Rather than having a shortage of skills, millions of American workers have more skills than their jobs require. That is particularly true of college-educated people, who make up 30 percent of the population today, up from 10 percent in the 1960's. They often find themselves working in sales or as office administrators, or taking jobs in hotels and restaurants, or becoming carpenters, flight attendants and word processors.
The number of jobs that require a bachelor's degree has indeed been growing, but more slowly than the number of graduates, according to the Labor Department, and that trend is likely to continue through this decade. "The average college graduate is doing very well," said Lawrence F. Katz, a labor economist at Harvard. "But on the margin, college graduates appear to be more vulnerable than in the past."
The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a rough estimate of the imbalance in the demand for jobs as opposed to the supply. Each month since December 2000, it has surveyed the number of job vacancies across the country and compared it with the number of unemployed job seekers. On average, there were 2.6 job seekers for every job opening over the first 41 months of the survey. That ratio would have been even higher, according to the bureau, if the calculation had included the millions of people who stopped looking for work because they did not believe that they could get decent jobs.
So the demand for jobs is considerably greater than the supply, and the supply is not what the reigning theory says it is. Most of the unfilled jobs pay low wages and require relatively little skill, often less than the jobholder has. From the spring of 2003 to the spring of 2004, for example, more than 55 percent of the hiring was at wages of $13.25 an hour or less: hotel and restaurant workers, health care employees, temporary replacements and the like.
That trend is likely to continue. Seven of the 10 occupations expected to grow the fastest from 2002 through 2012, according to the Labor Department, pay less than $13.25 an hour, on average: retail salesclerks, customer service representatives, food service workers, cashiers, janitors, nurse's aides and hospital orderlies.
The $13.25 threshold is important. More than 45 percent of the nation's workers, whatever their skills, earned less than $13.25 an hour in 2004, or $27,600 a year for a full-time worker. That is roughly the income that a family of four must have in many parts of the country to maintain a standard of living minimally above the poverty level. Surely lack of skill and education does not hold down the wages of nearly half the work force...
The wage loss from layoffs is now a pattern that shows up not only in individual cases, like that of the United mechanics, but in national surveys as well. Two years after a layoff, two-thirds of the victims say they are working again, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those two-thirds, only 40 percent, on average, make as much as they had in their old jobs, a less drastic result than that for the aircraft mechanics, but the same general breakdown.
The rest are making less, often much less. Out of 100 laid-off workers, then, 27 make their old salary again, or more — and 73 make less, or are not working at all. That downward pull contributes to the wage stagnation that has persisted for most of the work force, with only occasional relief, since the 1970's.
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