Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year’s Resolutions on Jobs and Beyond We’d Like to See

Our annual promises to ourselves have three requirements which are both necessary and sufficient.  First, they must be things we can personally control – no fair, for example, resolving to win the lottery.  Second, they must be beneficial to those doing them, which precludes such as starting smoking.  Third, and most importantly of all, they must be plans on which the person has no intention of following through. 

In that spirit, what would be suitable proposals from the major players, and groups of players, in American employment?  Here’s what Royal Flush Press suggests. 

President Barack Obama:  As long as my country could quickly fill more than 15 million additional work opportunities, as shown by the American Job Shortage Number (AJSN), I will push for increases in their quantity, and let their quality take care of itself.

Republican Presidential Candidates:  I will help keep America great by supporting a massive infrastructure repair and improvement project, which will create millions of jobs in the process.

Democratic Presidential Candidates:  I will fight for ALL United States citizens to have better opportunities to work and support themselves, even straight white Anglo men, and not just to improve life for existing employees.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan:  I will coordinate the Republican representatives to do what is right for overall American prosperity, not just for people with the top 1% of income or net worth.

Columnist Paul Krugman:  I will use my Nobel Prize-caliber skills as an economist to encourage better jobs policy, even if it disagrees with liberal orthodoxy.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer:  I will make my criticism of Obama less incessant and move on to other topics, including jobs and the economy, at which I can be constructively influential.

Janet Yellen and the Federal Reserve:  Until the AJSN tells us we are fewer than 15 million jobs short, we will neither raise interest rates again nor threaten to do so.

New Hampshire and Iowa Republican Voters and Caucus Participants:  We will vote for a genuine, reasonably experienced candidate who understands that politics involves deal-making and compromises.

New York Times Editorial Board:  We will get educated about cost-of-living differences around our country before again proposing that all jobs everywhere must pay at least half-again as much as what countless unemployed and underemployed Americans in the hinterlands would be delighted to work for.

Employers:  We will stop crying about skills gaps and labor shortages, and train inexperienced workers, pay market rates for experienced ones, or both. 

Me, and everyone else:  As the Moody Blues put it 47 years ago:  Keep as cool as you can.  Face piles and piles of trials with smiles.  It riles them to believe that you perceive the web they weave.  And keep on thinking free (emphasis mine).

Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Year in Jobs – Good, Bad, and Just Different

Historians, if they care, will say that 2015 was a slow year on the employment front.  It was more than that, though, and those of us who lived through it know what else was afoot. 

The best news came from the statistics.  In the latest available year-over-year comparison, November 2014 and 2015, official unemployment dropped over one million.  The number of discouraged workers fell 100,000, and those in other marginally attached categories were off as well, led by the count of people wanting work but not trying for it for a year or more down almost 400,000.  The long-term unemployed, or those out for 27 weeks or longer and still looking, were off 25 percent from 2.8 million to 2.1 million, and the number of people working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting a full-time opportunity but not finding one, improved from 6.9 million to 5.8 million.  The AJSN (American Job Shortage Number), showing latent employment demand, dropped more than 1.3 million to another post-recession low, but tells us our country could still fill more than 17.2 million additional positions.  Average private-sector pay improved modestly but more than inflation, up 2.1% from $24.66 per hour to $25.20.  On the other side, those saying they did not want a job kept rising and ended up more than 2.7 million to 89 million, and labor force participation was off from 62.8% to 62.4%.

A good year can mean few efforts to improve, and that is what happened otherwise.  On the jobs front, President Barack Obama’s administration did almost nothing.  Proposals from Democrats consistently missed the mark, with an overemphasis on different average pay between the sexes, a totally unrefined number reflecting literally dozens of factors other than discrimination, and higher minimum wages, which can only cut the amount of work.  When 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, as her competitor Bernie Sanders had done before, proposed the large infrastructure building plan our country badly needs, she hit a sour note by saying it should create vast numbers of middle-class jobs, which all but assures that even a moderately conservative legislature will reject it.  The Republicans offered a mixed bag on how to improve work and the economy, ranging from removing anti-employment regulations (great, but why are they there now?) and comprehensively maximizing both renewable and non-renewable energy resources (good), to cutting corporate taxes (companies are cash-rich as it is) and repealing Obamacare, maybe in their heart of hearts to replace it with nothing (as bad an idea for employment as it is for our country’s health).  The Federal Reserve acted as if there was a tidal pull to raise interest rates, and not only did that but discussed doing it again in a few months, which not only gratuitously endangered stock prices but showed they can’t stand prosperity. 

Some things this year simply changed.  While 3D printing went nowhere widespread, drones and self-driving cars roared to the front of technological progress news, and by this time two years from now are more or less certain to be replacing human workers.  The sharing economy, headed by gypsy cab networks Uber and Lyft and semi-legal hotel service Airbnb, continued to grow and grab headlines, but their peak may be in sight, with their managements now trying to fight off being forced to join the adult business world through unionization and required working condition improvements.  The acceptability of paying people to complete various chores, through the likes of TaskRabbit, seemed to spill over into normal jobs, with companies as large and established as Target and The Gap taking to telling their employees minutes in advance that they will neither be working nor earning money that day.  Unlike such now-implemented developments as robot sobriety-checking bartenders, the stories about what might be called Amazon’s office-job intensity made front pages, reminding us how simple supply and demand can make jobs ever more demanding.  A flock of articles on the best and worst cities for careers documented that internal United States differences are as large as ever, and showed us that the recent principle of the Sun Belt being optimal no longer holds, with former easy-job standbys Orlando and Las Vegas now well behind the likes of once rusty Pittsburgh.   

So what’s coming up in 2016?  I hope we can continue to avoid a recession, but we may not, as even if our public policy and private decisions prove well-tuned, both closely connected China and Europe are in trouble.  Education’s role in getting jobs will attract even more attention, with students and their parents increasingly incisive about the true values of the many choices.  With no trends or new tax laws to stop it or even slow it down, economic inequality, and with it the pooling up of money in corporations and the very wealthiest people, will get more extreme.  Because of that, the Fed will discover that no matter how much cash is in circulation, inflation will barely if at all challenge two percent, and months after they send interest rates up again they will bring them back down, when lower job creation numbers and increasing official unemployment scare them.  Somebody will get elected president and, according to the oddsmakers backing up their predictions with money, it will probably be Clinton.  That will mean either four or eight years of the same course we have been on, for better or worse, but with the jobs crisis not likely to stay muted.  As the numbers say, we have been lucky with American employment – may that continue for as long as it can.                          


Friday, December 18, 2015

Nothing Special, Santa – Just What We Thought We Were Getting

Remember the excitement of the New York state casino referendum?  We had discussion, editorials, public comments, and people taking sides.  The Yes one prevailed, with the shares of votes for legal non-Indian gambling houses largest in the areas that stood to get them.  Our county, Sullivan, where it was almost a foregone conclusion that one of the casinos would be sanctioned, topped the state with 76% approving, and areas near Monticello, its expected location, went over 80%. 

That was 25 months ago.  So where are we now?

As expected, a year later the New York State Gaming Commission approved a gambling resort for Sullivan County.  They then said the winning Montreign Resort Casino at Adelaar would get its operating license by the end of 2015 at latest.

With only 13 days remaining, the license has not yet been issued.  And it does not look good for this year – since then the commission has backed off on its self-imposed deadline, saying more recently only that “it is possible” that this formal authorization will be issued in 2015.  Meanwhile, only land clearing and some excavation has been completed on the site, and 100 construction-related workers of the over 1,000 expected have been on the job, as Adelaar’s financing, and with it the ability to build, is contingent on the license.  On December 13th Scott Samuelson, Sullivan County Legislature chairman, sent a letter to the commission’s executive director Rob Williams, citing “mounting frustration” and perceptions of “deep-rooted skepticism.”  Williams’s prompt response claimed that “there is no delay” and that the process for issuing the license was “on track,” but offered no new deadline and no explanation of why it has taken as long as it has. 

So what exactly are the problems with the license delay?  There are at least three.

First, it is delaying casino job creation, way beyond the missing 900-plus construction workers who would otherwise be onsite during what has been a snow-free and unusually mild December.  People hoping to be among the 1,200 working at the finished installation are also being put on hold, with any having plans to be on the job by, say, late 2017 (the state requires the gambling facility to be up and running within two years of license issuance) now needing to postpone them. 

