Thursday, July 2, 2015

America Now Over 18.8 Million Jobs Short as AJSN Rises 354,000

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States gained 223,000 jobs last month, and official seasonally-adjusted unemployment reached a new post-Great Recession low of 5.3%.  At first glance, it was another solid performance.  But was it really?  Three numbers say it wasn’t. 

The first was the labor force participation rate, which came in at 62.6%, diving 0.3% and dropping out of its 14-month range for its lowest outcome since October 1977.  The second was the other figure showing how common it is for Americans to work, the employment-to-population ratio.  That fell 0.1%, matching what it was from January through April, and is now threatening to leave its own recent range.  The third disturbing number was average hourly earnings for private nonfarm workers.  That did not increase at all, wiping out May’s good performance and casting serious doubt on whether the labor market is actually tightening.

The American Job Shortage Number, or AJSN, rose not only from higher seasonal unemployment (more people consistently work in May than in June), but because the count of those wanting jobs but not searching for a year or more was up 172,000, and there were 90,000 more discouraged workers.  Overall, the AJSN came in as follows:

Compared with a year before, the AJSN is 1.1 million lower, completely on reduced unadjusted joblessness.  The largest offset was the 5% of those saying they did not want to work at all, who add up to about 1.7 million more than in June 2015.

Other secondary numbers generally improved, one dramatically.  The count of long-term unemployed, or those without jobs and looking for 27 weeks or longer, plunged almost 400,000 to 2.1 million, by far the lowest since the recession.  Those working part-time for economic reasons were at 6,500,000, or 100,000 lower since April.  The unadjusted unemployment rate increased, mostly seasonally, from 5.3% to 5.5%.

On balance, I call June’s jobs data reasonable.  It’s far from great, and much of its perceived improvement, once again, comes from people leaving the labor force.  When a lower share of Americans are in jobs or officially unemployed than any time since Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in a World Series game, we can’t say our country is even close to getting back to work.  When wages go nowhere at all, we can’t say that demand for workers is truly rising.  These problems are still totally unsolved.  The turtle took a step forward last month, but that’s all.   

Friday, June 26, 2015

Shadow Work – What It Is and What It Means to Us – II

Last week, I wrote about the phenomenon of what author Craig Lambert called “shadow work,” defined as things we do without pay for businesses and organizations.  What more can we say about it, and how can we best handle it?

Fifth, although Lambert counted commuting as shadow work, it doesn’t logically fit in that category.  Commuting is not necessitated by employers, but is a result of workers choosing to live farther from their jobs.  During most of my childhood, my father walked to his city employment, although many of his peers, who valued living in the suburbs more than we, did not. 

Sixth, shadow work coordinates well with the jobs crisis.  When Americans are so often priced out of work, opportunities to save money are increasingly welcome. 

Seventh, it is both a cause and a result of both social isolation and the decline of many classic forms of community.  As it tends heavily to be done without other people present, it gives people either opportunities or requirements to be alone.

Eighth, the proliferation of shadow work has masked how much more expensive American labor has become. When self-serve gas stations became the norm in the 1970s and 1980s, those that continued pump service had a price difference of only a few cents per gallon.  Now, it is a few dimes – or more.

Ninth, there is almost an infinite amount of shadow work available for those who want it, especially surveys and reviews.  It can fill up all the free time people have, if they so choose.

Tenth, shadow work is part of a well-established and still growing trend of paid labor and personal time overlapping.  One reason why we have less pure leisure time than we expected decades ago is that often we work and play simultaneously.  In many jobs in offices, and almost all at home, there is no prohibition against, for example, listening to music.  That does not mean a Microsoft position fails Mark Twain’s test of work being “whatever a body is obliged to do” and becomes voluntary recreation, but does mean those doing it are getting some leisure concurrently.  The result can be a feeling of doing something enjoyable by choice, which may make employees more willing to take on tasks from their paid jobs, such as answering emails, while they are also engaged in nonwork tasks. 

So how can we best deal with shadow work?

