Friday, February 3, 2023

Big Jobs Gain in January Offsets Part of Seasonal Unemployment – AJSN Shows Latent Demand at 16.7 Million, Up 1.1 Million

 

January usually has the steepest drop in American employment.  Millions of people end their holiday-related jobs, and not all find new ones.  The gap between adjusted and unadjusted employment is the year’s largest, as it is for most other work-related labor numbers.

That was at the center of this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary.  Dominating the headlines should be the count of net new nonfarm positions, which blew away the also-seasonally-adjusted published 185,000 estimate and turned in 517,000.  Other figures looked good as well – adjusted joblessness trimmed 0.1% to reach 3.4%, average private payroll nonfarm wages beat inflation by jumping 21 cents to $33.03, and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or officially unemployed, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, each grew a significant 0.1% to 60.2% and 62.4%.  Not improving were the count of those unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, still 1.1 million, and the number of officially jobless, still 5.7 million.  On the down side were unadjusted unemployment, now 3.9% instead of 3.3%, the total working, off 180,000 to 158.692 million, and the number of people working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to such opportunities while searching for full-time ones, which gained a second-straight 200,000 and is now at 4.1 million. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many additional new positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, gained over 1.1 million to reach the following:



More than the total increase was from the officially unemployed and those reporting they wanted work but had not sought it for at least 12 months.  Best showing the overall progress we made was a year-over-year comparison, which revealed that since January 2022 the measure has lost 1.1 million, mostly accounted for by these same two components.  The share of the AJSN from official joblessness rose 3.4% and is now 34.3%. 

On Covid-19, per the New York Times the seven-day daily averages of new cases measured December 16th and January 16th dropped 8% to 59,260, that for deaths measured on the 15ths rose 51% to 564, and that for hospitalizations, on the same dates, grew 7% to 43,137.  Despite the last two worsening, these numbers are well below the virus’s pandemic-era performance and do not indicate particular concern about dangerous jobs.

What do we make of all this?  The AJSN is not seasonally adjusted, so can look worse than it is in down-employment times of the year.  Although we didn’t really add 517,000 jobs, we didn’t lose anywhere near the typical actual December-to-January 700,000, only about one quarter of that.  As any serious poker player can tell you, avoiding losses can be as valuable as winning.  Our population, including children and those well past 65, gained only 113,000 last month, and we are, month after month, adding more jobs than that.  This was another excellent report, and the turtle took another healthy step in the right direction.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Employee Choices II – Quiet Quitting

Another old thing with a still-new name, and perhaps new significance, is “quiet quitting.”  Though as with most new terms not everyone agrees with its precise meaning, it seems to boil down to doing a job’s minimum, without extra effort or extra hours, usually along with a sense of detachment.  As long as there have been jobs, there has been variation in how intensely they are worked, but now, with gaps as large as ever between official requirements and real or imagined expectations, it’s worthy of attention.

One management response gets that in “The quiet quitters are getting quiet fired:  The silent war playing out in offices” (Victoria Wells, Financial Post, October 25th).  The author calls quiet firing “passive-aggressive” and says it “subtly freezes out an employee by either avoiding one-on-one conversations, refusing to provide feedback, neglecting to share critical information needed to do a job, passing them over for a promotion or subjecting them to stingy raises – or no raise at all – while co-workers are awarded more.”  For employees, often in this category because they consider themselves underpaid, “the effect can be demoralizing… which is exactly the point,” as it can provoke them to resign when they are unwanted.  A fair, if not always the most optimal, response.

Two days later, we saw that “Quiet quitting gains steam across every major industry” (Jo Constanz, Benefit News).  In response to a Qualtrics International survey of 9,000 “US full-time or part-time employees,” one of the strongest effects was in “the finance and insurance sector,” which in the previous year “claimed the highest share of engaged employees.”  It is hard to tease out the effects of Covid and the subsequent worker’s market, but something is indeed happening.