Second, it is affecting many more potential and actual employers in the same way.  Businesses which planned for sales to those missing builders are not getting them.  Housing to accommodate new workers is not going up.  The parts of the Adelaar resort beyond the casino-hotel, previously expected to provide hundreds of additional positions, are also on hold.  The license delay is probably also a reason for the apparent lack of progress on and total lack of communication from the nearby Veria Lifestyle resort and wellness center for which ground was broken earlier this year, which would share many customers with Adelaar.  Overall, as State Senator John Bonacic put it, “the delay is hurting the economic vitality in Sullivan County.”
Third, as Samuelson said in his letter, people here are starting to wonder, right or wrong, if the casino will actually materialize.  From the Monticello restaurant owner saying that after “waiting, waiting, waiting” local residents are “losing hope,” to a Montreign parent company executive comparing the current situation to casino licenses having “been spoken about In New York state since the days of Nelson Rockefeller,” emotional effects are appearing.  There is little historical reason for locals to be optimistic, especially given the lack of substantive official communication, and there is no shortage of reasonable if possibly uninformed questions about the process.  For example, if the gaming commission spent a year vetting over 30 casino applicants, to the point where they asked each for $1 million apiece to defray its cost, why are they, as they have admitted, still doing background checks, and why does it take more than double that time to investigate only the changes since then for 4?  Is it possible that there are political conflicts, fueled by those who do not agree with the referendum’s outcome, involved?  If there is still uncertainty about which casinos should be sanctioned in other areas of the state, especially in the Finger Lakes region, why must the Catskills be tethered to that?  Why is the commission no longer willing to communicate a firm deadline?  If there is a specific reason for the licenses to be unavailable by the end of this year, why can’t they share it?

So Santa, here’s what we in Sullivan County want for Christmas:  One license for gambling at the already voted-in, vetted, welcomed, eagerly awaited, and ground-cleared Montreign Resort Casino.  We’ve worked for it, we’ve been solidly convinced we’re going to get it, and it will cost almost nothing.  In “Santa Baby,” Eartha Kitt challenged you by saying “let’s see if you believe in me.”  Unlike Eartha, though, we don’t need a yacht, a platinum mine, or even a ’54 convertible.  All we need is what we have already been promised.   

Friday, December 11, 2015

How to Make Higher Education Work for You, and When Not To

Two weeks ago I wrote about the findings of professor and author Peter Cappelli in his recent book, Will College Pay Off?, on what is happening with American higher education and how it has dealt with students’ twin problems of ever-higher cost and worsening employment prospects.  Cappelli wrote that colleges and universities have reacted to them in two major ways.  To help the first by being more compatible with work, they have offered courses at unconventional times and places.  For the second, especially to address perceptions that their learners might not get hired after graduation, universities have created a variety of majors which sound more like individual courses or even job titles.  Examples from the book, to add to the four I named last time, are “turf and turfgrass management,” “economic crime investigation,” and “fire protection engineering.”  The more flexible teaching offerings have helped, but, according to Cappelli, the hyper-specific majors have not, as demand for such positions often changes dramatically in the years between choosing such a program and finishing it.  In the November 25 post I distilled the book down to these and five other points about how college has changed:  how they, especially community colleges, now provide most vocational training;  that there is no shortage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates;  that people may need to get degrees even when their targeted jobs don’t require them to compete with candidates with these higher qualifications but unemployed;  that it is hardly guaranteed that university degrees boost lifetime earnings;  and that college will not pay for itself for many of its attendees.   

Accordingly, the burden is on those considering college and university attendance to make the most of these new realities.  How can they do that?

First, prospective students should generally minimize borrowing.  That means choosing schools with lower costs net of other forms of financial aid, such as grants, scholarships, and campus work opportunities.  Second, that usually means using community colleges whenever possible, in three main ways:  for the first two years when the learner expects to get a four-year degree; for a two-year program when that is the only thing required to get into the student’s chosen field; and for vocational courses providing preparation for skilled trades and other areas not requiring degrees at all.  People can save a lot of money by starting at community colleges, and as more and more choose that option, the social life at such places, historically weaker than at four-year schools, will improve.  Third, they should avoid overly specialized majors.  A degree in management, including courses in areas of special interest, has potential to help in many directions, whereas one in turf and turfgrass management will limit options without a likely enough advantage.  Fourth, unless their families have the money to cover traditional university tuition, room, and board, first and second-year students should live at home if possible.  Even if their parents need money to cover some or all of their expenses, it is still the cheapest arrangement for all concerned.

Fifth, when considering careers, prospective students should look at how long they will last.  It is a waste of time and money, not to mention demoralizing, for people to prepare for work in fields that will not be available in the future.  The best predictors of career longevity, as I see them, are resistance to three things:  automation, foreign workers, and improved business efficiency.  Other factors may be chosen as more critical, but it is important to at least think about where Americans will actually be hired in 10 or 20 years, as opposed to in the immediate future.  Although I usually do not recommend lists of the best jobs, as they almost always take too short-term a view, one, “10 professions with the best job security,” recently published by Fidelity, is unusually perceptive, and avoids the traps of careers such as pharmacy and information technology which are doing well now but are headed for severe falls before today’s graduates turn 30.  This article is at

Sixth, if someone knows by their mid-teens that they are the kind of person who should be in business for himself or herself – and that was the case for most great entrepreneurs – they should not bother with a college degree program.  That universities would probably be delighted to admit them does not mean that is their best choice – in this case, it probably is not.

Seventh, if people find themselves with a real chance to get a legitimately good job out of high school, but had planned on continuing with school, they should consider taking the position, especially if it is with a company or industry which helps employees with college tuition, as they then may be able to complete their education later at a far lower cost. 
Eighth, when anyone chooses a college for a final degree they should pin schools down on placement rates and other measures of their graduates’ success, and assess them accordingly.  Nothing of substance to say or share on that topic in 2015 is bad news.

Ninth, in all this we should not forget that education is still valuable in itself.  Students should take opportunities to learn about different things, especially in liberal arts courses, which are available even at the great majority of community colleges.  What we learn in the likes of philosophy, sociology, psychology, and other academic areas barely if at all covered in high school may stick with us for life, as will insights from literature.  The rules may be different now, but the greatest of what has been said, written, and thought is still worthy of our attention.     

Friday, December 4, 2015

November AJSN Down to 17.2 Million American Jobs Short on Fewer People Marginally Attached

When I read this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Economic News Release, I thought the American Job Shortage Number would stay about the same as last month’s 17.485 million.  This measure, showing the strength of latent employment demand, depends on official joblessness, which stayed the same, more than any other factor.  Seasonally, there is little difference between October and November, so the only thing that would allow the AJSN to drop significantly would be lower counts of people in the fringe categories.  And that is exactly what happened.

The jobs report looked at first glance like treading water.  Adjusted and unadjusted unemployment both stayed at October’s 5.0% and 4.8% (the gap is because autumn is an above average time for work opportunities), long-term unemployment or the number of people looking for jobs but not finding them for 27 weeks or longer held at 2.1 million, wage growth was a lukewarm 4 cents per hour, and the employment-population ratio stayed the same at 59.3%.  The good news, 211,000 net new jobs once again exceeding population increase and the labor force participation rate up 0.1% to 62.5%, was offset by a 319,000 rise in those working part-time for economic reasons, or unsuccessfully seeking full-time positions, to 6.1 million. 

The sets of those marginally attached, though, showed broad-based improvement.  Those wanting work but not looking for it in the previous year fell 190,000, cutting that group’s latent demand for jobs 152,000.  There were 71,000 fewer discouraged but not technically unemployed workers, who would take readily available jobs at the same rate as those in the 5.0%.  The count of those in school or training was down 16%, and those in the “Other” category, wanting work but being temporarily unavailable for it for less likely reasons, fell 13%.  The only significant gainer was, as it usually is, the “do not want a job” group, up over 500,000 and, even estimating only 5% would accept employment, adding 27,800 to the metric.  Overall, the AJSN fell 255,000 to over 7.2 million, as follows:

Compared with November 2014 the AJSN is down 1.35 million, with two-thirds of that from lower official joblessness and most of the rest from fewer people reporting they wanted work but did not search for it in the past year. 

