Friday, December 8, 2023

Jobs Report Roars Back – AJSN Shows Latent Demand Down Almost Half a Million

Last month’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was the worst all year.  But any thoughts that it would start a trend were dashed this morning.

In November, our economy added 199,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions.  That was not only at the high end of published predictions – the ones I saw were 150,000, 190,000, and 200,000 – but four times what we needed to cover population increase.  All but one of the statistics I report on improved.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment reached 3.7% and 3.5%, down 0.2% and 0.1%.  The number of people with jobs gained 473,000 to 162,149,000, and officially unemployed, seasonally adjusted, dropped 200,000 to 6.3 million.  The long-term jobless out for 27 weeks or longer fell 100,000 to 1.2 million, and those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to shorter-hours propositions while seeking full-time ones, lost 300,000, getting to 4.0 million.  The measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or counted as technically jobless, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, rose 0.1% and a large 0.3% to arrive at 62.8% and 60.8%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll wages added 10 cents, more than inflation again, to $34.10.  Those claiming no interest in work were 9,000 more numerous and numbered 94,839,000.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if everyone knew they would be easy to get, lost 488,000 from last month, and ended up at this:

Ninety percent of this month’s change was due to fewer unemployed and fewer American expatriates, the current State Department estimate of whom fell one million.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless was 33.5%, down 0.5%.

Compared with a year before, the AJSN decreased 154,000, with the change in expatriates, and in those wanting work but not looking for it for at least a year, more than offsetting an increase in the jobless count. 

If we draw a two-month line from September to November, we get average monthly jobs gains of 174,500, adjusted and unadjusted unemployment each down 0.1%, 100,000 fewer officially jobless, long-term unemployment unchanged, the employment-population ratio the same but the labor force participation rate up 0.4%, those working part-time for economic reasons down 100,000, people employed up 480,000, and the hourly wages above up 22 cents.  The AJSN fell 543,000.  The only minus is the count of those denying any interest in work, which over the past two months increased 428,000. 

All that means we’re still doing superbly.  We, in general, more than cancelled out the previous month’s disappointing showing.  No recession, no shortage of work, wages strong, and inflation at 3%.  Overall, these are great times for the American economy.  The turtle took a double-sized step forward.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Four-Day Workweeks – Do They Make Sense?

Since the five-day, 40-hour week was solidified in the 1930s, people have talked about full-timers reporting for less.  It seemed like the logical next step, but 90 years on we have seen no such thing. 

There are several reasons for that.  The schedule has worked well.  People can coordinate family and leisure activities effectively, given that they are spending, plus commuting, only about one-quarter of their regular working weeks there.  Overtime can be easily added to either weekdays or weekends.  Studies have shown that productivity starts to fade after about that number of hours.  Remote work, though, has destroyed the barrier between home and office, so is it possible we are ready to cut back from the venerable Monday through Friday?

In “Push for a 4-day work week picks up steam – and critics” (Fox News, February 5th), Aaron Kliegman summarized the contemporary situation.  “A growing number of lawmakers, business leaders, and academics are pushing for the U.S. to embrace a four-day work week, leading critics to question the wisdom of what would be a cultural sea change for the country.”  While some pointed out that “not every business is able to cut its work time while maintaining the same level of salaries,” others called it “something that offers a real win-win possibility for both employers and employees,” and “academics have been increasingly floating the idea,” along with “a recent CNN opinion piece” which said its advocates were ”striking a blow at the absurd American culture of overwork.”  Or, perhaps, as a Wharton processor put it, she did not think that “our employers are going to believe that you can get as much work done in four days as in five.”

The last view did not seem the most common, as “Is the US ready for a four-day work week?” (Austin Westfall, Fox Business, also February 5) told us that “Research from Robert Half, an employment agency, shows a large majority of US managers (93%) support a four-day workweek for their team,” and “the data shows 64% expect their company to transition to one within the next five years.”  No surprise, though, is the headline of “Employers tried a 4-day workweek program.  Employees said they were healthier and happier” (Marina Pitofsky, USA Today, February 21st).

So where is the middle ground?  Perhaps it’s described in “The pros and cons of a 4-day workweek” (Paula Peralta, Benefit News, September 7th).  In the former category, Peralta named “requested by employees” (41% in a “recent” study conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans), “retention strategy” (36%), “work-life balance and rethinking company culture” (36%), and “recruitment strategy” (27%).  The points against four-day workweeks were “lack of interest by upper management” (42%), “difficulty implementing it organization-wide” (38%), “negative impact on business operations” (36%), “unsure if it would work with organization structure” (36%), and “unable to support the customer base” (32%).  “Alternatives” named in the survey were “working remotely on certain days of the week (hybrid)” (75%), “flexible work hours (61%), “working remotely full-time” (50%), “part-time schedule" (35%), and “compressed workweeks” (24%). 

If we are going to have four-day timetables, we would need to address a few more things.  First, if only some companies have them, it could put great pressure on ones in the same industries to do that as well, unless they paid their five-day employees up to 25% more.  Second, it could call for changes in how much idle time cubicle workers would have – perhaps they would not be enthusiastic about shorter schedules if they were expected to produce more per hour.  Third, there in most cases could be no Friday equivalent, no day where expectations, performance, and office hours are often lower – would that be acceptable to everyone?  Fourth – and this is the problem nobody seems to want to address – if people are now working more than 40 hours per ordinary week, what would a 32-hour schedule really mean?  Answer and get reasonable agreement on these and I can stand behind four-day workweeks – if not, they just plain won’t succeed. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Driverless Cars, Even in Limited Roles, are Conking Out

Even with vastly reduced expectations, autonomous vehicles are falling short.

In the August 9th New York Times, Yiwen Lu told us “San Francisco Balks at Expanding Driverless Car Services on City’s Roads.”  She called them “a jarring sight” “that “has become common” there.  Cruise, which was offering taxi rides, and Waymo, whose autonomous cars I saw tested in Arizona four years ago, wanted to charge customers “throughout the city, round the clock.” Although none thus far had been “blamed for any serious injuries or crashes,” there had been incidents in which the vehicles, on roads, “simply shut down and won’t move.”

