Exciting but fake news about our strong economy

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by Fabius Maximus

Summary: Today we got more great news about the economy: there are more openings than unemployed. It is fake but exciting clickbait. We are ignorant because we read the news, chapter one million.

Fake news

Yesterday’s hot headline:
There are now more job openings than workers to fill them

Very exciting news! Great news about the economy! Let the self-righteousness flow at the thought of all those open jobs unfilled while lazy people watch TV. It is a simple story, visible in one graph (click to enlarge). Purple is the number of unemployed; red is the number of unemployed. The two were almost equal in January 2001.

Since the recession, unemployment has fallen while the number of openings has increased. In April 2018 there were more openings than unemployed. If we matched the unemployed with the jobs: presto, no unemployment!

Number of Job Openings and Unemployed

The narrative describes an economy at full employment, with shortages of skilled workers. There is one problem with this story. The best indicator of the supply-demand balance in a free market is price. For workers, that price is the hourly wage (75% of workers are “production and supervisory workers” who are paid per hour). Growth in real wages peaked in January 2015 at 2.3%/year. In April it was only 0.2%.

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Real hourly earnings of workers - YoY percent gain

Unraveling the puzzle

The number of job openings comes from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey of employers conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An employee quitting is an actual event, as is hiring and firing an employee. All have consequences. But what does it cost to electronically post a job opening – one with high requirements and low pay? Nothing.

Employers have become creative in playing the job market. During the history of the survey, there were always more hires than openings – until August 2014. Now there are more openings than hires. More openings than hires every month, while the growth rate in real wages slows.

Job Openings and Hires

So which signal tells the truth? Trust the one which reflects real money in motion: wages. When there are widespread skill shortages, real wages will rise.

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Employers do anything for workers, except pay them more

These are all stories of employers who have rigged the game. Workers pay for their own training. Employers demand much and give little. Especially note the descriptions of pilots and truckers jobs: expensive training, hard work, long hours, employers complaining about shortages of workers – but no big pay increases.

Heather Long at the WaPo debunked the simple skills shortage story in “America has a massive truck driver shortage. Here’s why few want an $80,000 job.” In an earlier story, she shows how trucking firms are raising wages – and raising their prices much faster.


See the April JOLTS survey report and the BLS’ Highlights report.


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