So where are we now?  With the numbers of those marginally attached showing real improvement, this jobs report is underrated.  The 211,000 net new positions was not tremendous, but with a permanent crisis in place we can’t take its roughly 80,000 more than net newcomers could absorb for granted.  Overall, the month was better than many in the past year when official unemployment fell.  The turtle, indeed, took another step in the right direction.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Higher Education in America: The Jobs Crisis Foments Another

American college attendance has had a good, long run.  Per the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1869 and 1870 only 1.3% of those aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in post-high-school educational institutions.  That did not reach 5% until 1921-1922 and 10% until 1945-1946.  The G.I. Bill, which provided funding for World War II soldiers to attend universities, along with higher prosperity in general, caused steady increases from then through the fall of 1957, when the share reached 22%.  It continued climbing almost every year, and broke 40% in the fall of 1975 and 50% 14 years later.  In 1995, the tracked data switched to those at degree-granting institutions, and attendance continued to rise, from 34.3% that year through 42.0% in 2011.  Since then it has been edging down, to 41.0% in 2012 and slightly lower, though not certainly as the data is still incomplete, since then. 

Which way will it go from here?  For several reasons, it is probable that the percentage of young adults in college will continue to drop.  The main two are the intertwined combination of ever-higher student loan debt, which has shot up from $366 billion ten years ago to at least $1.2 trillion today, and poorer job prospects for graduates; in 2012, 28% of bachelor’s-degree holders were not working, double the rate of 2000, and other studies have shown that only one third of them had positions related to their majors.  Yet at the same time, overall lifetime earnings are frequently claimed to be much higher for those with four-year degrees than those without. 

Into this growing controversy came Peter Cappelli, a Wharton business professor and author of 2012’s Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.  In that book, he showed that what some have called the “skills gap” between employers and possible employees is actually a matter of the former refusing to either pay true market rates or to provide training, both of which were more likely in the past.  His effort from earlier this year, Will College Pay Off?, addressed what is happening between universities and the job market.  Although he does not seemingly believe in a permanent jobs crisis, neither does he see any labor shortage now, and makes some fine iconoclastic points.  Which are the best?

First, higher education is different now.  “It is less likely to be a four-year experience on a campus and more likely to be something spread out over many years, often across different colleges, and frequently delivered in office parks.”  About two-thirds of students now work.  It is also more expensive than ever, with an increasing share of that cost managed through loans, and costs more than anything else many families will ever buy, even their houses, with American students paying “about four times more than their peers in countries elsewhere.” 

Second, colleges have taken over vocational training.  In the past, most people working at skilled trades and lesser manual positions learned what they needed either on the job or in high school industrial arts classes.  Such instruction now mainly comes from community colleges.  That is also the case for many skills needed for office jobs, for which as recently as the 1990s training usually came from employers.  Overall, according to one 2011 study, only 21% of workers had received any on-the-job training, at all, for the previous five years. 

Third, despite great efforts and an enormous outpouring of new majors which, as Cappelli pointed out, sound like job titles, colleges are still not connecting well with employers.  These new lines of study – examples of majors (not courses) in the book range from “international hospitality management” and “invasive cardiovascular technology” to “casino construction management” and “pharmaceutical marketing” – are financially risky, since decisions to enroll in them are typically made five or six years in advance and thus with little knowledge of ultimate employer demand.  They also tend to overemphasize first jobs, which, with employers increasingly promoting from outside, may not lead to a true career.  Few universities have information on their graduates’ career success, and what they have is often marred by nonrespondent bias in surveys and lack of incorporating positions students already had before their studies started.  The gap between apparent educational qualifications and actually getting a job has historically been large, and is little smaller now.

Fourth, there is no surplus of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) opportunities.  As of 2013, only 22% of majors in those fields got jobs in them.  Engineering and information technology in particular have long had notoriously cyclical demand, and often students starting college when such positions were readily available find an oversupply of candidates when they finish.  After noting also that career progression in technical fields has become less likely, Cappelli concluded that “there just is no evidence at all of a greater need for science and math grads.”

Fifth, people may need to get degrees for jobs which don’t officially require them.  At a presentation I gave this month I advocated becoming a paralegal, since they were taking over more and more work from lawyers.  A woman in the audience said she, with that job, had been losing opportunities to unemployed lawyers!  I said that would not happen with medical doctors, since their supply was kept low, but could be the case in other fields where those with the highest set of credentials were often jobless.  I personally saw that phenomenon at a lower level in college town Bloomington, Indiana in its early-1980s near-depression, when those hiring could require bachelor’s degrees even for clerks and cashiers, since plenty of unemployed people had them.  Cappelli called that “bumping,” and noted that it was especially prevalent during the Great Recession.

Sixth, the idea that college helps lifetime earnings has no fewer than four serious logical flaws.  The first is the maturity difference between people at age 18 and those 22 or older.  The second error is that universities do well at identifying applicants who have or are on course to have skills and attributes that help them in their work lives.  Relatively intelligent people who usually finish what they start tend to make more money, with or without college time.  Third, such statistics reflect people who had half or more of their careers in the past, and the worst of the problem of recent graduates is more recent.  The fourth problem, which Cappelli did not mention, is that many people at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid can obtain first-rate opportunities for children who get the proper education, a connection in which universities are more a conduit to success than a reason for it. 

Seventh, when the above is taken into account, the financial outcome of attending college for many is negative.  There is no getting around that, and, as a result, enrollment is likely to drop from here. 

Given this rather depressing but real situation, how can people make the best choices on colleges, universities, and other sources of training?  That will be the subject on December 11th.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Clearing the Exhaust Fumes about Self-Driving Cars and Jobs

Two large articles and one small one about a new technology area hit the press last week.  The first, in The Economist, “If Autonomous Vehicles Rule the World from Horseless to Driverless,” reminded me of a landmark February 2011 Economist Technology article describing how 3D printing “may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did” and “is likely to disrupt every field it touches.”  It discussed the current and emerging state of self-driving technology and made predictions, some framed as facts in the future tense, that such autos “will also challenge the very notion of car ownership,” that “coming generations will consider the era of car ownership to have been much stranger,” and even that the thought of automotive executives that many will continue owning vehicles “sounds a lot like wishful thinking, if not denial.”  The second, “The Dream Life of Driverless Cars” by Geoff Manaugh, printed November 15th in the New York Times Magazine, presented a projection that automated vehicles would make up “up to” 75% of those in 2040, but was less giddy about their future, naming dependence on “cars being able to navigate the built environment,” incomplete areas of their software’s development, and the inherent difficulty of interpreting what their programming needed to drive flawlessly while ignoring that, such as “glares, reflections, and misunderstood signs” which it would not.  The third article was a simple news item in The New York Times and picked up elsewhere, reporting that on November 12th a driverless car in Google’s hometown of Mountain View, California had been pulled over for obstructing traffic by going 24 miles per hour in a 35 zone.  The police did not issue a citation, but indirectly pointed out a flaw in its software, by directing its two non-driving operators to briefly take it off the road if other vehicles stacked up behind it. 

As I documented in an April post, 3D printing has not yet approached projections made almost five years ago, but will driverless vehicles justify the Economist clipping by 2020?  I offer eight observations.

First, there is no assurance whatever that automated cars would cut the number of those on the road by anything like the 80% to 90% one source claimed.  Simply having access to less expensive taxis, which is hardly a short-term certainty itself, would not cause the bulk of car owners to turn them in, as they live, work, and run errands in areas where they would need to wait too long for one, driverless or otherwise, to arrive.  Also, if there were fewer of them and their utilization were high, it would take even more time.

Second, if existing road and surrounding structures need to be standardized or otherwise modified to accommodate driverless cars, it may take decades.  The United States government and its constituents have done nothing comprehensive on national infrastructure needs as it is.  Accordingly, it may well prove to be another case where America is behind the world leaders, to the point where automated vehicles have widespread use elsewhere but not here.

Third, one thing authorities will need to address is preventing driverless cars from being hacked.  A one-ton-plus machine capable of moving at dozens of feet per second is a deadly weapon.  Even if malevolent people can succeed only in deactivating them, that could cause catastrophic transportation-system delays, especially if large numbers could be put out of commission at once.