In a piece from Atlantic ten days later, Anna Wiener reported that “Robo-Taxis Are Legal Now,” because of a California Public Utilities Commission vote to approve the autonomous vehicle increase above.  It didn’t take long for the people against it to seem vindicated, as a week later “a driverless Cruise car, carrying a passenger, collided with a fire truck,” apparently  not yielding to it when traffic controls alone indicated it would not need to, and “a couple of hours later… another driverless Cruise car was involved in an accident, after it responded to an oncoming car by braking and stopping short.”  The next day, the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles asked that Cruise cut its maximum-allowed number of autonomous vehicles running there in half, and, per “Cruise Agrees to Reduce Driverless Car Fleet in San Francisco After Crash,” on August 18th and also in the New York Times by Yiwen Lu, that request was granted. 

In October came another mishap there.  As Julie Angwin wrote in “Autonomous Vehicles Are Driving Blind” (The New York Times, October 11th), earlier that month “a woman suffered traumatic injuries from being struck by a driver and thrown into the path of“ a driverless car.  As well, “San Francisco’s fire chief… recently testified that as of August, autonomous vehicles interfered with firefighting duties 55 times this year.”  Angwin blamed a lack of “federal software safety testing standards for autonomous vehicles,” and expanded her concern to artificial intelligence in general.

Another permutation was the subject of “Remote Driving Is a Sneaky Shortcut to the Robotaxi” (Sean Lightbown,, October 18th).  “On the busy streets of suburban Berlin, just south of Templehofer Feld, a white Kia is skillfully navigating double-parked cars, roadworks, cyclists, and pedestrians.  Dan, the driver, strikes up a conversation with his passengers, remarking on the changing traffic lights and the sound of an ambulance screaming past in the other direction.  But Dan isn’t in the car.”  Dan is a “teledriver,” working for “German startup Vay.”  That capability had been used to back up driverless vehicles during testing and could now be used to cover “driver shortages at airports, harbors, or in the trucking industry” with “a bank of remote drivers available around the world.”  It could allow, for example, intercity truck driving by people not needing to be away from their families, with longer hours per vehicle as one remote driver could take over for another.

The self-driving situation discussed before worsened soon thereafter, as “Cruise’s Driverless Taxi Service in San Francisco Is Suspended” (Yiwen Lu and Cade Metz, The New York Times, October 24th).  It was made by the state DMV, due mainly to the accident earlier that month, in which the pedestrian was “trapped under the driverless car,” which then “tried to pull over” and “dragged the pedestrian until it stopped.” 

Four weeks later, another piece by Lu in the Times summarized events in “’Lost Time for No Reason’:  How Driverless Taxis Are Stressing Cities.”  One involved two autonomous vehicles, each blocking a side of the road which “added seven minutes” to an ambulance run.  San Francisco had seen “more than 600 self-driving vehicle incidents… from June 2022 to June 2023,” and Austin, another though smaller hub for driverless taxicabs, had 52 “incidents” between July 8 and October 24.  Cruise has now “suspended its autonomous vehicle operations,” and its CEO resigned on November 19th. 

The future is not entirely hopeless for self-driving taxis.  Lu reported that Nashville and Seattle, still on track to allow them, had started training for firefighters on dealing with them, and Phoenix, after three years of allowing “autonomous taxi services,” has 200 with few complaints.  That is good, since their developers clearly have things to learn about different locations.  The promise of autonomous vehicles is still great – we still have over 30,000 annual human-caused road deaths every year – so we should all hope that 2023 will go down as the worst year for their technology. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

Job-Seeking Now – What’s Happening? What’s Changing?

There are good and bad things about looking for work in 2023.  It may be that unemployment has been below 4% for a year or so, and there are almost a record number of job openings, but it’s still not easy, and getting hired is not routine.

It’s hardly a great time to be trying.  At least it wasn’t six months ago, according to “Why job searches suck right now” (Adrienne Matei, Insider, May 22nd).  “Applicants are sending out hundreds of job applications and hearing nothing back.  Ghost jobs, AI resume screening, and a lopsided economy are making the job search miserable.”  Also, “economic instability, opaque hiring processes, and the destabilizing rise of technologies like generative AI have converged into an environment where it’s hard for job seekers to feel like they have even a basic sense of what’s going on,” and “finding a job right now isn’t only tough, it’s deeply weird.”  As I wrote 12 years ago, job openings do not mean job hiring – apparently, per Matei, that is true now more than ever.  Some fields have also been recently economically damaged, especially “real estate, media, and tech,” and, overall, “discombobulation is par for the course.”

Another recent work-searching problem was the subject of “Want a Job?  Cool, There are 17 Interviews” (Alison Green, Slate, May 23rd).  One respondent said that for a single position he had already had seven, with apparent interviewer coordination and competence issues, as he was repeatedly asked the same questions.  The high mark, though secondhand, was a friend of a respondent claiming she had had 29 (!) half-hour interviews, and was not hired, without the position being filled.  As well, remote interviews have made it possible for them to be scheduled one a day, and sample work assignments, some even to be completed before any interviews, are getting common and lengthier. 

How can people apply artificial intelligence to the job search itself?  In Benefit News on October 17th, Deanna Cuadra gave us some insight in “How to use AI to write a great cover letter.”  The way is to “pick the right AI tool,” and some even specialize in cover letters; “know how to prompt AI” by asking it the needs, priorities, and responsibilities the advertised position is likely to involve; “don’t let AI fears hold you back”; and consider adding your own changes to the tool’s output.  On November 6th in, Caitlin Harrington, in “This AI Bot Fills Out Job Applications for You While You Sleep,” told us about “software engineer Julian Joseph,” who used LazyApply’s Job GPT capability, which, after he provided “some basic information about his skills, experience, and desired position,” applied to 5,000 jobs on his behalf.  He got “around 20” interviews, and one job offer. 