First, and most importantly, we need to keep realizing we have choices in what tasks we perform.  On jobs, we should consider doing things only if they meet one of four standards:  if they help you, if they help your organization, if your management requests them, or if they improve others’ perceptions of you.  If we adapt that to our nonworking lives, the second standard drops out, the first and last stay the same, and the third becomes “if someone or some group which you value requests them.”  Since we are on our own time, we can also add something about enjoyment.  Therefore, if a task which you are somehow being prodded to perform a) will not help you, b) is not being asked for by someone or some organization you value, c) does not make you look better, and d) you just plain don’t want to do, then you should not spend time or effort on it.  These rules may seem intuitive or obvious, but it is remarkable how many things consuming our resources, including money and hope as well as time and labor, don’t conform to them.  And, don’t forget, the above list is not justification in itself – not every task meeting one or more of these standards should be completed.    

Second, we should become more aware of shadow work as it appears.  What are you being asked to do, and for whom?  Is this something new, and if so, who if anyone took care of it before?  Just how much time and other resources will it require? 

Third, be aware not only of the shadow work itself, but how happy you are with doing it.  There may be alternatives.  If you can’t stand ATMs, bank tellers are available.  If you don’t want to negotiate finding your own purchases at Wal-Mart, or deciding for yourself exactly what you need at Home Depot, many smaller stores with more helpful staff are still out there.  If you don’t like the lack of forthcoming advice from your physician, others will provide it.  With so much employment endangered and getting more expensive, and the average age of others staying the same, the march of shadow work will not stop or even slow down, but most of the choices it offers are still ours to make.  

Friday, June 19, 2015

Shadow Work – What It Is and What It Means to Us - I

A book on an often unconsidered side of employment was released this spring.  Shadow Work:  The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs that Fill Your Day, by Harvard sociology Ph.D. Craig Lambert, pondered a set of activities we all have and may not have thought much about, but are consuming dramatic, and increasing, amounts of our time. 

Lambert defined “shadow work” as “all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations.”  They are usually small but numerous – pumping our own gas, bussing our tables at McDonalds, assembling Ikea furniture, doing all the things in a cubicle job a secretary would have covered in generations past, and so on – and add up shoulder-high.  He did not include volunteering, which he categorized as a gift, and described shadow work as “erasing the distinction between work and leisure,” with the former, per Mark Twain’s old definition, being “whatever a body is obliged to do.”  He pronounced it as being truly in the shadows, as such tasks “go unnoticed because they take place in the wings of the theater while we are absorbed in the onstage drama of our lives”; when we are going on a date or to a baseball game, or even about to watch a TV show, we don’t think much about having deleted our spam beforehand. 

All of the above is from the first 13 pages of Shadow Work.  The rest Lambert described as “a field guide” to such activities, with long chapters on how they appear in home life, the office, personal commerce, and online.  He gave many examples of these tasks which aren’t quite either paid work or leisure, and are “steadily lengthening the to-do lists of people whose days are already crammed.”  He named as his first major force responsible for shadow work “technology and robotics,” which, interestingly, as the largest cause of our jobs crisis, is also reducing labor. 

What can we say about shadow work as Lambert defines it?  Here are four observations.

First, the bulk of shadow work comes from companies wanting to cut expenses and thereby increase their own profitability, either by widening their margins or by boosting sales through lower prices.  We pump our own gas because it would cost more than most would want to pay to have it done for us.  If Taco Bell cleared off our tables, it would add to their menu prices.  Policing our own supermarket shopping carts means lower labor costs for businesses which already consider a net profit of one percent of sales a solid success.  These beliefs about customer preferences are so entrenched that, in some industries, no companies at all make the alternative, such as big-box stores with many more employees willing to help, available even at higher prices.  
Second, shadow work is usually judged as good or bad by the person doing it.  Many people, such as avid online reviewers and survey-takers, don’t mind a lot of it.  Older people tend to resent it more.  For others it varies with the task.  To name just two examples, I don’t review anything I buy on Amazon, but enthusiastically do my own travel bookings.  There has never been a travel agent who would research and report the number of flight, itinerary, and lodging permutations and iterations I always go through for a week’s multidestination vacation.  Even if I could articulate all the factors I use, it would be too much work for anyone paid reasonable commissions, and, after 20 years of booking my own trips, I approach professional-level speed and competence anyway.  You, too, almost certainly have areas of shadow work you welcome and avoid, and your configuration is also unique.     