Fourth, while self-driving vehicles seem to be safe so far – in fact, Google claims those it has made have caused no injuries or even at-fault accidents in 1.8 million miles – it is almost certain that bizarre circumstances, and programming bugs, will cause some spectacular ones sooner or later.  As a robotics professor put it in the Times Magazine story, since “we will have millions of these cars, the very unlikely will happen all the time.”  It is not inconceivable, for example, that a driverless tractor-trailer could interpret a stopped rainbow-colored van as an atmospheric phenomenon, as its software might not know that vehicles could have that color pattern, and run it down without even slowing.

Fifth, however, if we look at the reasons I cited for 3D printing not becoming massive, none apply to self-driving autos.  There can be no shortage of “killer aps” for these new cars, and one clear to materialize is their usability by those who should not or cannot drive otherwise.  As their new technology is easily duplicable software instead of physical parts, the automated ones almost guarantee to be cost-effective.   I also perceive no concern with either quality or performance, both of which have slowed the use of 3D technology, for self-driving autos as compared with ordinary vehicles.

Sixth, the safety of driverless cars will provide large incentive for their implementation and purchase.  With 32,719 Americans killed in motor vehicle accidents during the most recent data year of 2013, and 94% of those mishaps from driver error, that provides over 30,000 deaths with at least the potential to be eliminated.  Even if only 15,000 lives were saved, that would be almost 1½ times the number I projected, in a post last month, from bipartisan gun-law reform.

Seventh, as opposed to the ending of the Economist piece, automated vehicles would not mean an end to personal freedom.  The only difference would be, due to the likely requirement that such cars be fit with airliner-style black boxes, that information for all trips would be a matter of record.  With the share of Americans owning GPS-monitoring smartphones at 64% and rising, that seems likely to bother few.

Eighth, the number of jobs that self-driving cars will create or destroy will depend heavily on its acceptance.  Even though the technology stands to save many lives, the peculiar disasters that will happen along the way will unnerve many.  After the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, a remarkable number of Americans thought space travel and exploration should be discontinued – and indeed the next launch did not take place until 31 months afterwards.  Others may, for whatever reason, be resistant to getting in driverless taxis or sharing the road with automated 18-wheelers. 

How will this new capability affect jobs?  We could be looking at a wholesale drop in the number of cabdrivers by 2020, or their numbers could still be strong a decade or more later.  Truckers, likewise, may keep their jobs, or see them severely decimated.  Overall, self-driving technology may be almost here, but we cannot presume to know its effect.  As with other jobs-related areas, I will keep track of developments and let you know.          

Friday, November 13, 2015

GOP Contenders and Jobs – What Do They Recommend, and How Good Is It?

Tuesday’s main Republican presidential candidate debate was the most substantive of the four so far.  It was run by Fox Business, which apparently was determined to avoid personal history and overly combative questions.  Although the inquiries were easy at times, they allowed the eight on the stage to showcase what they felt strongest about, especially on the directed topics of jobs, taxes, and the economy in general.  Several months into a campaign which has too often seemed to produce platitudes at best and personal attacks of questionable merit at worst, it was fine for these top-ranking 2016 hopefuls to give parts of their stump speeches to the nation instead of to highly partisan crowds, and in relative peace. 

Fox also published similar material in a November 6th Elizabeth MacDonald article, “In Their Own Words:  The GOP Candidates on the Economy.”  Between that and what they said in Tuesday’s debate, we have solid material on candidates’ views on improving our jobs situation.  The eight combined for ten different ideas, with each advocating from one to six of them.  So who spoke up for what, and how much merit do these proposals have?

Most common was removing anti-employment regulations, voiced by six:  Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina.  Although it may be the easiest to say, and one of the best and seemingly most obvious, there are reasons, beyond the ideological positions of those in power, why more have not been cut already.  To name three, many have entrenched and highly influential special interests supporting them, there would be great difficulty in identifying (let alone even-handedly evaluating) these destructive rules, and a focused effort to remove them would call for a level of bipartisan cooperation and commitment vastly past what we have seen in Congress for decades.  That is not to say that assessing and eliminating many employment-related regulations is a bad idea, but that getting there would be much more difficult than passing a new program.

The second most frequently named measure, suggested by Rubio, Bush, Kasich, and Rand Paul, was to cut corporate taxes.  I have advocated adjusting the business tax code to reward companies that create American jobs, but what these four want is not the same, and does not have merit.  According to Standard & Poor’s, 2,000 American nonfinancial companies now combine for $1.82 trillion in cash and other investments, which is, amazingly, more than double what it was in 2008, only six years before and prior to the Great Recession.  At the same time our country is over 17 million jobs short, with the total number of positions barely higher now than seven years ago.  If big business is so much flusher with so few jobs added, why would trillions more from tax savings help?

Three ideas gathered expressed support from three candidates apiece.  Rubio, Cruz, and Bush all spoke up for comprehensively maximizing United States energy resources.  It has been an oddity that our country is one of the few in the developed world that does not get the most of what it has, not only in fossil fuels but renewable ones such as wind and hydroelectric.  It is insufficient to assert either that environmental concerns are automatically more important than all others put together or that a need to develop other sources justifies sharp limits on coal and oil production.  More jobs are a certainty with more energy work, which comes ahead in other ways as well, so these three Republicans are correct here.  The same cannot be said for another idea from the same three, repealing Obamacare.  That program is certainly flawed, and will eventually get the rework it needs, but in the meantime it is the only comprehensive healthcare program, a clear necessity, the United States has ever had.  It is not reasonable to presume that if it is repealed it will quickly be replaced by a better system, so that should only be done with simultaneous replacement.  As for jobs, it is hard to see how any program which causes the total amount of health care resources to climb sharply can cut them, therefore no merit here.  The third three-person idea, leaving the minimum wage the same, is, as I have written repeatedly before, classically positive for the number of jobs, a point made by Carson, Rubio, and Donald Trump.    

Two suggestions were made by two candidates.  Rubio and Trump spoke out for the need for less illegal immigration, and, in the case of Trump, advocating comprehensive deportation.  Yes, Donald, going door-to-door would create tens of thousands of jobs, but it’s unworkable if not just silly.  I give partial credit for the rest of the idea, since it is unclear how many positions vacated by undocumented foreigners would actually then be filled by Americans.  The second, a flat income tax requested by Cruz and Paul, is an intriguing if probably fatally regressive revenue-collecting idea with pro-employment effects possible but hardly guaranteed. 

Three remaining thoughts on improving American employment were put forward by one candidate each.  Kasich said there would be more jobs if the budget were balanced – why, and how quickly?  Rubio advocated more vocational training, and hinted that it has stopped taking place, which would be a surprise to millions at community colleges and the like; that has only a small amount of merit, as too many of the jobs for which it prepares workers are shrinking in number.  I was surprised that only Paul spoke out for an end to the payroll tax, which is regressive, takes money away from those most likely to need it and spend it, and charges businesses for having employees at a time when we would be better off paying them instead. 

Of these ten ideas, only one – that of more vocational training – is likely to be supported by either major Democratic candidate.  These are conservative suggestions.  That, however, does not mean that liberals should reject them out of hand.  Just as the more Democratic idea of a WPA-style infrastructure project, which both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have advocated, should also be by Republicans, more liberals would do well to consider, for example, whether we really need as many employment-related regulations as are now on the books.  The country, after all, belongs to all of us, and even official joblessness won’t keep dropping forever.  We have had almost seven years under a moderate Democrat – whether we should have nine, five, or just one more is for us, considering the thoughts above, to decide. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Behind October’s Strong Employment Data, AJSN Rises to 17.5 Million as Latent Demand for American Jobs Increases

Yesterday morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics data release was a good one.  The headline seasonally adjusted official unemployment rate reached another post-recession low of 5.0%, and the economy added another 271,000 jobs, about double that needed to cover population increase.  The count of those without work for 27 weeks or longer and still qualifying as jobless held its September improvement and it still at 2.1 million, whereas that of people working part-time for economic reasons, or employed less than full-time while wanting that status, amazingly shed another 269,000 and is at 5.8 million, down from 6.5 million just two months before.  The unadjusted unemployment rate also dropped 0.1%, to 4.8%.

The two best measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, stayed the same and increased 0.1 percent respectively and are now at 62.4% and 59.3%.  The first of those two numbers is still at the post-1977 low it reached last month, whereas the second, while still small by the standards of the past few decades, continues to be helped by lower official joblessness. 