After knowing of employers cutting off unsuccessful candidates without any politeness, I can’t say I was sympathetic to read, also from Cuadra in Benefit News, November 13th’s “Job candidates are still ghosting employers – and the interview process is to blame.”  Not the marathons described above, but “a poor interview experience,” and, even now, “over one-third of candidates have experienced discriminatory interview questions, most commonly around their age, race and gender.”  Also, per a Greenhouse study, “19% of job seekers have changed their names on their resumes, with 45% doing so to sound more white, 42% to sound younger and 22% to sound like the opposite gender,” with age discrimination the largest perceived problem.  As for the ghosting, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

To end with something positive, we read in Fox News on October 16th that “US companies increasingly eliminate college degrees as a requirement amid “out-of-control” school costs.”  Those cited as announcing “plans to reduce the number of jobs that require college degrees” were Walmart, IBM, Accenture, Bank of America, and Google – not minor firms.  The real reason likely is a lack of candidates, as needing higher education, a dramatic shift from pre-1970 policy, was more of a way to thin the field than anything needed for work.  This is a positive trend, and I hope that other artificial barriers, such as certifications for the like of hairdressers, will also go away.  It is time.  And it is also time for employers to treat those seeking to work for them with the kind of respect they expect themselves.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Electric Vehicles – Still Controversial, and No, Not Poised to Take Over

The past couple of years have been huge for electric cars, trucks, buses, and other transportation devices.  Per David Wallace-Wells in “Electric Vehicles Keep Defying Almost Everyone’s Predictions,” on January 11th in the New York Times, there were “almost 30 million” in existence, tripling in two years as has their market share.  In Germany and Norway, they made up 55% and 80% of new vehicles, and China almost sextupled their percentage in two years, to 20.3%.  Also, “there are 10 times as many electric scooters, mopeds and motorcycles on the road as true electric cars.”  In all, per Wallace-Wells, “as with everything else on climate, it’s not one story unfolding but many, and all at once.”  Back to that later.

Other things that have happened in this area are hardly as overwhelmingly positive.  As Greg Norman wrote in Fox Business on January 3rd, “Tesla fined $2.2M for exaggerating driving range of its vehicles:  report.”  The problem was in winter, when “the actual driving range” dropped by up to half.  In Atlantic on January 4th, David Zipper opined that “Electric Vehicles Are Bringing Out the Worst in Us.”  His concern was that “automakers’ focus on large, battery-powered SUVs and trucks reinforces a destructive American desire to drive something bigger, faster, and heavier than everyone else.”  That problem has been worsened by their “huge batteries,” resulting in, for example, a Chevrolet Silverado weighing a ton and a half more in its electric version, that and other differences often serving to neutralize environmental benefits.

That same month, we saw “Wyoming lawmakers push for electric-car ban and to limit sales by 2035” (Natalie Neysa Alund, USA Today, January 17th).  They cited an insufficient number of charging stations, problems with “critical minerals” in their batteries, and economic damage to oil-company employees.  Contrarily, California’s government has announced an end to allowing new gasoline-powered “cars, pickups and SUVs,” to take effect in 2035.

On the issue of metals, on September 16th, The Economist issued an article, “Keep digging,” which cited the Energy Transitions Commission think-tank as projecting that, in pursuit of a “carbon-neutral world,” requiring among other things “a 60-fold increase in the fleet of electric vehicles,” demand for copper, nickel, cobalt neodymium, graphite, and lithium will increase from 50% to 600%, outstripping current mining capability.  As excavating mines, per this piece, takes from 4 to 17 years, that is more timely a problem than it may seem.

How is the market for electric vehicles looking now?  This month, two contributions seemed almost to disagree.  Bloomberg’s Big Take on November 8th described “The global fight over EVs,” with that organization predicting that “all forms of EV sales will hit $8.8 trillion by 2030 and $57 trillion by 2050.”  The other article was “Automakers Delay Electric Vehicle Spending as Demand Slows,” on November 7th in the New York Times; “in recent weeks, General Motors, Ford Motor, and Tesla cited slower sales,” though the share of electric vehicles in US new-car purchases rose year-over-year in July through September from 6% to 8%. 

We’re still seeing growth, but it may have limits.  Electric cars certainly have their American niches, but there are real reasons why they may not conquer the automotive marketplace without coercive policies or outright bans.  First, with weight problems and American electricity coming 35% from fossil fuels, they are not nearly as environmentally beneficial as they may seem.  Second, battery life has only fundamentally improved when they are gigantic, and we are nowhere near having one with a 500-mile range, fitting in an ordinary car trunk, mass-produced, and acceptably inexpensive.  Third, with auto insurance companies charging extra for multiple vehicles, having an electric car for short trips and a gas-powered one for longer ones seems impractical.  Fourth, though there have been real improvements in the number of charging stations and their reliability, in many places the infrastructure is not good enough, and seems, nationwide, to be at least a decade away.  Fifth, prices are still too high.

The best applications for electric vehicles are those that run for consistently limited mileage and can recharge daily during off-hours, such as city buses, taxicabs, school buses, and local delivery trucks.  Another worthy development is hybrids, which combine the reliability of liquid-powered vehicles with low emissions and high fuel economy.  It may turn out that demand for privately-owned electric cars will level off, especially in some areas.  If that happens, we should not be shocked – it will be the market, and other aspects of reality, speaking. 

Friday, November 3, 2023

Finally, a Lousy Jobs Report, With AJSN Showing Latent Demand Almost Unchanged

For months on end, when I pulled the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, I have seen strongly positive results, exceeding industry expectations and displaying the United States doing even better on the jobs front.  Not this morning.

The number of net new nonfarm payroll positions was 150,000, favorable for a country needing less than that to maintain the same position.  Although that was below the published 180,000 and 190,000 estimates, it was the best number I saw today.  Adjusted unemployment rose 0.1% to 3.9%, with the unadjusted version staying at 3.6%.  The number of employed gained only 7,000 to 161,676,000, while the count of those claiming no interest rose 419,000 to 94,830,000.  At 6.5 million, there were 100,000 more unemployed, the same gain for those out for 27 weeks or longer, to 1.3 million.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be either working or one sought offer away, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, worsened 0.2% and 0.1% to reach 60.2% and 62.7%.  Average nonfarm payroll hourly wages gained 12 cents, more than inflation, to reach an even $34.00.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy and routine to get, lost 55,000 as follows:



Latent Demand %

Latent Demand Total









Family Responsibilities




In School or Training




Ill Health or Disability








Did Not Search for Work In  Previous Year




Not Available to Work Now




Do Not Want a Job




Non-Civilian, Institutionalized, and Unaccounted For, 15+




American Expatriates








Increases in those unemployed and discouraged were more than offset by a drop in those wanting work but not looking for it in the previous year.  The share of the AJSN from officially unemployed people was 34.0%, up 0.4% from September. 