Faster-paced employer actions are operating as well, exemplified as “Ford targets quiet quitters with new policy that could see underachievers lose their severance” (Christiaan Hetzsner, Fortune.com, published in Yahoo Finance October 31st).  There, “veteran white-collar workers… face a stark choice if their managers deem them an underperformer,” as some will have a choice of receiving “a buyout now” or risking “failing a performance improvement program,” whereupon they would “lose all claim to a competitive severance package.”  In other words, management wants them up or out.  In contrast to the Wells piece, the workers here have over seven years on the job with unknown problems, as opposed to those usually under 30.

Maybe a carrot would work instead of a stick – or so implied Marguerite Ward on December 12th in Business Insider’s “The solution to low productivity and quiet quitting is simpler than most managers realize:  It’s about making people feel that they matter.”  “A sense of meaning” or something similar has scored remarkably high in studies of what’s important to workers, and Ward gave three suggestions for management to achieve that:  “Dedicate time to checking in (with) your employees,” even by just saying the likes of “good morning” and “how are you?”; “Give positive feedback and be clear on areas for improvement,” the latter long hard for them to execute; and “Create a sense of connection among your team,” including expressing sincere gratitude.  A start, and could help in some cases.

More recently we had two contributions.  In “Managers must ‘solve this problem’ of quiet quitting, Davos leaders say,” in the January 17th MarketWatch, Weston Blasi reported on a panel discussion on “Quiet Quitting and the Meaning of Work” at the latest World Economic Forum meeting.  At this high-profile venue, speakers reached at least partial agreement that “leaders and managers at companies are to blame for the recent surge in quiet quitting “more than anyone else.””

How about another new term, this one related to what we’ve been talking about?  Well, “If You Aren’t Quiet Quitting, You May Have This Viral New Label,” (Veronika Bondarenko, The Street, also January 17th).  “Resenteeism” is “the state of slowly growing more and more frustrated with one’s work arrangement,” or can be having “any unaddressed work-related annoyance.”  It came to the fore with people unhappy they had to report to the office more than they would like.  Resenteeism can but does not always spawn quiet quitting, and, as with the others, does not describe anything new.

What can we do about quiet quitting?  The clearest solutions I can see are synchronizing official and unofficial expectations, praising workers more, zeroing in on the difference between production and hours worked, rediscovering constructive criticism, and implementing greater rewards for better or more voluminous labor.  If everyone gets the same raises, has the same job security, has the same privileges, and knows that work performance doesn’t actually drive promotions, that is a recipe for doing less.  People adapt to their environments.  As for extra hours beyond clearly short-term occasional problems, they show either a human resources problem or workers’ fully voluntary choices.  If companies said what they expected, that would come way down as well.  The choice is theirs – if they want it.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Employee Choices – I

With Covid-19 and the subsequent worker’s market, the set of reasonable worker actions has expanded in many ways.  This is the first of two posts showing how observers have identified and interpreted these possibilities. 

First is Kelsey Koberg’s May 10th Fox Business contention that “America experiencing a ‘great shift,” not a great resignation, argues economic expert.”  The pundit is “Milken Institute senior director Eugene Cornelius,” who maintained that such quitting was usually really a way of looking for better jobs instead of finishing employment, particularly “opportunities for advancement” and higher pay.  It makes sense, as the stronger a job market is, the less workers need to hold on to their positions while seeking others.

A related interpretation came from Brock Dumas, in the same publication on June 8th, when he asked “Why are there still so many Americans quitting their jobs?.”  He cited a career strategist, Julie Bauke, saying that “the changes companies are seeing now are multilayered but largely inevitable” – these differences included younger workers replacing retiring baby boomers, many correctly or otherwise considering themselves underpaid departing, and “a mismatch between people and their skills and what they want to do, with the work that needs to be done.”  Bauke recommended “a novel concept called actually talk to your people and ask them what they want” – she would have done well also to advocate the similarly non-revolutionary idea of paying them more. 

Another look at people leaving the workforce and reappearing was “Many who lost jobs during the pandemic would return for the right pay and position, CNBC survey finds” (Steve Liesman, CNBC, June 8th).  This study showed that an amazing 94% of those who “became unemployed during the Covid pandemic… say they would consider” that, which would help in “returning the labor force participation rate to where it was before the pandemic.”  The most common factors respondents considered regarding coming back to work were flexible hours and salary, with retirement benefits unsurprisingly lowest.