Average private nonfarm hourly earnings, which had actually decreased in September, gained 9 cents per hour last month.  They are now at $25.20, with the October gain reflecting a strong 4.3% annual rate.  That number is up a more-than-inflation 2.5% so far in 2015.

However, despite the solidly positive results above, latent demand for jobs actually increased last month.  That was because the number of people reporting that they wanted to work but had not looked for it in the previous year was up 131,000, which more than offset the 31,000 drop in official unemployment.  In addition, those counted as discouraged from looking, who below are credited with the same probability of taking employment as the technically jobless, rose 30,000.  On the other side, the total of those claiming no interest in working, which is rising more consistently than any other group but fluctuates a remarkable amount from month to month, was off over 600,000, cutting latent demand by over 30,000.  Overall, the American Job Shortage Number, which shows how many additional jobs could be quickly filled if they were readily available, gained 66,000 as follows:

What is noteworthy about the AJSN this month?  Two related things.  First, although October’s employment data was legitimately positive in not only specific but broad-based ways, our national job shortage worsened.  Second, although many people think of new jobs going to the jobless, more and more latent demand for them comes from people with other working statuses.  Of the almost 17.5 million more positions that could be absorbed quickly, only 6,837,000 would go to the officially unemployed.  That 39.1% share shows how many people not in that group want to work, and their numbers are not shrinking at all.

So where are we now?  The pattern of the past several years, dropping official unemployment showing less and less of the American job shortage, continued in October.  While there were slightly more work positions across the population, the share of people in the labor force did not rebound from September’s fall, and is poised to set another low in November or December.  But fair is fair, and the turtle did, indeed, take a step forward last month.   

Monday, November 2, 2015

Speaking Engagement / Late AJSN

On Thursday evening, I will be giving a presentation, “How to Find a Lasting Career in the New Age of Work,” at Waubonsee Community College west of Chicago.  Unfortunately I will not be back until late Friday.  Accordingly, October’s American Job Shortage Number will not be available until Saturday morning. 

Here is the information on Thursday’s program, which is open to the public: .

I shall return!    

Friday, October 30, 2015

Toward Bipartisan Gun Control Reform – III

This post concludes a three-part series.  On October 16 I wrote about the public health problem of too many Americans being shot to death, identified it as needing a solution catering to both conservatives and liberals, and set a series of ground rules.  Last week I examined changes put forth by those on the left, made a case for some, and rejected others.  Today it is time to look at what the conservatives have been proposing.

The single most powerful argument for more gun rights is not freedom, superior ideology, or the Second Amendment.  Yet it is still powerful.  It is that it is dangerous for people to be known to be unarmed.  Although deterrence does not generally work for crimes of passion, or for those with unbalanced assailants, it does have value when dealing with perpetrators who are sane, which a higher share will be if the tighter gun ownership measures proposed in last week’s post are implemented.  As well, when prudent people actually do turn up with guns at shooting scenes, lives, often many, can be saved.

Accordingly, concealed carry of legally registered firearms should be allowed.  When combined with all transfers of guns being reported, I see that as comparable to the higher speed limits we have enjoyed since stronger penalties for drink-driving were implemented.  That would best also apply to state-owned schools as well as to public places in general, although there is a cultural problem that calls for one restriction.  Since high school and college students often experiment with mind-altering drug use and alcohol overuse, undergraduates should not be allowed to carry firearms on campuses.  I know that is unfair to those who stay sober and straight, but, as discussed two weeks ago, that is no more than another unfortunate but uncorrectable case of miscreants spoiling a privilege for others.  The possibility that any teacher, administrator, or other school employee eligible to own a gun might have one, almost regardless of how many actually do, should be sufficient to eliminate anyone’s assumption that if they shot or even threatened people with weapons they would not encounter anyone else armed.  Government workplaces should be the same, but private ones, as well as any buildings not open to the public, should instead be free to establish their own policies.

Another area which should move in the direction of more freedom is the firearms, ammunition, and related hardware allowed.  If such would be firmly identified with their legally liable owners, there is little need to prevent people from owning weapons more powerful than those now allowed.  There would obviously be a limit of some sort, if only for physical dangers associated with huge weapons or arsenals, but they could be much higher than they are now.

On the minus side for conservatives, one suggestion I cannot accept is to leave the current situation as it is.  It’s no better to say, as did presidential candidate Jeb Bush, that “stuff happens,” than it would be to condone a disease annually killing over 30,000 Americans.

How should we deal with the current 350 million privately owned guns?  In deference to the massive majority being safely controlled by legal owners, we should not require anything more to be done with them.  The exception would be new carrying permits, which should require specific identification of the firearms involved along with proper registration. 

Overall, the proposal in these posts has the potential to greatly reduce the number of American gun deaths.  It allows law-abiding firearm owners without disqualifying issues or histories more freedom in which guns they can own and how they can use them, while formalizing their legal responsibility when their weapons are involved in tragedies.  It caters to a true difference in American culture not present in other advanced countries, while addressing one of its worst aspects more decisively than has ever happened.  It comes closer than our current set of laws to delivering consequences to those abusing this aspect of national trust, while giving more rights to those who have proven themselves responsible.           

We cannot go back to the time when people, even the most civilized of us, can do anything with guns they would like, as they could with the first cars over a century ago.  We also cannot attempt to ban them, as some radicals also propose we do with automobiles.  Both cars and firearms have their places in our huge, diverse country.  The number of American motor vehicle deaths peaked in 1969, when our population was 37% less than today, with deaths per 100,000 vehicle miles 4½ times 2013’s rate.  To decimate that problem we used a judicious and even-handed combination of more freedom and more regulation.  We can and should do the same with guns.  There is no time like the present to start.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Toward Bipartisan Gun Control Reform – II

Last week I introduced the public health problem of too many American gunshot victims, and said I would dedicate the next two weeks’ posts to evaluate suggestions for dealing with it made by both conservatives and liberals.  This post considers the latter.

The main idea espoused by those advocating more gun control is that if we reduce the number of firearms, less damage will be done by them.  That is not completely true.  As per the second point I made last week, showing that if the American rate of fatal shootings, per privately owned firearm, was the same as in the four countries arguably most comparable to the United States, about a third fewer people would die without a single gun being removed.  However, the left does have some logically sound proposals.

The best ways of improving the public health concern are those that minimize the fatal shootings while limiting damage done to those owning and using guns responsibly.  That, unfortunately for them, does not mean avoiding any inconvenience completely.  Although cars are safer and drivers are more conscientious than half a century ago, both must now meet higher standards, which costs money for the vehicles to conform and impedes drivers from doing what they once did legally, such as going out after having a few drinks.  We cannot avoid moving in the same direction with our gun laws.  However, as with stricter driving-under-the-influence statutes not disturbing teetotalers, such statutes should be designed to have the smallest effect on those least likely to abuse their firearms. 

Accordingly, some liberal suggestions stand out as worthy of full national implementation.  Most valuable would be a requirement of an electronic background check for any personal gun purchase.  That would apply to all settings, from private sales (with the buyer obtaining approval online or over the phone), to people buying firearms at gun shows (with sellers using point-of-sale machines) to permanently located dealers.  The background check would, after the technology is in place, take no longer than credit card approval does today.  Convicted felons, anyone found guilty of threatening or committing violence with guns, those with certain mental health histories and medical judgments of being currently dangerous to others, and perhaps others convicted on domestic violence charges would be prohibited from buying firearms.  
Consistent with the requirement for background checks, other laws should be passed as well.  The transactions as approved above should include tracking information, at least manufacturer and serial number, and would constitute an electronic title for the gun in the buyer’s name.  Any theft of a firearm would need to be reported promptly, the exact interval required to be negotiated, to police, whereupon the gun’s title would be marked.  Gun sellers would be legally liable for using proper procedure, and subject to prosecution for violations.  Transferring firearms without reporting, including buying one in your name for another person, would also be a crime.  Legally, guns would be considered extensions of their owners, as dogs, rather than “the darlings of the law” such as cats and small children.