Compared with a year before, the AJSN gained 175,000, with a 440,000 rise from people unemployed mostly offset by the drop in those not searching for it and elsewhere.

So, when we did well on net new jobs, why must I give this morning’s report a thumbs down?  Because not only were all the other figures I track worse, but unemployment rates were helped by the increase in those leaving the labor force and claiming no interest.  Perhaps we are reaching a plateau.  As before, that wouldn’t be bad, but it wouldn’t be progress either.  The turtle took a breather and stayed right where he was.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Artificial Intelligence is an Awfully Wobbly Juggernaut

For something that was supposed to be taking over the world, AI is tottering.  I can’t speak for the status of the technology itself, but that’s not the issue.  How it progresses and what it ends up doing will be decided in other realms:  legal, financial, social, regulatory, and more.  What’s been happening with AI prospects over the past two and a half months?

The first clue was in Futurism, updated on August 11th, “AI Is Starting to Look Like the Dot Com Bubble.”  This piece, modified by Maggie Harrison, started “as the AI industry’s market value continues to balloon, experts are warning that its meteoric rise is eerily similar to that of a different – and significant – moment in economic history:  the dot com bubble of the late 1990s.”  It is not that no companies are profitable – the hugest ones of Microsoft, Meta, and Amazon are – but there are many others, getting venture capital, which “have yet to even introduce a discernable product.”  It is time to realize that while there may well be Fords and Chevrolets, there will be Stutzes and Hupmobiles as well.

Per Ian Prasad Philbrick in the August 27th New York Times, “Regulating A.I. Requires Congress to Act Nimbly.”  The author pointed out that “major federal regulation” has taken as long as 90 years to materialize after “invention or patenting,” with nuclear energy, with the shortest interval, still taking four years, and airplanes and automobiles 20 and 70 respectively.  Although our senators and representatives have attended informational sessions, it is a challenge, and will take “perhaps a decade or more.”

A strong indicator of how people’s attitudes can trump technical achievements was in the September 10th New York Times, Kashmir Hill’s “Anonymity Is Over.  Big Tech Tried to Save It.”  It related how, six years ago, Facebook technologists worked out a way to identify faces and attach names and other information to them.  A related thing had been developed by Google in 2011.  Neither was released, as Google “decided to stop” what it was doing, and Facebook considered it “too dangerous to make widely available.”  Some are now using related facilities, but far fewer than their utility and technical merits would justify.

On the recent idea that artificial intelligence will at least help productivity, Aaron Mok, in Business Insider on October 2nd, relayed that “OpenAI’s ChatGPT can actually make workers perform worse, a new study found.”  The research, from Boston Consulting Group, found that when people used ChatGPT with GPT-4 for work requiring capabilities the software was known to have, such as “brainstorming innovative… concepts, or coming up with a thorough business plan,” the tool excelled, but on “more open-ended tasks” such as offering business recommendations, it would make large errors, dangerous “because the  consultants with AI were found to indiscriminately listen to its output – even if the answers were wrong.”  It will be a challenge for businesses to distinguish between these two rough categories.

There were things to think about in “Knowledge vs. intelligence amid the hype and hysteria over AI” (Mihai Naden, Fox News, October 2nd).  Naden considered intelligence to require not only evidence of ability to perform, but also what of two resources they required.  As “to win a game of chess at the expense of energy that a small town consumes in a week is unsustainable,” “artificial entities could justifiably claim intelligence if, in executing a task, they would use as much energy or less, and as much data or less, than a living entity performing the same task.”  That may be the criterion we need.

On the positive side, we have Paul Krugman’s October 3rd New York Times “A.I. could be a big deal for the economy (and for the deficit too).”  Although he saw generative AI as “souped-up autocorrect,” he thought it could massively improve productivity in that role.  He included a Goldman Sachs chart with 23 different industries, each divided into “no automation,” “AI complement,” and “likely replacement” of workers.  The field faring best was “building and grounds cleaning and maintenance,” with about 95% of employees in the first category, and “legal” the worst, ripe for a 40% job loss.  Some areas, such as sales, education, social services, and computers, were 100% complemented.  Of course, this does not include other sources of automation, globalization, and efficiency.

Per Ed Zitron in Scientific American on October 17th, “AI Is Becoming a Band-Aid over Bad, Broken Tech Industry Design Choices.”  He said iPhones came with 38 apps, 27 of which could be removed, and users would likely add more, but Apple is relying on AI interfaces instead of ones users could handle themselves, leaving “a Matryoshka of bolted-on features.”  Other vendors, according to Zitron, are similarly at fault.  Not an AI problem as such, but something to affect its reputation.

On October 18th in the New York Times, Kevin Roose said that “Maybe We Will Finally Learn More About How A.I. Works.”  Developers have communicated poorly about how the software was formed, including its use of copyrighted material and how it shares data.  GPT-4 got a 40% “transparency score,” not far off the 54% maximum among ten popular models.  Is it true or false that “we can’t have an A.I. revolution in the dark.  We need to see inside the black boxes of A.I., if we’re going to let it transform our lives”?  That is for us to decide.

Most recent is a reminder that, even for the largest companies, “Long on Hype, A.I. Is No Guarantee for Profits” (Andrew Ross Sorkin et al., The New York Times, October 25th).  Although both are deep into the technology, Microsoft has done far better than Alphabet since their earnings reports the day before, with a one-day 3.9% increase instead of a 6.2% decrease.  And Meta’s stock suffered the same day for other reasons.  So, it’s not enough to identify Ford or General Motors by their products – they must make money as well.  About that, we still, ample attention notwithstanding, do not know.  By the same token, we cannot see where artificial intelligence will wind up – regardless of our hopes and fears. 

