allow it to do, and how we will react when it uncovers information we are not happy learning.  Except for its expected incremental progress, what has reached the press about it recently?

We got a level-setting summary on the February 23rd New York Times from Craig S. Smith, “A.I. Here, There, Everywhere.”  Common now are “conversations” with devices which we order, in sentences reminiscent of those addressed to computer HAL 9000 in the now 54-year-old movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey, to turn on lights, put on the heat, start the oven, and so on.  Handy, but we may come to see today’s capabilities as “crude and cumbersome,” and, as devices learn our regular patterns and report deviations to systems or people which may pass them on when we don’t want them to, “privacy remains an issue.”  AI is now being packaged into humanoid “realistic 2D avatars of people” which can be used for the likes of tutoring, and being used as in effect a fifth or sixth-level computer language by following commands to write software.  Of course, we can expect much more. 

Another AI application, in this case in place for a decade or more, has a growing set of countermeasures, some described in Julie Weed’s March 19th “Résumé -Writing Tips to Help You Get Past the A.I. Gatekeepers” in the New York Times.  Weed recommended “tailoring your résumé, not just the cover letter, to each job you are applying for,” using the same keywords as in the advertisement, and to use “words like “significant,” “strong,” and “mastery.”  The software will evolve over time, as will the applicants’ best responses.

The headline of Cade Metz’s March 15th piece, also in the Times, asked “Who Is Making Sure the A.I. Machines Aren’t Racist?”  Metz asserted that AI “is being built in a way that replicates the biases of the almost entirely male, predominantly white work force making it,” and defends that with examples of systems poor at identifying faces of blacks, a six-year-old AI identification of a black man as a gorilla, and another set of programs being trained with an 80%-white set of faces, approximating the general population.  All of that, if legitimate, has been, can, or will be repaired.

Ted Chiang, in the New Yorker on March 30th, addressed a large underlying AI issue in “Why Computers Won’t Make Themselves Smarter.”  He invoked Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, or the point, per Wikipedia, “at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization,” and questioned if that would ever happen.  He cited an example of a certain roundworm, with a far lower number of brain neurons and other body cells than humans, on which scientists have “mapped every connection” but “still don’t completely understand its behavior.”  While computer compilers have compiled themselves for many decades, improvement stops there, exemplifying the inability, conceptionally as well as so far empirically, for automata, in contrast with people, to learn from others.  These issues are not as clear as Chiang made them seem, but his view is good enough to be either refuted or accepted.

The newest is from Frank Pasquale and Gianclaudio Malgieri, “If You Don’t Trust A.I. Yet, You’re Not Wrong,” in the July 30th New York Times.  The authors, law professors, argued for more artificial intelligence regulation, but stumbled in explaining why.  They seem to have missed the differences between private and public use, that it cannot be banned simply because it does not always make optimal conclusions, that discrimination against individuals with certain characteristics may be justified, that more pressing issues such as Covid-19 have caused it to “not appear to be a high-level Biden administration priority,” and that is useless to talk about “racially biased algorithms” or “pseudoscientific claptrap” if nobody can define those terms.

In a year or so, if the pandemic has faded to pre-2020 levels, we need to address artificial intelligence – if we can afford to wait that long.  Ahead of them on the list of issues needing attention then, though, are two others, which, barring large breaking national developments, will be the subject of my next two posts.

Friday, August 6, 2021

A Banner Jobs Report, But We Still Have a Long Way to Go – AJSN Shows Latent Demand for 20 Million More Positions

There were high expectations for this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, and it exceeded them.  The 943,000 net new nonfarm positions were about 100,000 more than the consensus projection.  Unemployment, up last month from people rejoining the labor force but not getting jobs, fell 0.5% and 0.4% seasonally adjusted and unadjusted, and reached, respectively, 5.4% and 5.7%. 

The other key numbers also showed robust improvement.  The total number of unemployed dropped 800,000 to 8.7 million.  The total on temporary layoff shed a third to reach 1.2 million.  The count of people with long-term joblessness, or 27 weeks or longer, lost 600,000 to 3.4 million.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping that type of employment while thus-far unsuccessfully seeking full-time work, were only 100,000 less numerous to get to 4.5 million, but held last time’s 700,000 improvement.  Average private nonfarm payroll earnings, including an adjustment to June’s data, were up 14 cents, more than inflation, and are now at $30.54.  The two best measures of how many Americans are working or one step away, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, gained 0.1% and 0.4% to 61.7% and 58.4%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the gauge of how many new positions could be absorbed if all knew that getting one would be quick and easy, improved 700,000, as follows:

Six-sevenths of the AJSN’s loss was from lower official unemployment, with most of the rest from fewer discouraged workers.  One change is lower population growth, which has so far cut the break-even for additional monthly jobs from approximately 130,000, where it was for most recent years, to about 60,000.  The share of the AJSN from unemployment fell 1.5% to 41.4%.

The state of the Covid-19 pandemic, over the same time assessed by the employment numbers of June 16th to July 16th, generally worsened.  Per the New York Times, the seven-day average of new daily cases jumped 143% to 30,901, and hospitalizations rose 20% to 22,641.  The same measure of deaths, though, decreased 16% to 280.  Daily vaccinations, reflecting a dwindling customer set most of all, declined 55% to reach 519,678.  Since the shots are available on a walk-in basis all over the country, there can be no reasonable thought that the good numbers above were at the expense of a worsened coronavirus response.

A fine jobs report month indeed, but we need to stay aware of our entire situation.  We still have 4.9 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic.  The AJSN is 4.2 million higher than it was in February 2020, and is greater than it was two issues ago. 

In late May and early June, many people newly sought but did not find work.  Over the month since, lots of them did, without needing to compete with as many re-arrivals.  Still, we’re nowhere near back, and weekly state unemployment claims, hovering around 400,000, continue to reinforce that.  The turtle took another big step forward, but where we were a year and a half ago and long before remains far in front of him.