Successful candidates are doing well with another thing becoming more common, as we see “Americans leveraging multiple job offers” (Paul Davidson, USA Today, published in the Times Herald-Record, July 17th).  Those getting more than one acceptance are more able “to negotiate for higher pay and benefits… forcing employers to snap them up quickly or lose out to rivals.”  Companies must more than before heed the rule of making good offers to people they would not like to see working for competitors.  Top reasons for rejecting offers, per a survey Davidson cited, were low salary and an “inconvenient location” (27% apiece), “a job description that didn’t match the actual requirements” (11%), “a desire for remote work” (10%), and “an inflexible schedule” (8%).  Some basic things here, but in such matters they bear emphasis.

Indeed, per Trey Williams in the July 26th Fortune, “Bosses are oblivious to why employees are really quitting.  Here’s what they need to know.”  A high-ranking industry figure who wrote a report on attrition conveyed that workers were most likely to leave because of “not feeling valued by their organization, not feeling valued by their manager, and not feeling a sense of belonging at work,” completely different from employers’ perceptions of “compensation, work-life balance, and burnout.”  The human side is maybe more critical now than ever, and the old truism that people quit bosses instead of companies has strengthened if anything. 

Next week, we jump to October and later, and look at quiet quitting, side hustles, and control over work lives. 

Friday, January 6, 2023

Yet Another Strong Jobs Report – AJSN Reports Latent Demand Down 200,000 to 15.6 Million

Once again, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary delivered.

We exceeded the matching 200,000 published predictions of net new nonfarm positions by 23,000.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment each fell 0.2%, to reach 3.5% and 3.3% – both are still range-bound, with the former marking its tenth straight month between 3.5% and 3.7%, but at the bottom.  There were 5.7 million unemployed workers, down 300,000.

Three other results were also favorable.  The count of those jobless for 27 weeks or more shed 100,000 to 1.1 million.  The two measures showing how common it was for Americans to be working or officially unemployed, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, each rose a substantial 0.2% and are now at 62.3% and 60.1%.  Among numbers tracked here, the only exceptions were the number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping short-hours positions while so far unsuccessfully seeking full-time ones, which gained 200,000 to 3.9 million, and average private nonfarm payroll wages, which increased only the amount of a downward November adjustment and are again reported as $32.82.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many openings in addition to those out there now could be quickly filled if all knew they would be trivially easy to get, lost 220,000 to reach the following:


This metric still improved, despite a Census Bureau national population adjustment which added about 700,000 people which, not coordinated with the BLS numbers above, served to increase the non-civilian et al. count, as those are Americans about whom we have no other employment-status information.  More than offsetting that were, especially, the number unemployed, removing 154,000 from the AJSN, and a smaller count of those wanting to work but not looking for it for a year or more, taking away 131,000.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless was 30.9%, down from November’s 31.5%. 

Compared with a year before, the AJSN dropped 759,000, with the numbers shrinking most the officially unemployed, taking 551,000 off the statistic, and those not looking for a year or more improving its contribution by 283,000.

On the Covid front, while the endemic worsened sharply, with, per the New York Times, the 7-day daily average of new cases up 64% to 64,450 from November 16th to December 15th-16th, the same for people hospitalized 45% more at 40,380, and deaths up 12% to 373, these figures are still too low to imply that workers should be avoiding their jobs. 

Overall, where are we now?  Still nowhere near a recession.  Charts published today show that we are adding fewer new positions than for most of the past two-plus years, but they do not include a horizontal line showing how many we needed to cover population increases, which would run through and near the bottom of the monthly histogram bars.  We’re pushing the bottom of the unemployment-share range, hardly a bad place to be camping out.  Wage increases have sputtered, but inflation is dropping.  And none of this has been reversed during the months of higher interest rates.  The good times are rolling, and the turtle once again took a solid step ahead.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Developments in Transportation, from Hyperloop On Down

I’ve published a fair amount of material on driverless cars, but haven’t had much to say about other forms of conveyance, which could also have real effects on jobs and the economy.  Which ones am I talking about, and what’s happening with them?