Friday, October 20, 2023

Remote Work: The Con Side, From Writers This Summer

The issue of employees doing their tasks from the office or elsewhere keeps rolling on.  I won’t say it’s evolving, as I have maintained that its favor has been a pendulum, but it’s still oscillating.  Here is some input from commentators taking the negative view, which management mostly has now.

A remote-work effect adverse but not quite the responsibility of those causing it is the subject of “Middle America’s ‘doom loop,’” subtitled “Work from home is crushing Midwestern downtowns,” by Eliza Relman in Insider on June 22nd.  The author blamed less activity there on civic decisions made to emphasize businesses, and called on those administering such areas to adapt to this change, as “economists and urban planners say many Midwestern cities need to get serious about improving amenities and boosting quality of life in their downtowns.”

Could it be that “In the war over remote work, companies are turning full-time jobs into low-paying gigs” (Aki Ito, Insider, June 27th)?  Ito claimed that “employers are quiet quitting on the whole idea of traditional full-time employment,” as, per recent research, “businesses said remote work had led them to stock up on part-time employees, temps, independent contractors, and outsourced positions both at home and abroad.”  That trend was getting press late last decade, and has a certain justification, as, since worker’s performance issues are less important or drop out entirely when they are not conventional employees, working from home is especially compatible with such agreements.  These arrangements, as Ito points out, are not always negative, so this piece may not qualify as being against non-office work at all.

“For remote workers, time to get out of the house” by Isabella Aldrete on June 30th in Benefit News, deals with a problem people may not even know they have.  “About a third of employees say they struggle to leave the house enough when working remotely,” meaning that “work-life balance” is not only for those going to offices.  Per one interviewee, it would help them to realize “it can be important to really find time to just kind of completely unplug, leave… and focus on life outside of work,” as “it is really important to set and maintain those boundaries.”  Yes, that’s important.

The July 15th Economist had an article titled “The WFH showdown,” as “the fight over remote working goes global.”  “With bosses clamping down on the practice, the pandemic-era days of mutual agreement on the desirability of remote work seem to be over” – and, after naming various international examples, “the gap between the two sides of the work-from-home battle may yet narrow.  The question is whether the bosses or the bossed will yield the most.”

Finally, related to the second piece above, is “Remote workers are treating their jobs like gig-work, and it’s turning them into the most disconnected employees” (Jane Thier, Fortune, August 26th).  The author recommended “a hybrid plan,” and largely attributed the problem to modern work issues in general, with special concerns about “engagement and empowerment.”

Although I am still broadly bearish on remote work, these pieces, given that they were the most pertinent over the past four months, offered little new.  That probably means that not much has changed.  Since the Clinton administration, the pendulum has swung and the sides have disagreed.  Until businesses find an antidote, the issue of where to work will not be resolved. 

Friday, October 13, 2023

The Past Year’s Union Going’s-On, Ending with Automakers

During the previous twelve months, there have been a fair number of events and observations pertinent to organized labor, some of which have set the stage for the 2023 strikes.  What were they?

Before Joe Biden joined the United Auto Workers picket line, views on his attitude about unions were often different, as “Some Rail Workers, Seeking Sick Days, Say Biden Betrayed Them” (Noam Scheiber, The New York Times, November 30th).  Then, the president “urged Congress to impose a labor agreement that (one) union had voted down,” which led to a possible railroad strike, which he said “would threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs and… cost the economy more than $2 billion per day,” not materializing.  The main area of controversy was paid time off for illness or medical appointments.

Moving to a large, familiar company, which has had labor organizing efforts both successful and unsuccessful, was “At Starbucks, Schultz Is Back to Fight a Union” (Noam Scheiber and Julie Creswell, The New York Times, December 11th).  The former and incoming CEO named in the title gave “new benefits and wage increases but withheld them from employees in the union, which represents about 2 percent of the company’s U.S. work force of more than 250,000,” and said “no” to someone asking him “if he could ever imagine embracing the union.”

Times have changed significantly since December 17th, when The Economist published “Picket lines and pok√©,” subtitled “Unions are gentrifying.  Can that reverse their decline?”  Its main idea was that “unions used to be associated with brawny middle-aged men standing outside factories” but as of article time “the most active trade unions represent workers who have degrees and wear white collars,” 46% of whom had four-year degrees.  That may have been the main story of organized labor over the previous ten years, but it has since shifted toward protecting employees, especially lower-paid ones, from problems managements will not solve.  Moving in that direction, “Unions won more elections in 2022 than they have in nearly 20 years” (, December 25th), with 641, or 80% more than in 2021.  As well, “unions are winning more than three-quarters of their elections,” “three times as many US workers went on strike in 2022 as in 2021,” and “the share of Americans who approve of unions is at its highest level since 1965.”  In addition, “US labor strikes surged 52% in 2022, showing rise in ‘worker activism’: study” (Brock Dumas and Bradford Betz, Fox Business, February 21st). 

Just into this year we saw as “Amazon Loses Bid to Overturn Union Victory at Staten Island Warehouse” (Noam Scheiber and Karen Weise, The New York Times, January 11th).  That decision was made by “a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board,” who “found that there was a lack of evidence to support Amazon’s claim of election improprieties.”

The conflict at the coffee-serving company continued, as “A barista fought to unionize her Starbucks.  Now she’s out of a job” (Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post, June 18th).  This article, which made the top of the Sunday front page, related how someone, who had worked there “for nearly eight years,” as she “was one of 49 baristas from across Buffalo who sent a letter to the company’s chief executive in August 2021 informing him that they were seeking to form a union,” was fired.  As of the publication date, there were “about 320 unionized Starbucks stores in the United States,” but the effort at this one failed.

Finally, are we in “Striking times” (The Economist, September 16th)?  The United Auto Workers stoppage, started one day before this publication date, was enlarged two weeks later (U.A.W. Expands Strikes at Ford and G.M.”, Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, September 29th), and is still in progress, with companies laying off workers and no reports of successful negotiations.  There will be more.  Whether justified or not, beyond any doubt the labor situation is evolving more quickly than it has for decades.  In a year we may know much more, but for now, we don’t.

Friday, October 6, 2023

Jobs Report: Another Banner and Expectation-Exceeding Month, with AJSN Showing Latent Demand for Positions Down Over 600,000 to 16.2 Million

Another month, another jobs report, another big winner.  Why do I say that?