Third, shadow work is as susceptible as other labor to Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.  Many people will do things, especially online, only if they have time for them.  If as has been suggested many Americans are uncomfortable with true leisure, shadow work provides an outlet for doing something that may benefit them, or at least lets them express themselves.

Fourth, much shadow work is a win-win for producer and consumer.  Businesses and other organizations benefit when people use ATMs instead of live tellers, walk around supermarkets with carts instead of getting their orders filled at a counter, and provide marketing-rich personal data on the likes of Facebook, but customers save time, get more choices, and cut their costs for things they want, sometimes down to zero.  In the latter case it is correct that when we aren’t paying for something the real products are ourselves, but we would not enjoy Facebook if we, and more importantly our potential contacts, were dissuaded from joining by monthly charges.

What else is true about shadow work, and how can we best manage it?  Those and more will follow next week.    

Friday, June 12, 2015

Six New Presidential Candidates – At Least Three Said Something on Jobs

Three weeks ago I published a post on the views of first eight declared 2016 candidates on American employment.  I was seriously discouraged, not so much about the ideas they offered, but on how many of them – Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and Hillary Clinton – had absolutely nothing to say.  It stunned me that they, especially the Republicans, did not try to distinguish themselves from others on this national problem.  Not all are frontrunners with positions to protect, so it seems insufficient for them to opine only about the Second Amendment, abortion, and “family values,” whatever that last one really is, if their opponents are doing the same.

Since then, the flurry of further declarations has continued, with six more putting their hats in the ring.  Are they any more forthcoming on jobs than the previous batch?  This time, I will start with those giving the least information.

At the bottom of the new list is Republican George Pataki, with nothing on his website about issues at all.  He’s presumably paying people lots of money to manage his campaign, and they must think his best chance to win is by being silent.  They must also think he’s going to get his support going later, since he doesn’t have much now – if you think he will be the one elected, you can collect at 100 to 1 by betting on him at

Next least is Lindsey Graham.  He has a little about what he would do, but it’s almost all about the military, and “security through strength.”  That isn’t quite the same as what other Republicans have posted, but nothing on his site tells us what that would mean for jobs, the economy, or anything domestic at all.  He’s also available at 100 to 1.

Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat, is also lacking on plans of any kind, but mentions “beneficial social programs.”  It might be interesting to know to what new or existing programs he is referring, and how and why they are good, but he’s noncommittal too.  If you think he’ll win a year from November, you can get even better odds on him than on Pataki and Graham – 150 to 1.

With Republican Rick Perry we cross over into candidates with something to say on American jobs.  It isn’t much, but he offers that “we need to grow the economy, so that every American can find work, and that those who already have work can earn more.”  If taken as having substance, that means that he is concerned with not only how many jobs are out there but how much they pay, and at least has a general idea on how to help those things.  The only specific source he names is North American energy reserves:  “You develop that, you drive down the costs of electricity, tie that in with the lowering of the corporate tax rate… and you will have a renaissance in manufacturing in this country like we’ve never seen before.”  Hardly comprehensive, but much more right there than at least seven of his nine avowed nomination rivals.  His odds are shorter, at 60 to 1.

Rick Santorum, another Republican, also has something on employment.  He pays attention to the need for more jobs, with a section under “Rick on the Issues” titled “Fight for the American Worker.”  He refers to a “Santorum economic plan,” with “a fairer and flatter tax code that will treat everyone equally under tax law.”  There are certainly problems with that, especially if its effect would be regressive (whatever we need now, it is not vastly lower taxes on those with the most money and highest incomes), but as with Perry he’s coming from somewhere, which can be the beginning of a constructive debate.  A bet on Santorum would now pay 80 to 1.

The new candidate with the most to say about American jobs is Democrat Martin O’Malley.  We can see, maybe and I wish, why the oddsmakers have his chances better than any of the five above at 50 to 1.  He mentions a series of relevant issues he values, in particular expanding equality of opportunity (“making access to safe and affordable childcare and pre-K universal, and college debt-free for all. We should also modernize high school, empowering every student to graduate with a year of college credit, an apprenticeship, or a certificate or credential for a high-pay, high-skill job”), strengthening cities and communities (“historic investments in infrastructure and mass-transit”), and creating more employment in renewable energy.  I have concerns about what he calls doing “more to make sure that women are treated fairly and compensated equally in the workplace,” and don’t like his opposition to Obama’s trade bill or advocacy of a $15 per hour minimum wage, but if every candidate were as willing to commit, a fine debate on our employment situation could emerge. 