Starting with the largest, in addition to his other escapades, “Musk floats possibility of hyperloop tunnel between Austin, San Antonio” (Andrew Miller, Fox Business, August 23rd).  The transit form, which uses generally underground tunnels and magnetic-propulsion capsules, has been successfully tested at 100 miles per hour with humans aboard and 200 mph unmanned, and if implemented for longer distances could go over 600 mph.  It could work and could be built, but “Is the Hyperloop Doomed?” (Eric A. Taub, The New York Times, September 22nd).  Taub related that “some industry observers believe that regulatory, financial and political hurdles may doom hyperloop as a viable high-speed alternative to air travel,” mainly because “a hyperloop system would require creating an entire infrastructure,” involving “constructing miles-long systems of tubes and stations, acquiring rights of way, adhering to government regulations and standards, and avoiding changes to the ecology along its routes.”  Various planned efforts, from Alberta to the United Arab Emirates, have stalled or fizzled out also from a lack of capital.  Overall, a few isolated routes could be built, but constructing a tunnel network matching the complexity of European rail lines would be daunting even in an age of adequate civic-project will.

Without changing the logistics of air travel, we have had efforts to ease its hassles.  One is hitting controversy, as if you are “Annoyed with Clear, the Company That Fast-Tracks Its Customers Through Airports?” (David Zipper, Slate.com, December 20th), you will need to “get in line.”  Customers of that product, designed to jump TSA PreCheck priority lines, have their fingerprints and retinas registered and are escorted to the front.  Zipper called it “a way for a company – and airports themselves – to make money at the expense of passengers,” said “its insertion into aviation security undermines a core government function,” and, unlike PreCheck, provides “no public benefit.”  Although Clear had a successful 2021 IPO, its survival does seem uncertain.

In the age of hybrid and variable work schedules, what new forms is commuter transportation taking?  Per its communication pieces, the Via company has been offering alternatives, now in Germany, Tokyo, Canada, and America’s Silicon Valley.  Via’s on-demand “corporate shuttles” allow employees to walk to nearby points for rides to large corporate building complexes.  Their BASF Standort Shuttle also deals with the problem of getting around a huge office park, and BlueVia works like Lyft or Uber, but is company-provided.  These innovations, which could be called gap-fillers, may become more and more common, and there will be more.

The most basic electric vehicle problem is the inability to power them up, and, as Mark Phelan put it in the August 17th Detroit Free Press, “EV drivers aren’t happy with public chargers, new survey says.  Neither am I.”  What may seem like the number of charging stations not keeping pace with the faster growing number of electric cars has, per Phelan, been worse than that.  He reported that “just this month” he “had a charger stop working long before the battery was full” and had “been double-billed for a single charge.”  Even an industry president asked, “what if one of every four times you went to the gas station, the pumps weren’t working?,” and called the current state of charging facilities “totally unacceptable.”  These malfunctions have been particularly irritating to users shopping during charging and then discovering they had received little or no power.  In general, drivers expect the same readiness and reliable refueling, and refilling times almost as short, as they get from gas or diesel-powered vehicles.  They don’t have that yet.

However, per Jack Ewing and Peter Eavis in the November 13th New York Times, we are seeing “Electric Vehicles Start to Enter the Car-Buying Mainstream.”  Sales for the first nine months of 2022 made up 5.6% of new vehicle sales, up from 2.9% for the same time last year.  Although this article took a more favorable view of electric cars than the previous one, it still pointed out that “chargers are few and far between outside coastal urban areas,” that planning trips is much harder since the locations of charging stations and the time they take need to be incorporated, that they use more power when more loaded, that many owners also see a need to have gas-powered vehicles, and that home charging, the cheapest and most convenient method, usually takes “all night.”  Electric vehicles are most suitable when they are in cities and driven limited miles, but any idea that most people will be happy to trade in their liquid fuel-powered ones is not yet justified.