Along with the above ideas, which are constructive and entail as little of a burden on law-abiding gun owners as they can reasonably expect, many bad ones have been put forth.  Written and practical tests before anyone can buy or own a firearm, or other licensing requirements, sound reasonable to many, but would be, as well as expensive and cumbersome to administer, made superfluous by the current and above proposed laws, which hold gun owners accountable anyway.  The same goes for requiring regular inspections, which has questionable merit even for cars.  Buy-back programs have failed, as they bring in almost exclusively weapons which don’t work or are unwanted anyway, and should not be restarted.  Mandatory waiting periods endanger people with urgent needs, so are too detrimental to require.  The legal liability of gun manufacturers should be restricted to their products working improperly, and not invoked when people use them as they are designed but for the wrong reasons.  And accusations or arrests without convictions should never stop anyone from being able to buy firearms, as we are innocent without being proved guilty. 

One other large area of gun control suggestions should also be eliminated.  There is no point in banning guns over a certain capability, ammunition in quantities over specific amounts, clips larger than a predetermined capacity, or the like.  As too many mass shootings have shown, shooters need not have extraordinary firepower to kill.  When people with guns are held to the recommended standards above, they will be liable, whether they are using one-bullet muskets or 75-round-capable military rifles. 

Three further gun control measures I see as flawed but worthy of consideration.  One is requiring liability insurance, which would help shooting victims get financial help but would end up being a real burden on the masses whose guns only come out for cleaning or target practice.  Another is encouraging that guns be “smart,” in other words fireable only by their registered owners – that would be a good option for buyers where theft is a real problem, or maybe a requirement in cities whose citizens want it, but would be bad for, for example, farms and ranches where weapons are available but shared, and would inhibit one of the best settings for learning gun safety, parents teaching their children how to shoot.  Requiring bullet microstamping, or other technology to conclusively show which firearm it came out of, would help such identification, but might be too expensive to implement and be covered predominantly by ballistics analysis anyway. 

Next we move to the other side.  In what ways should the ownership and use of guns be freer than it is now?  I will post that, along with the series conclusion, a week from today.               

Friday, October 16, 2015

Toward Bipartisan Gun Control Reform – I

For the next three weeks, I go off the topic of jobs. 

As Americans, we have a major issue which badly needs attention from the center.  Except for possibly abortion, it is the most divisive one in the United States, with what seems like every commentator and almost every citizen exclusively in one camp or the other.  Both sides are passionate, both sides are entrenched in their beliefs, and, as is so often the case with complicated political, governmental, and cultural problems, both sides espouse not only truths but excellent talking points.  Unfortunately both sides are also wrong, and neither seems to have taken the effort to understand the other. 

In its simplest form, the problem we face and need to resolve is not one of ideology, freedom, or civil rights.  It is a public health issue.  Too many Americans are being shot to death.  

Why do I say “too many”?  Let us look at how American gun deaths compare with other countries.  In 2013, 10.64 per 100,000 died from gunshot.  That ranked 13th of the 75 tracked by Wikipedia, with the only one worse that could be called first-world being Uruguay, 11th with 14.01.  The next highest developed country was Finland, with 3.64 (92% of which were suicides, compared with 63% in the United States), followed by France (3.01), Austria (2.95), Switzerland (2.91), and Estonia (2.54).  The countries usually thought of as most comparable to us, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Great Britain, had gun-death rates of 2.22, 1.24, 0.86, and 0.26 per 100,000 respectively.  The average of these four numbers is less than one ninth that in America.  Unlike deaths from automobiles (of which there are now fewer than from guns) or other violent sources, more and more here are dying that way, up almost every individual year from 29,569 in 2004 to 33,636 in 2013.  That is what makes it a concern for public health.    

Recently, mass shootings at schools and workplaces have brought attention to the problem.  The liberal side has made proposals of various sorts, with essentially all parts being in the direction of more restrictions, and conservatives, many of whom will accept no changes at all, have unsurprisingly rejected them.  Yet liberals are getting increasingly intolerant of the gun situation the way it is.
We are clearly in need of a truly bipartisan solution.  Accordingly, liberals as well as conservatives need to concede some things.  That is the first principle.  What others should form the foundation?

Second, the number of guns alone does not explain the damage done with them.  The United States now has 112.6 privately owned guns per 100 residents; the 2014 rates for Canadians, Germans, Australians, and Britons were 30.8, 30.3, 15, and 6.6.  Dividing the numbers above by these gets us one 2013 American death per 10,583 2015 guns, with the other countries better (and one less year apart) at 13,873, 24,435, 17,442, and 25,385.  If the 2013 United States rate was the 20,284 average of these four, with no change in the number of guns there would have been 10,686 fewer people dying that way.  

Third, even with the most optimal set of gun laws, United States murder rates, in particular, would be higher than in comparable countries.  That is because of several factors less prominent in the likes of Great Britain – to name only three, a more heterogeneous population, a more aggressive national character, and traditions of more freedom and fewer laws in general which in combination lead to economic inequality.  For better or worse, we do not have the same national disposition as Britons, and may never. 

Fourth, following from the last principle, as harsh as it sounds there are acceptable levels of gun violence.  The ability to stop every person from ever shooting anyone is beyond any solution other than complete elimination, which is not a reasonable, let alone possible, solution.  We can debate what those levels should be, but they will, in deference to realism, be more than zero. 

Fifth, the Second Amendment does not guarantee a complete lack of gun laws, any more than the First allows any speech of any kind in any setting, or assures your right to practice a religion involving, for example, the torture of animals.  In fact it could be modified or even repealed, or, as has been the case with other amendments, interpreted differently by a future Supreme Court. 

Sixth, guns remain the easiest and surest way for people with average capability to destroy anyone, including themselves.  Several decades ago, women attempted suicide three times as often as men, but actually killed themselves only one third as much – that was because they generally used seldom-lethal pills, whereas the men most often chose firearms.  It is true that people and not guns themselves are responsible for what happens with them, but people with guns can kill much easier. 

Seventh, per the old business principle, cost should go to the cost-causers.  That rule means that if something we own has the potential to damage others, we are liable for that.  Firearms are no special exception.

Eighth, and most sadly, at times some people ruin things for everyone.  Some areas, such as owning and managing guns, are matters of trust, and if too many abuse that, innocent people will be inconvenienced.  There are numerous other examples of this principle from daily life:  your new car brakes do not mean you are allowed to follow others more closely; your great sense of humor does not stop your joking about bombs in the airport security line from being a crime; fireworks easily managed by your conscientious 10-year-old are still often judged too dangerous to be legal, and so on.  We can and should debate the value of laws stemming from this principle, but the fact is that they are commonplace. 

Given these ground rules, what further restrictions on firearms should we accept or reject?  That will be the subject of next week’s post, followed by freedoms we should and should not implement, and more, the week after.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Keep Your Sanity While Job Hunting: Nine Rules

Finding work is hard, but with 149 million Americans employed it can be done.  How can those looking for jobs avoid being overwhelmed and bewildered, and instead focus on what’s important?

First, when deciding among careers, consider which fields are not only suitable for you personally but will still be around and doing well after 10 to 20 more years of globalization, automation, and business efficiency.  Positions with primary tasks that can be done cheaper by foreign workers or machines, or that can be done in much less time than they are today, are usually poor choices.  Massage therapists and plumbers will be around for decades to come, but insurance underwriters (following algorithms that computers can also do) and most manufacturing machine operators (susceptible to being replaced by robots) will not.       

Second, be aware that what you need most to get hired are specific, not general, experience, and being personally, not professionally, liked by the interviewer.  Information technology project managers, regardless of how deeply they understand their work, will rarely be hired for the same in construction.  And those working ever-longer hours do, right or wrong, want people around them they might choose as friends.

Third, limiting your search to applying for widely advertised positions is unlikely to get you working, even if your résumé looks like Mark Zuckerberg’s and your interviewing skills resemble Oprah Winfrey’s.  Although electronic job boards have great value, applicants should seek out and pursue local and word-of-mouth opportunities as well.   

Fourth, realize it’s not enough to avoid massive blunders, such as saying in your cover letter that you want to take over the world, or, at interview time, openly lusting after your would-be coworkers.  Not perpetrating something similar will only put you in a not-so-elite group of 99% of all jobseekers, most of whom are not being hired.  Being well-behaved and well-intentioned, along with your credentials, will often be enough to get you in the door, but after that, nearly all of your competition will match you on those counts.