First, we blew away the published forecast of 170,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions with 336,000 – almost double.  Second, we added 242,000 employed people to reach 161,669,000.  Third, those were accomplished with private nonfarm payroll wages going up only 6 cents per hour, to $33.88 – less than inflation.

Much of the rest broke even, including the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate at 3.8%, the adjusted number of officially jobless at 6.4 million, the labor force participation rate at 62.8%, and the employment-population ratio at 60.4%,  Others which did change included the unadjusted unemployment rate, down a seasonal 0.3% to 3.6%, the number of those jobless for 27 weeks or longer improving 100,000 to 1.2 million, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping such positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time ones 100,0000 better at 4.1 million.  The only discouraging number of the ones I consider front-line is the number of people not wanting a job, up 729,000 to 94,411,000.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, fell a remarkable 621,000 to reach the following:


Five-sixths of the drop was from official unemployment, with another 138,000 from a lower count of those wanting work but not looking for it during the previous year.  None of the other factors added or subtracted more than 37,000.  With lower unemployment, the share of the AJSN from official joblessness came in at 33.6%, or 1.9% less than in August. 

Compared with a year before, the AJSN gained 223,000, with the 530,000 more contributed from higher unemployment mostly offset by improvements in the counts of those discouraged, those wanting work but not looking for a year or more, and non-civilian, institutionalized, and off-the-grid people comprising about one-eighth less than in September 2022.

Perhaps, with unemployment and workforce participation the same and more people getting on the shelf, September was not as good as I thought.  But, with so many new jobs added and once more no reasonably clear movement toward recession – not to mention noninflationary wage increases – we should take this data as a solid indication of continued prosperity.  As before, even if it means we are treading water, it’s plenty warm.  The turtle, once again, took a good step forward.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Artificial intelligence, as Summer Wraps Up

What has been written about AI since late July?

First, we had “4 careers where workers will have to change jobs by 2030 due to AI and shifts in how we shop, according to a McKinsey study” (Jacob Zinkula, Business Insider, July 28th).  The areas are “office support, customer service and sales, food services, and production work (e.g. manufacturing).”  The emphasis here is on “lower-wage jobs,” with “clerks, retail salespersons, administrative assistants, and cashiers” each expected to lose more than 600,000 positions, net, in the next seven years.

Kevin Roose spotlighted one apparent area of early adoption in “Aided by A.I. Language Models, Google’s Robots Are Getting Smart,” in The New York Times on the same date.  He started by describing an automaton responding to “pick up the extinct animal” by doing so with a dinosaur model instead of a lion or a whale, a seeming merger between AI and robotics, and meaning that much more along that line would also be possible.  Additionally, we have, per a Google scientist, such devices discovering “how to speak robot” by guessing “how a robot’s arm should move to pick up a ball or throw an empty soda can into the recycling bin.”  When machines do these things consistently correctly, which they do not yet, they will be especially valuable.  The next day the Times published Ben Ryder Howe’s “The Robots We Were Afraid of Are Already Here,” which was disappointing, as there seemed little new here among these automata’s industrial capabilities.

A subject we would all like to succeed at is “How to invest in AI” (Kim Clark, Kiplinger, July 29th).  Since February, people expecting to be hugely important have long since pushed up some stocks and have done much more trading as developments and even plans have materialized, so we’re way up from any ground floor.  It’s reminiscent of buying automotive stocks in the 1920s, when knowing the industry had great potential did not mean we knew who the winners and losers would be.  Given that, though, there are industry leaders looking less risky than others – ones Clark named were chip designers Nvidia, Broadcom, and Taiwan Semiconductor, along with chip software maker Synopsis.  All are risky, but huge-potential investments always are. 

Controversy stepped into an area in progress for years, as “This tech is the ‘sad reality’ of restaurant industry’s future, business owner says robot works 12 hours a day” (Hannah Ray Lambert, Fox News, August 13th).  When an Estacada, Oregon eatery, in response to not finding enough servers, deployed a Plato automaton to do their work, the owner got “customer pushback.”  Strange, but may prove to be common. 

Expecting the technology to be stronger, not weaker, than people thought months ago, was Arantza Pena Popo, in “AI is going to eliminate way more jobs than anyone realizes” (Insider, August 14th). The author said that “permanent mass employment can safely be ruled out,” but hundreds of millions of people may not be able to work their current jobs in 35 years or less.  Beyond that, it’s just a great mass of unknowns.

A question on the minds of most in this field is “The U.S. Regulates Cars, Radio and TV.  When Will It Regulate A.I.?” (Ian Prasad Philbrick, The New York Times, August 24th).  Per Philbrick’s determination, it “probably won’t happen soon,” as while television was regulated within five years of “invention or patenting,” radio took 20, telephones took 30, and railroads and automobiles were not delimited until 60 and 70 years later.  While “regulation often happens gradually as a technology improves or an industry grows,” “sometimes it happens only after tragedy.”  Accordingly, it may, or may not, take a while.

Related to my post suggesting similar things four days earlier was “The A.I. Revolution Is Coming, But Not as Fast as Some People Think,” by Steve Lohr in the New York Times on August 29th.  Reservations and reasons for going slower named here are “risks of leaking confidential data, questions about how the data is used and about the accuracy of the A.I.-generated answers,” and it cited another McKinsey study suggesting “mainstream adoption” would take somewhere between 8 and 27 years.  By then, other problems, such as copyright infringement, may still be significant.  So don’t expect anything big for a while – but let’s still stay tuned.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Liking Remote Work Won’t Change Its Downward Trend

Although I think the working-from-home cons have more merit than the pros, there have been a significant number of articles favoring the latter.  What do they have to say?

Hiding his opinion even less than I do mine was Gleb Tsipursky, in the May 8th Fortune piece “Why your boss is giving in to the siren call of the return to the office – and giving up on the flexible work gold mine.”  The author called the idea that “many organizations are struggling to foster strong communication, collaboration, and team bonding” when people worked remotely “startling,” and said that companies, as they became “faced with challenges,” “rather than learning to adapt,” were “tempted to go back to the cozy confines of the office-centric model.”  The piece offered no substantive suggestions for improvement, only that management should overcome “status quo bias” and “functional fixedness,” “adopt methods of building culture, collaboration, team bonding, and communication that are a good fit for a hybrid environment,” and “stop running” from “the future of work,” which is “here.” 