Finally, we have the smallest transportation form.  Are you ready for “Green Technology” (David Zipper, again in Slate.com, August 15th)?  He’s not kidding – he’s talking about golf carts!  Some places, notably Sun City West in Arizona, allow them on roads, while others, such as Peachtree City, Georgia now have many on bicycle routes and other paths.  There, these roughly $10,000-when-new items do not require licenses or insurance and can be driven by people aged 12-15 with adults on board and by anyone 16 or older.  I could see these becoming popular nationwide, and, yes, they do consume less power.  It may be that the best and most practical new transportation form is the smallest – be ready.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Driverless Vehicles and Technology: Progress, Problems, and the Same Merits

How are we groping along with what we expected, five years ago, to now be widespread?

The partially autonomous version, per “11 more crash deaths are linked to automated-tech vehicles” (Fox Business, October 18th) has issues of its own.  While it’s not as bad as it sounds, for “mid-May through September,” and is not really “alarming” – we don’t hear about how many fatalities come from, say, faulty tires – it’s still getting attention.  Ten of these deaths involved Teslas, of which there are 830,000 in the United States with this technology.  But driver errors still kill over 40,000 Americans annually.

One application having real if small-scale autonomous success is taxicabs.  In the November 1st Emerging Tech Brew, Hayden Field looked at how it might continue growing in “Why some robotaxi companies are looking for their Goldilocks cities.”  Waymo, the implementation leader, has decided to focus on “scaling up an individual city rather than trying to be in 15” simultaneously.  When the company wanted to operate in “a city that was semi-challenging but not impossible,” Phoenix offered “medium-high speed limits across many roads; a friendly regulatory environment; a fast-growing population; challenging maneuvers like unprotected left turns across three lanes of traffic; neighborhoods with varying population density;” and no snow or ice on roads.  Next up is San Francisco, where similar efforts have been tried, valued for technical proximity and compactness.  The piece also mentions a potential financial hurdle, as cities not wanting excessive numbers of empty robotaxis driving around might levy a “zombie tax” on them.

Soon thereafter, we got bad news from there, in “Self-Driving Taxis Are Causing All Kinds of Trouble in San Francisco” (David Zipper, Future Tense, December 8th).  They had a 140-passenger trolley stopped as an autonomous vehicle “halted on the streetcar tracks and wouldn’t budge,” though human intervention held the delay to seven minutes.  Such cars also have “blocked a travel lane needed by a siren-blaring fire engine” headed for a three-alarm blaze, and “dozens” of them “drove daily into a quiet cul-de-sac before turning around, much to the frustration of nearby residents.”  Accordingly, people there and elsewhere “should brace for strange, disruptive, and dangerous happenings on their streets.”

Reporters have told us before what it is like to take rides in autonomous vehicles, so how different was the latest, from Cade Metz et al. in the November 14th New York Times, as they told us “What Riding in a Self-Driving Tesla Tells Us About the Future of Autonomy”?  This six-hour ride was in Jacksonville, Florida, not a hub of self-driving activity.  The story, which with pictures printed out to 14 pages, showed a mixed bag, with “more than 40 unprotected left-hand turns against oncoming traffic,” ability to change lanes and recognize green lights, and general success at dealing with “highways, exit ramps, city streets, roundabouts, bridges and parking lots,” but also, when going to a restaurant, “veering from the road into a motel parking lot,” almost “hitting a parked car after we rolled over a low curb,” and a need for the test driver to retake control “every so often” as the vehicle “makes a mistake.”  The authors concluded that this “Tesla Model Y provides a glimpse of the future we are moving toward, which may prove to be safer, more reliable and less stressful, but it still years away from reality.” “Experts,” they maintained, “say no system could possibly have the sophistication needed to handle every possible scenario on any road,” as “this would require technology that mimics human reasoning – technology that we humans do not yet know how to build.”  This conclusion seems after-the-fact, as it was not present in the great expectations of 2017 – we don’t know if it is true or not, and if so, how long it would take to create it.