Fifth, be ready for nontraditional job interview venues and practices.  Unusual settings, such as a restaurant or even a hotel lobby, are becoming more common.  Per relatively recent literature, the range of questions has widened, with such old saws as “sell me this pen” joined by the likes of “how many gas stations are in the United States?”  The idea here is to keep on an even keel, do the best you can, and don’t worry about being perfect – your competitors probably won’t be either.

Sixth, if they show you in a good light, consider adding a career objectives or hobbies and interest sections to your résumé.  After many years of undesirability, both are becoming more common, as are mentioning gradepoint averages if better than 3.0. 

Seventh, don’t believe the recent nonsense about skipping cover letters.  An article in Bloomberg last month said they are unnecessary, since interview behavior is more important.  It missed the point that cover letters are designed to get interviews, not the other way around.  Almost any human, even one spending only a few seconds on it, will expect and appreciate a smoother introduction than the beginning of a résumé. 

Eighth, consider temporary help agencies.  Since they are being paid by their clients, who can reject you with little or no penalty, and your work represents something the agency will make money to resell, you are an automatic asset to them, so they can be much more relaxed about whom they accept.  They also offer a chance for you to audition for permanent positions, at which you can prove yourself through how you actually perform at the job, a more powerful draw for employers than the usual hiring process. 

Ninth, take it easy on yourself!  Very few jobs are lost by choosing the wrong reasonable interview, résumé, or workplace behavior tactics.  It is all too easy for unsuccessful applicants to obsess about what they did wrong, and what they could have done differently that would have got them hired.  Unless you were obviously disastrous, don’t sweat that sort of thing.  In the huge majority of such cases, you probably, as cruel as it sounds, had no chance from the beginning.  So much depends on finding a hiring manager with enough in common with you to like you personally, and, unless you are Pol Pot or Vlad the Impaler, you’ll come across one sooner or later.  Accordingly, take a day or two off from the search, if you want, after a once-promising opportunity craps out.  As radio talk show host Bruce Williams used to say, “it’s not easy out there, but give it your best shot.”  And keep your head together – you’ll need it once you’re back on the job.         

Friday, October 2, 2015

AJSN: US Now 17.4 Million Jobs Short on 7.6 Million Officially Unemployed, As More and More People Leave the Labor Force

Beyond the unchanged 5.1% marquee jobless rate, a lot happened in September.

On the good side, unadjusted unemployment hit an almost eight-year low at 4.9%.  The economy added 142,000 net new jobs, the lowest since March but still a bit more than our increasing population needs.  The number of people working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting full-time positions while holding ones less than that, plunged 447,000 to 6.0 million, best since the Great Recession.  Those officially jobless for 27 weeks or longer also fell, down 100,000 to 2.1 million.   The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, showing how many new positions America could absorb if they were readily available, hit another post-2008 low, down 666,000 to 17.4 million, as follows:

What was not so rosy about last month?  Well, everything else.  The two best indicators of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, plummeted 0.2% apiece, to 62.6% and 59.2%.  Understand that as little as that sounds, for numbers which move as slowly as these, anything more than one tenth of a percent in one month is a lot.  The employment-population ratio is higher than it was half a year ago, but that is due to the drop in official joblessness, and is hardly good by historic standards – it was at least 60% each month for the 24 years ending February 2009.  Labor force participation reached another post-Reggie-Jackson (October 1977) low, to about the same as when only half of United States women were there.  That was also reflected in the number of people reporting they did not want a job at all, which gusted up from less than 87.8 million to over 89.1 million, another all-time high.  Adding the other employment statuses gets us now to 94.7 million Americans neither working nor technically jobless.  That is why over 60% of our job shortage would be covered by those not in the 5.1 percent we heard about this morning.   

Compared with a year before, the AJSN dropped almost 1.3 million.  Yet all but 89,000 of that was due to lower official unemployment, and conceals the growing effect of those claiming no interest in work, who added up to 2.6 million more than in September 2014.

Another failure was in average hourly earnings, which did not budge from August, and, with adjustments and rounding, may have actually fell.  That, in relation to inflation, nearly neutralized August’s 4% annual gain.  That alone should end serious speculation, based too much on that 5.1 percent, that the labor market is getting tight. 

Overall, even though we are in the seventh year since the last recession, the footfall of people walking away from pursuing work continues to be louder than that from those finding jobs, with September standing as an extreme example.  That, not large numbers of new positions or even an improved economy, is the story behind the 5.1%.  For now, the turtle is stationary.     

Friday, September 25, 2015

Raise Interest Rates, When the Economy is Growing but Fragile? That’s What You Wanted, Dummy

The Fed dodged its own bullet last week.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote that Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, who took the position in February 2014, had the right attitude for this profoundly responsible job.  She believed in the importance of enough jobs – not with higher minimum wages, as most of her fellow Democrats believe, and not measured by dropping unemployment levels, a trap easy to fall into.  Still, over the past several months there had been widespread speculation, along with a number of apparent information leaks, that the Fed might raise interest rates, which are still at 0.25% (Federal Funds), 0.75% (Federal Discount), and 3.25% (Wall Street Prime).  At their September 17 meeting they did not, and released a statement saying they would wait until they have “seen some further improvement in the labor market” and are “reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.”

Why was this the right decision?

First, since Yellen took office, core inflation, which measures price increases outside of food and energy, has indeed gone nowhere.  Since March 2013 its measures have been, every single month, in a range from 1.57% to 1.96%. 

Second, labor force participation, which tells more accurately how common it is for Americans to be working than any unemployment rate, has worsened.  Since February 2014, the share of United States residents either working or officially jobless has fallen from 63.0% to 62.6%. 

Third, while the number of technically unemployed has improved during that span from 10.9 million to less than 8.2 million, the AJSN, or American Job Shortage Number, has dropped only from 20.3 million to just under 18.1 million.  That means the United States economy could still absorb over 18 million additional jobs.  

Fourth, while the national debt has worsened only from $17.58 trillion to $18.39 trillion over the past 17 months, that difference alone, about $81 billion, still costs, for every 1% increase in interest, $810 million per year to service.  The entire amount costs $183.9 billion for each 1%, or about 5% of the current annual $3.67 trillion federal spending.  By comparison, the largest budget item, Medicare and Medicaid, consumes less than six times that.

All four of these facts mitigate toward leaving interest rates where they are.  Together, they more than offset any argument for the opposite.  Although the national money supply, whether measured by M1 (the total amount of cash, checking accounts, and traveler’s checks in the country) or M2 (the same, plus most savings accounts, money market accounts, retail money market mutual funds, and certificates of deposit under $100,000) has been increasing more, with M1 up 12.2% from February 2014 to August 2015 and M2 up 8.8%, the lack of inflation means wealth has been pooling up.  That means the people and organizations holding it have no better choices, which, with a lack of business projects, means they are creating relatively few jobs.  Facilitating more funds to be held by raising interest rates would mean an even smaller number of work opportunities.  

We have not been in a recession since June of 2009.  That’s now six years and three months ago.  The number of net new positions has exceeded those needed by population increase for 11 of the past 12 months.  Wages, at least recently, have gone up more than inflation more months than not.  Yet with 18 million jobs short we can hardly call our economy robust.

In all, however, given that we are in a permanent jobs crisis with nowhere near enough positions for everyone who wants one and no resolution for that in sight, times are good.  So why should we mess with them?  In Robert Townsend’s business classic Up the Organization, he proposed a generous and escalating commission scheme for salespeople, and then wrote “Don’t modify it if some hot salesman brings down the chandeliers and earns a fortune.  That’s what you wanted, dummy.” 

The Federal Reserve Board confirmed for us last week that they are not dummies.  That is a good thing, and it should continue, even if some people are still itching for change for change’s sake.  As long as the numbers above do not significantly worsen, interest rates should stay the same – no matter how much time passes.          

Friday, September 18, 2015

What Does Poverty Really Mean, and How Will the Jobs Crisis Affect It?

Poverty:  “The state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor.” – From

But, as we define it now, is that actually true?

Our government has defined “thresholds,” below which it considers a person or family to be in poverty.  In 2014 they ranged from a cash income under $11,354 before taxes for one person 65 or older and $14,309 for two to $52,685 for a family of nine relatives containing exactly one under 18 years old.  That sounds simple, and is in fact not a bad back-of-the-envelope scheme determining who is poor, but what is wrong with it?