Paul Krugman, the columnist and Nobel-winning economist, told us, in “Working From Home and Realizing What Matters,” in The New York Times on May 22nd, that the value of remote labor should be raised in our estimations, because of reduced commuting time, which is undercounted or not counted in other measures.  True – if work hours are no longer.  The same author had “Remote work hasn’t doomed cities.  It may even help them” in the same publication on June 2nd.  His thought here was that “people who don’t have to commute to the office every day spend more time frequenting local shops, restaurants and so on, improving the quality of their neighborhoods,” although “remote work will surely shift metropolitan areas’ centers of gravity away from their central business districts.”

Similar in tone to the first article, Breck Dumas wrote in Fox Business about “Why some bosses hate remote work and what can be done about common gripes” (July 17th).  The five major reasons the author saw were “inadequate communication and collaboration” (which called for managers to “reach out to their remote workers and stay connected with them in other ways, like through phone or video calls”), “task allocation and clarity” (by setting SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound – parameters), “time management” (by “providing workers with training on time management techniques and encouraging prioritization and delegation”), “workload and resource allocation” (“regularly assess workloads, redistribute tasks as needed and ensure individuals have access to the necessary tools, training and support”), and “recognition and reward” (find ways of celebrating achievements with “elements of fun,” even on Zoom calls). 

Finally, some advice on “Making a successful data-driven transition to hybrid work” (Louis Blatt, Benefit News, August 1st), namely to “find out what your employees need” and “give workers some space,” along with habitually “explicitly dividing your project management into two categories:  focused/individual work and collaborative work.” 

How did you like the above?  If you did, you’re probably in favor of plenty of remote work.  If you didn’t, you saw blitheness, vagueness, superficiality, and confusing training with individual performance.  The pendulum between in-person and remote labor is still moving – it is now pulling strongly toward the office.  If it were not, there would be few calls for workers to come back, and little controversy about it.  Dressing as vegetables on celebratory video calls won’t change that.  Assuming that everyone will be focused and conscientious when faced with the temptation of being unsupervised won’t alter its back-and-forth nature.  That’s not only the present, but the future of work.  That’s what we have known since the first George Bush was president – and what, indefinitely, we will continue to know.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Unemployment Up, Job Gains Robust, More People on Sidelines, Latent Demand from AJSN 145,000 Higher

In this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, we were supposed to be keying on the number of net new nonfarm payroll positions, often just referred to as “jobs.”  It was a fine one, 187,000, an even ten percent over a published 170,000 estimate.  As excellent as that is and keeps being, with total population growth lower, some other outcomes were more surprising and less favorable.

Seasonally adjusted unemployment jumped 0.3% to 3.8%, with the unadjusted variety up 0.1% to 3.9%.  That reflected lower than seasonally expected August hiring, or, more likely, additional firing or layoffs, an effect from bankruptcies (Yellow Corporation) and strikes (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).  The number of officially unemployed gained 600,000 to 6.4 million, and those with jobs fell 55,000 to 161,427,000.  The count of those claiming no interest in work also increased 600,000, reaching 93,682,000.  The number of long-term unemployed, in that state for 12 months or longer, also rose, 100,000 to 1.3 million, while those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding shorter-hours jobs while seeking full-time ones, tacked on another 200,000 to 4.2 million.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be either working or officially jobless, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, gained 0.2% and broke even respectively, ending at 62.8% and 60.4%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings gained 8 cents per hour, a tiny bit less than inflation, to $33.82. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many additional positions could be quickly and easily filled if getting one were perceived as no more difficult than another household errand, rose modestly to the following:

The AJSN added 226,000 from higher unemployment, but lost overall in categories of marginal attachment, mostly those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more.  The share of the AJSN from people officially jobless is still a clear minority, 35.5%, up 1.1%.  There was remarkably little year-over-year AJSN difference, a 116,000 increase, following the same pattern as the change from July 2023, as higher unemployment was partially offset by a smaller number of those not putting forth searching efforts for 12 months or longer. 

What happened here?  It seemed that there was a real mixture of people thrown out of work, probably in the case of truckers and writers temporarily, those deciding not to make themselves available for a while, and solid growth otherwise.  The weakest outcomes, such as total unemployment, wages, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, gave back only parts of recent improvements.  The bottom line is indeed that 187,000.  Few have acknowledged how favorable it is for our labor force to be continuously growing, but there is no reason for that to be happening, month after month after month.  We would have a strong economy even if we averaged 100,000 fewer.  If negative trends continue this month we may not be able to say this, but, once more, the turtle took another step forward.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Artificial Intelligence, With Problems Galore, is Getting Boxed In

Five weeks ago, I published a post about an artificial intelligence backlash, or reactions against it from various directions.  Since then, when we factor out the news stories speculating about AI’s effects on employment, telling us about new or not-so-new robotics advances, and subjective investment advice, there hasn’t been much good, and it adds up to something worse.

First, as shown in “CheatGPT,” by Aki Ito in Business Insider on August 1st, we have workers using AI against company rules, taking advantage of lagging or overly cautious policies as well as thoughtfully reasoned ones.  That is really an issue between employer and employee but could turn out to cause the former real problems when accuracy is not what it seems.  Such isn’t rare, as “When Hackers Descended to Test A.I., They Found Flaws Aplenty” (Sarah Kessler and Tiffany Hsu, The New York Times, August 16th).  At the Defcon hacker’s conference this month, participants “tried to break through the safeguards of various A.I. programs in an effort to identify their vulnerabilities.”  They were able to get the software to make racist and discriminatory statements, select sample job applicants by Indian caste, and write factually about nonexistent people, places, and constitutional amendments.  Efforts like these, in this case strictly benevolent, are invaluable, with experts revealing previously unknown flaws – the bad news is that those shortcomings are real.

