The Labor Market is a Buyer’s Market

Do you know many unemployed people these days who are turning down jobs while holding out for a better offer?

Me neither.

Over one in four Pennsylvania workers — and nearly one in three U.S. workers — have had less paid work than they wanted during the last 12 months. For every job opening in Pennsylvania, there are approximately eight workers who want more paid work — four of them are unemployed and four are underemployed.

Those are pretty sobering statistics.

Yet this Labor Day, readers of the Patriot-News were treated to a very different set of statistics by columnist Anne McGraw Reeves. Citing a temporary help agency, she wrote that 52% of surveyed employers "reported difficulty filling jobs."

How can this be?

Reeves offers up a theory in the voice of a local temp agency proprietor, who noted that some unemployed workers "are getting too comfortable being unemployed." Reeves goes on to lecture the unemployed:

No job seeker wants to take a job that means a cut in pay or a reduction in status. High paying jobs with great benefits and substantial cache are hard to find.

But with the amount of unemployed people increasing and the funding for unemployment compensation shrinking, many of us don't have the luxury of waiting for the next best thing.

In other words, there are jobs to be had if only the unemployed would take them. However, a ratio of nearly eight underemployed workers for every job opening in Pennsylvania means that not everyone is finding the work they need.

There is strong evidence that employers are not having difficulty filling job openings. Consider that the average workweek has yet to fully recover to pre-recessions levels. If the majority of employers were indeed struggling to fill openings, hours of work would be rapidly rising as employers boost hours for existing employees in order to meet increased demand. But in the last three months, the average workweek has declined in the U.S and remains essentially unchanged over the last year. A depressed workweek is strong evidence that the chief problem in the economy remains a lack of demand, not that workers are choosing unemployment over paying jobs.

Reeves’ evaluation of the state of the economy rests entirely on information from national and local temporary help agencies. It is therefore notable that the temporary help industry nationally has shed an average of 3,000 jobs a month in the U.S. in the last several months.

And here in Pennsylvania?

Employment in temporary help, although steadily growing in the Commonwealth, remains 8% below its pre-recession peak — a shortfall that is an astonishing four times greater than the 2% shortfall of total employment from its pre-recession peak.

The brutal reality is that today's labor market is a buyer’s market. Employers that survived the Great Recession are getting more out of every employee while cancelling or delaying wage increases and, in many cases, reaping record profits.

Employers in every industry are overwhelmed by job applicants and are finding a deeper pool of experienced and educated workers than they have seen in decades. Here in Pennsylvania, unemployment rates for college graduates and for workers with an advanced degree are more than twice as high as they were before the recession began.

The pool of job applicants is so rich that some employers nationally are posting openings that explicitly discourage applications from the long-term unemployed or limit résumé review to already employed workers.

To suggest that the unemployed in this environment are living it up on unemployment insurance while holding out hope for jobs with “cache” doesn’t square with the facts. And it betrays a thorough disregard for the immense challenges that come with losing your job for reasons outside your control.

Perhaps Reeves could gain some perspective on the problems facing millions of American families with a visit to a local food bank. She won’t find many people there holding out for a better offer.

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