So with 14 candidates in, the standouts on the jobs crisis are Santorum, Perry, and Ted Cruz on the Republican side, and O’Malley and Bernie Sanders among the Democrats.  The New York Times names six more people likely to run, including heavy hitters Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, which would make 20 in the field, surely the most since I started following presidential politics in 1968.  I’m hoping for more from them on jobs – and, whether you know it or not, you are as well.  

Friday, June 5, 2015

AJSN at 18.5 Million, as Latent Demand for American Jobs Seasonally Increases

Another month of Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data, another month which exceeded expectations, another month with the usual indifferent or disturbing things behind the marquee figures.  Yet May was, overall, a winner.

The best news was fine indeed.  One prediction had 220,000 net new jobs created, but it came in at 280,000.  That is about double what is needed to cover population increase and is nothing to sneeze at.  It’s also one of the best recent months, almost as good as March’s 295,000.  Average wages were strong as well, up 8 cents per hour to $24.96, considerably above inflation for a compounded 4.4% annual gain.  

Unadjusted unemployment rose from April to May, from 5.1% to 5.3%, but that was almost certain, since consistently more people work in April.  Total joblessness accounted for most of the American Job Shortage Number (AJSN)’s increase, but a larger share came from a jump in those wanting work but not looking for at least a year – there were 567,000 more, which, estimating 80% would take a job if one were easily available, added over 450,000 to the metric.  The largest offset was from the fall of those not seeking work because of discouragement, with about 180,000 less of them, meaning that group could absorb about 173,000 fewer positions.  Perhaps an indication of better employment prospects, as well as a reminder that they are not permanently set in their view, people reporting they did not want a job plunged over 1.4 million, cutting latent demand for this group by 70,800.  Overall, the AJSN came in at just under 18.5 million, as follows:

The four most important secondary employment measures were mixed.  Labor force participation and employment-population ratio both improved by a tenth of a percent over April, to 62.9% and 59.4% respectively.  Both are staying extremely range-bound.  The count of long-term unemployed, those officially jobless for 27 weeks or more, remained 2.5 million, and those working part-time for economic reasons, or having part-time jobs but wanting and not finding full-time ones, gained 100,000 to 6.7 million.

Compared with a year before, the AJSN has improved by over 1.2 million, on fewer officially unemployed and, to lesser extents, on fewer discouraged and fewer wanting jobs but not looking for at least 12 months.  These one-year gaps continue to be large, meaning that improvement is continuing. 

In all, although official adjusted unemployment was up from 5.4% to 5.5%, May was a legitimately good month.  It wasn’t worthy of calling an end to the jobs crisis, with the secondary numbers still weak or indifferent.  Yet I see job gains as high as 280,000 as much better, if sustained, than those under 200,000, which do little more than accommodate new workforce entrants.  We would still need to go back years before the 2008-2009 recession to find worse times, but we’re clearly improving.  The turtle is still a turtle, but he is moving steadily forward.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

Cities, Jobs, and Careers: What Two New Studies Can Teach Us

A 16-page effort by the website WalletHub came out early this month.  It is titled “2015’s Best & Worst Cities to Start a Career,” and, using no fewer than 19 different criteria, ranks the country’s 150 largest places for suitability for new college graduates to start their professional working lives. 

Within a few days, a similar recent effort also crossed my desk.  Issued by employment site Glassdoor, it assesses the “25 best cities for jobs.”  It is designed more for work seekers in general, and incorporates only four factors:  the number of per capita job openings, Glassdoor data’s median base salary, the area’s “median home (house) value,” and their “job satisfaction rating.” 

So what can we learn from these?