After returning from a family driving vacation, Ross Douthat held forth on “What Driving Means for America,” in the July 20th New York Times.  He invoked a Matthew Crawford book, Why We Drive:  Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, in which the author backed “the human being who moves purposively through the world rather than simply being carried through it,” and advocated being “mentally involved in our own navigation and locomotion.”  Douthat considered driving a way “to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble,” but admitted there might be other means to that end.  We could relate experiences of airline passengers, who go from airport to plane to possibly very distant airport just as passively.  It is certainly a tradeoff, but seems like a problem more comparable to that of choosing only more entertainment instead of fdgconstructive and self-directed pursuits.  We won’t solve either one soon, but driverless cars, to the extent that we can get them effective and common, can offer us a great deal, and should not be precluded or rejected.  On that we need to aim.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Employment: Shorter Hours (or Just Fewer Official Working Days), and Beyond

This week, I bring my focus to the “jobs” part of “jobs and the economy.”  What’s been happening?

We start with a “new” idea in the works so long it seems like an old chestnut – and, indeed, as this piece reported, it dates at least from 1956.  Per Jenny Gross in the September 22nd New York Times, “4-Day Workweek Brings No Loss of Productivity, Companies in Experiment Say.”  The advantages aren’t new – it gives them “more time to exercise, cook, spend time with their families and take up hobbies, boosting their well-being and making them more energized and productive when they were on the clock,” with 33 of 41 involved companies seeing “productivity” unchanged, with six reporting gains.  You say I seem skeptical?  Yes I am, and you would be too it you realized these were studies for fixed amounts of time where it was in employees’ interests to make it look good in hopes of permanent implementation.  The author also finished the roughly 700-word piece without mentioning either whether that really meant 80% of previous obligations, or how many hours workers who were previously doing more than 40 a week put in under the newly-official 32. 

Another on this topic, “Increased revenue, fewer resignations:  New data spotlights benefits of a 4-day workweek,” by Arianne Cohen of Bloomberg News, came out in Benefit News on December 1st.  It was based on another study, after which “not one of the 33 participating companies is returning to a standard five-day schedule.”  Here, in this trial of American, Irish, and Australian companies, they found that “dozens of indicators, ranging from productivity to well-being and fatigue, all improved as the companies transitioned,” and 97% of employees continued four-day workweeks afterwards.  The only comment on what that meant for hours worked, in this longer piece, came in a dissenting view from a human resources consulting firm CEO, who said that “if companies are really committed to this, they would demonstrate it by turning off network access on the days that they’re not scheduled to work, and asking people to leave their laptops in the office, but I just don’t see companies doing that.”  I would also like to see some corporate leader saying straight-out, especially about a pure-production setting, that shorter workweeks would mean less completed work.  Until then, what some might view as a great discovery should be held to a test of years instead of months.

On other aspects, we saw, first, “10 jobs most likely to recover from the pandemic,” in other words with the largest expected employment percentage gain though 2030, by Deanna Cuadra in the September 12th Benefit News.  I was glad not to see any IT technician positions, riper than ever for outsourcing, in this list, which comprised medical and health services managers, financial managers, nurse practitioners, management analysts, general and operations managers, postsecondary health specialties teachers, computer and information systems managers, market research analysts and marketing specialists, lawyers, and construction managers.  A heavy emphasis on managing instead of doing here, but a better set of projections than many I’ve seen.

On November 9th, Laura Amico took a look at “Fear and Stress on the Job” in the Harvard Business Review.  This article was about supporting customer-facing employees being abused.  Most important was for supervisors or managers to physically intervene when such situations materialized, and their need to “try to defuse the angry person quickly and get them out of the store” and then discuss the problem with the worker and document what happened.  These are appropriate guidelines, for cases when it is clear that the customer is, this time, not right.

I have written before about how science, technology, and engineering fields are overrated as good-job sources, and so are not worthy of the superior reputations they have enjoyed over the past decade or more, so was glad to see, by Natasha Singer and Kelley Huang in the December 6th New York Times, that “Computer Science Students Face a Shrinking Big Tech Job Market.”  This piece was mainly about how recent layoffs at technology companies have cut demand for new workers, fleshed out with anecdotals, but the overall message was that focusing on very specific opportunities may fail, and that even favored fields come with no guarantees.  That, along with the immaturity of four-day workweek efforts, is, this time, most important.