Is, or will it, be true that “AI is ruining the internet” (Arantza Pena Popo, Business Insider, August 8th)?  The programs are now able to defeat many of the human-verifying “captchas,” causing sites to make theirs so difficult many actual people cannot get through.  A Europol study estimated that within “a few years,” ninety percent “of internet content” will be produced by AI systems and will contain significant errors.  That could result in online resources seeming “engineered for the machines and by the machines,” its value could greatly decrease, and it may in turn poison future AI improvements.

The most telling of these articles, though, is “Digging for digits” (The Economist, August 19th).  It told us about how the world is running out of accessible, non-copyrighted data, for which companies are competing and paying increasing amounts to use.  Some of that will be inputs into ChatGPT 5, which may be released before the end of the year.

But how about ChatGPT 6?  If we see that one someday, it may not be fundamentally better.  Why?

Although conceptually it could be boundless, artificial intelligence is being stopped on several different fronts.  First is copyright problems, with unauthorized incorporation of legally protected work well integrated into ChatGPT 4, and certain to result in further lawsuits and massive settlements, with a chance that its entire knowledge set could need to be erased and rebuilt.  Second is chip shortages – developing large language models at contemporary strengths consumes more silicon than it can get.  Third is calls for more regulation, which, with governmental authorities perennially behind the curve with technical issues, could impede or even halt development, production, or both.  Fourth is an upcoming data shortage as above. 

The fifth limit, and perhaps the ultimate, is money.  ChatGPT 5 will cost in the billions of dollars.  Since growth is exponential, there is a real chance that ChatGPT 6 or its equivalent would run in the hundreds of billions.  Even in as future-oriented a field as information technology, companies, venture capitalists, and other lenders and resource providers want results quickly and will see the other four problems. 

Six years ago, driverless cars seemed poised to take over world roads within a generation.  Now, although they have done well in useful if controversial niches such as taxicab travel, and their technology is turning up more and more in human-driven autos, their overall development has apparently stalled, with little press about them becoming the norm.  A serious around-1970 prediction said that within two decades artificial hearts would be, after cars, the second largest American industry – it is now possible to get one, but its implementations are measured in dozens.

The same may happen with artificial intelligence.  It may find its role in business writing, and as a lower-end substitute for human effort.  By 2040, people may laugh about the idea that this business tool could take over the world, and compare its dangers to those of copiers.  Or not.  Will artificial intelligence stay way short of its potential?  I don’t know, but we need to seriously consider that possibility.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Uber, Lyft, and Gigs in General – How Are They Doing?

A lot has piled up here about working without conventional jobs.  Let’s see what it is.

Oldest is “Biden Proposal Could Lead to Employee Status for Gig Workers” (Noam Scheiber, The New York Times, October 11th).  That wouldn’t be wide open, but rather “lowers the bar for that employee classification,” by incorporating “how much control workers have over how they do their jobs and how much opportunity they have to increase their earnings by doing things like offering new services.”  The piece, though, is more about how current laws are often disobeyed by companies preferring workers to be contractors.  Consistently correct categorization would do more for those with gigs than changing it.  As for Megan Henney’s October 12th Fox Business response that “Biden’s proposed gig worker rule could deal a major blow to small businesses,” the end of slavery did that as well.

Also on the 11th, The New York Times told us to “Meet the App That Helps Gig Workers Know How Much They Really Make” (Erin Griffith).  It’s Para.  Not a cost-accounting product, but one that gets into company databases and reveals how much workers will be paid, often including tip amounts, so they can accept or refuse giving rides or delivering restaurant orders.  The product delighted neither Uber nor DoorDash, who both sent Para “cease-and-desist letters.”  Para provides information important enough for one driver to report that “a no-tip order from Red Lobster could mean less than $3 for 30 minutes of work during a peak time.”  Overall, if companies freely provided this information, there would be no need for anyone to get it any other way.

From the front ridesharing lines came “What Shocked Me Most When I Became a Lyft Driver for a Week” (Timothy B. Lee,, December 22nd).  The reporter found great variation in his portion of what Lyft charged, from “less than 30 percent” to “more than 80 percent,” and over the week collected 52%.  Interesting, since the rate Yellow Cab of Milwaukee paid when I worked there in 1976, for those preferring a percentage of fares, was 55% – with the company providing the taxi.  As Lee put it, “it seems that the smartphone revolution didn’t make taxi dispatching cheaper and more efficient.  It made it way more expensive.”  So, perhaps, could someone create a cheaper rideshare model?

Three articles on the other large de facto cab company appeared in the New York Times over five weeks.  “Uber Drivers Say They Are Struggling: ‘This Is Not Sustainable’” (Winnie Hu and Ana Ley, January 12th).  That’s no wonder, if they need to pay for their cars out of 52% of fair market fares.  Yet they have learned something – one interviewee said he was leaving to drive a truck.  Also, little shock that “Uber Reports Record Revenue as It Defies the Economic Downturn” (Kellen Browning, February 8th).  It was $8.6 billion from October to December 2022, of which $595 million was profit.  Yet “Financial Woes Thrust Lyft, Long in Uber’s Shadow, Into the Spotlight” (also Kellen Browning, February 15th).  On their “record revenue of $1.2 billion in its most recent quarter,” they lost $588 million.  Strange.

Moving almost six months later, we heard that “Minneapolis Uber, Lyft drivers want minimum wage, companies say it could be worse for riders” (Mills Hayes, Fox Business, August 2nd).  I could not have imagined that as a cabdriver, when, over full-length days, I netted over double the $1.80 per hour I got elsewhere the next year.  And yes, Uber and Lyft opposed that, perhaps because it illuminated how little many earn after expenses.

Last, could it be that emphasis on gigs is causing “The death of hobbies” (Eve Upton-Clark, Insider, July 31st)?  Not really.  Since my early teens, I have consistently sought out ways of earning money from what I enjoy, and have done that, with different things, most of my life.  That does lead to wanting a true avocation when others become vocations.  Yes, as the author says, going for profit can cut down other activities in that area, as, for example, reselling collectibles cuts compatibility with keeping them for yourself, but people can always adjust what they do.  A great deal of the fun remains – and the advantage of earning money instead of spending it can, over decades, be remarkable.  So, find the right choices for you and go right ahead – you’ll probably like it.