First, each piece of research has its good and bad points.  The WalletHub study used factors ranging from median income growth rate and economic mobility to number of arts, leisure, and recreation establishments per 100,000 inhabitants and even climate (“weather”), and weighted them intelligently.  Instead of overall average local pay, it used monthly median starting salary, adjusted for the area’s cost of living.  On the downside, the 150 largest American cities include many suburbs, and breaking apart metropolitan areas was misleading; people working in Anaheim, Garden Grove, or Santa Ana may live and use other resources in any of those places, leaving us to wonder which of their rankings of 80th, 102nd, and 104th respectively were the most pertinent, and if a combination, given that people could take the best from each city, might come out higher than any of its parts. 

The Glassdoor study avoids that problem, but suffers from use of its own employment data, which may not be representative, and by using what seem to be single-family house prices instead of a more comprehensive cost of living measure.  It does, though, incorporate critical information in a more limited and therefore less presumptuous set of criteria.

Second, there was a definite correlation between the studys’ results.  The places turning up near the top in both, in rough order, were Austin, Houston, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Oklahoma City, and Raleigh, the latter finishing first in the Glassdoor effort.  (After two Dallas suburbs, Austin did best in WalletHub’s.)   None of the lowest-ranking 21 in the WalletHub study made Glassdoor’s top 25.  The largest splits may have been on Denver (not mentioned in Glassdoor, 4th of 150 in WalletHub), Omaha (not in Glassdoor, 20th in WalletHub), St. Louis (11th of 50 in Glassdoor, 109th in WalletHub), and Baltimore (22nd in Glassdoor, 129th in WalletHub).  The five worst true cities in WalletHub, none in Glassdoor’s top 25, were, from the bottom, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.

Third, according to these studies the bloom is off the rose of some places previously called good for jobs.  Chicago (105th in WalletHub, 20th in Glassdoor), Los Angeles (98th and not named), and Orlando (73rd and not named) are nothing special now, and both New York (not in Glassdoor and 119th, with Jersey City and Newark 74th and 125th respectively, in WalletHub) and Las Vegas (131st in WalletHub, absent from Glassdoor) came in well below average.

Fourth, it is always necessary with multi-component studies to consider which criteria actually matter.  Those deviating significantly from WalletHub’s picture of what is important to career starters in their 20s should factor out the ones they don’t care about – those married, for example, can drop the “Single People” Ranking. 

Fifth, there are indeed massive differences between areas.  A WalletHub publicity email broadcast named several of them:  the monthly cost-of-living-adjusted starting salary three times higher in Houston than in Honolulu; the share of people aged 25 to 34 twice as high in Jersey City than in Cape Coral, Florida; seven times as many per-capita arts, leisure, and recreation establishments in Los Angeles than in Laredo; and more.  In recent years, western North Dakota’s employment boom has reminded us of these regional variations, and they are, as almost always, real.

Sixth, though the jobs crisis is hardly over, unemployment has eased, and it is now well worth considering relocating for better employment conditions.  They should usually be more broad-based than one job offer, which can disappear, but with differences such as the above, moving would be a winner for many.

Seventh, people living in this area of the country, namely the Catskills and Poconos where few professional careers can be started, the best overall reasonably nearby places to move, according to these two studies, are Pittsburgh, Washington, and Boston.  All are within a half-day drive of here, and worthy of special consideration. 

In all, these studies are constructive, well thought out, and, within their limitations above, are valuable inputs to those wanting career success.  Sometimes people need to move to get what they want, and, as WalletHub and Glassdoor correctly imply, 2015 may be one of those times.   

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Declared Presidential Candidates on Jobs? What a Novel Idea!

“For a presidential campaign that has started so early, it’s striking how little most of the candidates want to engage with major issues of the day, let alone the future.” – Thomas Friedman, “Hillary, Jeb, Facebook and Disorder,” The New York Times, May 20, 2015

No kidding, Tom.

It was a simple project, or so it seemed.  For this morning’s blog post, I would look up the positions of the eight officially committed presidential contenders, see what they had to say on jobs, and then analyze, compare, and critique it. 

It didn't work out that way.