First, it is not geographically adjusted.  Even ignoring the best and worst neighborhoods in individual cities, the United States has huge cost-of-living differences.  According to, the most expensive American metropolitan area has general consumer prices averaging over 65% higher than the cheapest.  That ratio is as high as 138% for groceries, and rents in San Francisco are nearly 5½ times those for comparable Iowa City homes.     
Second, although income toward poverty thresholds includes investment earnings, it has nothing to do with existing assets or possessions, which can vary massively.  Third, it does not consider noncash benefits covering basic needs, such as food stamps or housing subsidies, but counts money unusable for survival purposes, such as that going for child support and work-related expenses.  Fourth, poverty determination under the federal system cannot be made for people in the military, college dorms, prisons, nursing homes, or other institutions, which distorts statistics.  Fifth, it makes no provision for which goods and services are needed more in different areas, from the near-necessity of air conditioning in parts of Florida but not in Minnesota to the reduced need for cars in cities in general.

Sixth, even if geographical differences were somehow accounted for accurately, we would have no agreement on what constitutes a minimum non-poverty set of belongings and other resources.  We can settle on seven things that should always be present:  a steady supply of enough breathable air; sufficient water for drinking and washing; enough nutritionally and calorically adequate food to maintain health; adequate and reasonably safe shelter; sufficient clothing in reasonable condition; enough basic personal hygiene supplies; and medical care (including drugs, doctor’s examinations and instructions, and surgery and other procedures as needed) to adequately combat and reduce pain from health issues as they arrive.  Beyond those needs and cost-effective ways of maintaining their coverage such as refrigerators, we will not only disagree, but will immediately run into problems from the cost and nature of individual needs and preferences, as well as debates on goods which may reflect unusually poor personal choices, for example, cigarettes.      

These problems mean that we cannot currently determine, let alone agree on, just who is doing without a fully sufficient set of necessities.  While conservatives may think that American poverty is overstated, since most people even below the line have what they need to live, and liberals, with a wider view of what constitutes necessities, often see understatement, it is certain that, in individual cases, it can be either.  With low cash income, disabled people I have known were often well below poverty thresholds, but with food stamps and almost free Section 8 housing, along with Medicare Part B health care and more than enough Social Security income for other necessities, they were not in need.  In contrast, many retired people publicized for choosing between eating decently and buying prescriptions would not count as poor since their federal benefits took them over $11,354 or $14,309.

Given all that, what is true poverty?  While there is value in some kind of income-based approximation, that is all such a thing can be, and should not be the main determinant of who is truly poor.  Our national goal should be preventing shortfalls in the seven human needs above, without regard to how much money changes hands.  There is no tax or charge levied for breathable air, and running water is almost universal and low-cost.  As well, we have access to numerous other things at no charge or nearly so, such as a vast range of information, music, reading material, games, and other recreational outlets on the Internet.  Broadcast radio and public libraries are still free, and use of roads, parks, and playgrounds still cost nothing.   

With a permanent job shortage in force, despite ever-lower official unemployment, money may often be harder to acquire than many other resources.  That means we need to consider providing more things as a public service.  For one idea, it would be a superb and eventually technically attainable project to provide free wireless Internet for the entire country. 

In some ways, such as how an increasing number of Americans survive, we are going back to the times before the Industrial Revolution.  It may surprise modern people to learn that countless people lived full lives while getting and spending very little money, but that was how much of the country actually worked, well into the 20th century.  With more and more basic resources either government-provided or free, we may go back to that.  Such a situation will not mean more poverty, in the real sense of the word.  After all, jobs are not the stuff of life – and money isn’t either.               

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Latest on Jobs in the News, So to Speak

American employment, at first glance, has looked good lately.  Official joblessness keeps dropping, more net new positions are added almost every month than the population increase can absorb, and in August’s data, average wages even got into that spirit by rising at a way-over-inflation 4% annual rate.  The bad news of more and more people deciding they don’t want to work at all is whispered by comparison, as is the vulnerability we have by piling up the years, about six of them now, with no recession. 

Given all that, it’s no wonder that other concerns, even among the output from the huge crowd of 2016 presidential contenders, are predominating.  There are, however, some meaningful things about work which we can get from other stories, even those which don’t seem relevant. 

The first is about football.  The regular NFL season opened last night, with its about 1,600 well-employed production workers.  Yet one seems unlikely to be on the field – Tim Tebow.  This winner of the Heisman Trophy (best college player) was drafted in the first round, did well at quarterback, gathered a lot of attention for not only his work but his evangelical Christianity, but was considered flawed for various reasons, and ended up being traded and cut.  He was a college football analyst on TV, then was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles.  In the preseason, he again played respectably, but did not make the team. 

So why am I writing about him in a column about employment?  Many people seem to think that the reason Tebow has not been able to stay on rosters is that, despite achieving results coaches want, he falls short in how he does what goes into them.  Even though his passes have generally been on target, they are often wobbly.  Are these employers doing the right thing by judging him on technique instead of outcomes?  If people consistently get their jobs done, should they be fired in favor of those who can’t match their proven achievements?  I’m sure I don’t know the whole story here, but such an attitude is destructive, to workers and customers (in this case, fans) alike, whatever the industry.   

Another story appeared in Sunday’s New York Times.  It was titled “Friends at Work? Not So Much,” and essentially bemoaned the dropping likelihood of Americans socializing with their coworkers outside of their jobs, which is apparently much more likely in some other developed countries.  A raft of reader responses came in on why, many of which came down to people spending less time with any social companions.  But there is more than that.  One root cause is the permanent jobs crisis, which has caused jobs to be more and more transitory, making them less desirable sources for investments of time and effort in friendships. 

As for the presidential candidates, two things are forestalling most discussion on any substantive issues.  The first is Hurricane Donald.  Trump has been getting amazing amounts of press attention, even for irrelevant things such as his TV show.  Both despite and because of his wildly aggressive statements, he is way on top of the Republican polls, yet most think he won’t last, and if any well-established newspaper columnist anywhere in the country supports him I don’t know about it.  Other hopefuls in his party are reacting in various ways, ranging from trying to grab his coattails to just waiting for him to crash and burn, and, generally and understandably, are not saying much for now.   

The other factor preventing more candidate substance is on the Democratic side.  Hillary Clinton, once the massive favorite and still with much shorter election odds than anyone else (now at 35 to 20 against, compared with next-best Jeb Bush’s 6 to 1 against), is falling as fast as the worst recent stock market days.  Even on the liberal side she is gathering almost exclusively negative press, mostly from her atrocious handling of her email message management scandal, and is being buried by once fringe candidate Bernie Sanders in how much she is liked and trusted.  She is now behind in both Iowa and New Hampshire polls.  Even Joe Biden, an undeclared contender with the same 15-to-1 odds as Sanders, has been taking a long time to decide whether to get in the race, which he is heavily likely to do only if Clinton falls much more.  Until we see a bottom to her descent, others will not commit themselves. 

One Republican, though, released something substantive.  On Wednesday, Jeb Bush put forth a plan for federal tax reform.  It included consolidating income tax brackets into three (10%, 25%, and 28%), increasing deductions for those at the low end, removing various loopholes, eliminating the estate tax, and other ideas.  Although such policies would create jobs, through tens of millions of Americans having more money to spend, even Republicans acknowledged that the proposal would cost over $1 trillion in revenue shortfalls over ten years, and few outside his campaign staff really think it would, by itself, achieve the national economy’s touted 4% annual growth.  Slashing revenues would call for hacking spending as well, and that would devastate prospects for the labor-intensive infrastructure project America badly needs.   

There have been a few other odds and ends on the edges of American employment.  Will the Kim Davis idiocy make it fashionable for people to refuse to do their jobs?  (I would sure like to get weeks of nationwide publicity just for not doing mine.)  Atlantic published a piece about “job flexibility” helping economic mobility, which would have been worthwhile if author Gillian B. White had defined even in general terms what she meant by that.  Candidates and commentators everywhere are still conflating good things for American jobs, such as mandating high standards for workers to be considered contractors instead of employees, with bad ones such as forcing all employers everywhere to raise their lowest rates of pay.  Despite the lull, the news about work is still out there – we just need to look a little harder.