I used the New York Times’s quick summary of who has actually declared themselves in – it’s at, and is updated with each new candidate – and went down the list, starting with Ted Cruz.  His website was easy to find, and among his clearly accessible list of issues was “Jobs & Opportunity.”  He only had one paragraph on what he wanted to do with American employment, but his bullet points on his related efforts in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere printed out to three pages.  I wasn't too impressed – on jobs he advocates little other than ending “Obamacare, an overreaching federal government, and out of control spending,” and then just waiting, I guess – but expected to have eight printouts to compare. 

I did not.

The next name was Rand Paul, who seems to have cultivated an image like that of his father Ron’s – outspoken and full of ideas, not to mention libertarian.  I knew the last one was nonsense – he fails the most basic requirement for being a libertarian in 2015, favoring marijuana legalization – but his website put the first and probably the second in doubt as well.  He had issues, in fact 18 of them, but most were routine Republican qualifiers, such as “Israel,” “Second Amendment,” and “Sanctity of Life,” the last referring, of course, to zygotes and not to victims of our bombs or questionably condemned criminals.  He had nothing at all under jobs or the economy – I know because I looked, thinking I had missed something, four times.

On to Marco Rubio, the Republican given the best chance in of the six declared ones to win the election.  He had only four issues on his website, two on foreign policy, one a pledge to never raise taxes (George H. W. Bush, are you laughing?), and one stating that marriage laws belonged to the states.  Perhaps he considers these four things the most important for Americans, but more likely two would scrape to make the top ten and the others would not be close.  Strangely, he did mention the economy – on his “Rubio Doctrine” where he said that we should physically prevent other countries from impeding commerce.  As for the needs of the people in Cleveland, San Antonio, and Miami… well, not this time. 

Next was Ben Carson.  I read his book and was impressed by his level of thinking, and maybe had showed that in his list of 10 issues, but once more the economy wasn't there.  Don’t we know that his stated need to “protect the Second Amendment” (from what efforts in progress?) sets him aside from no candidate in his party?  His staff must think we don’t, and again, they give us nary a clue as to how he might reduce our shortage of 17.9 million jobs.

So you’re disappointed in Carson?  Try Carly Fiorina!  An examination of her official website, her online face to the electorate, showed – get this – no views on issues at all!  Why, Carly, when your poll numbers belong under a microscope, can’t you commit yourself on anything?  Your illustrious corporate career must have given you some ideas, so why won’t you share them?  Are you sitting on your lead?

Then on to Mike Huckabee, who has been committal enough to engender more controversy for what he thinks than any of the five above.  His site includes 13 issues, including the usual suspects of “Israel” and “2nd Amendment,” and also “Values,” but nothing on either employment or our economy – “Tax Reform, advocating a flat-rate “Fair Tax,” and “Spending & Debt,” devoted to other issues, don’t qualify.  

Over to the Democratic side, where Hillary Clinton, as expected and consistent with her past non-statements, has nothing to say.  Her site is completely devoid of issues.  At least she, with odds of just under 50% to win the whole thing as it is, has reason to keep her cards close to her chest – for now.

The eighth candidate, Bernie Sanders, did what I thought every candidate should have done.  On his site he has a listing of “12 Steps Forward,” no fewer than six of which address American employment.  Four I can’t agree with at all, specifically “growing the trade union movement” as if that will create jobs, “raising the minimum wage” on the basis that every position should independently and comfortably support at least the person filling it, “pay equity for women workers” based on results instead of laws, and protectionist “trade policies that benefit American workers.”  Of the other two I don’t care much about “creating worker co-ops” – let organizations that want to do that go right ahead – but the last I have been calling for, “rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure.”  Sanders calls for “a massive jobs program rebuilding our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges,” and I don’t see why others don’t openly support the same;  the work must be done somehow, and conservatives, with their generally greater business investments, will be damaged at least as much as liberals if the United States continues to deteriorate in this way. 

Will the remaining expected candidates do better?  Will the second through seventh people above, if they are not doing well in the campaign, commit themselves more?  Will Sanders or someone else put the jobs issue in his rivals’ faces by stating that he has a plan while others do not?  I hope so, but I’m sure not betting the baby shoe money.    

“A recent study by the Oxford Martin School concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being taken by smart machines and software in the next two decades” – Friedman again, as above.  And that doesn’t even include those lost to foreign workers.  Let’s work on this one, candidates.