Posted tagged ‘job growth’

“A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage”

September 28, 2015

I say this with all of the sagacity of Herbert Hoover who is quoted above: New Hampshire will once again exceed the U.S.  rate of employment growth in 2015 and will have the highest growth rate in the Northeast.  It has been our state’s decade long nightmare to have sub-par job growth after becoming accustomed to superior job growth for much of the prior three decades.  After several years of playing the pessimist it is nice to be able to argue that New Hampshire will once again be a leader in economic performance. Private sector job growth has accelerated and NH is moving up in the state rankings over the past twelve months. A steep decline in energy prices is helping the state by lowering the price of fuel oil, gasoline, and natural gas, lowering some costs for businesses and increasing disposable income of households in a state and region burdened by higher energy costs. Energy producing states are feeling the brunt of price declines. A year ago North Dakota could not be displayed on the graph below without ruining the scale of the Y axis, now they, along with Alaska, Wyoming, Oklahoma and other energy producing states are the laggards. Energy isn’t the reason NH had sub-par job growth but a reduction in energy prices is helping accelerate growth in the state.

Gottlob 2015 Savings Bank of Walpole Presentation

The quality of job growth is also improving, with jobs in better paying industries increasing more than jobs in industries that tend to have fewer well-paying jobs. The troubling exception is in professional, scientific, and technical industries where there has been no job growth.

job quality

Private sector job growth is accelerating despite the fact that help-wanted ads have declined. I believe this indicates that more jobs are being filled, lowering the number of unfilled jobs, and thus help-wanted ads, even as job growth is increasing. One exception may be jobs in professional, scientific, and technical fields which comprise the largest category of help-wanted ads but where industries that employ the largest number of these occupations appear to have had no net job growth over the past year. A large number of these jobs appear to be going unfilled and indicate a technical and professional labor supply problem in the state.

help wanted

I expect New Hampshire to add about 16,000 non-farm jobs in 2016, a rate of about 2.5% annual growth. This is a rate higher than any in the past decade and comes with a few caveats. First, energy prices must remain stable and relatively low, this I think is a lock. NH faces more upside potential (things will get better) than downside risk on the energy front. Second, the pace of government job cuts has to slow or reverse. The reduction in local government employment has been a significant drag on overall employment growth in the state, subtracting about 0.5% from the state’s total non-farm job growth rate. And stop please, anyone who thinks cutting local government jobs is a reason for accelerating private sector job growth. Third and most importantly, NH’s labor force has to grow at rates above the past few years. I have recently written about the labor force being the most significant constraint on the NH economy, and largely responsible for NH’s sub-par job growth (as opposed to some fundamental erosion of the business climate). One thing is clear, labor force growth will not come from just absorbing the “slack” in NH’s labor market. The chart below shows that NH is essentially at full employment with the exception of individuals who are working part-time for economic reasons (that is they would like to work full-time but can’t get full-time employment). There will always be some level of unemployment regardless of the strength of the economy, both for frictional reasons as people change careers or jobs, as well as structural reasons as the economy and industries change and the demand for different skills and occupations shifts. There are now  more people working part-time for economic reasons in NH than there are unemployed individuals. Three quarters of part-time workers in NH work part-time by choice according to my analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey data. The remaining 25 thousand or so part-timers wanting full-time work shows an equal number of men and women, spread fairly evenly over the age distribution between 22 and 64. More than one-third have at least an associate’s degree and 24% a bachelor’s degree. This source of labor can be more fully utilized boosting overall output but they are already working and don’t expand the size of the labor force. Discouraged workers number less than 1,500 with about that number again who are conditionally discouraged but would enter the workforce for the right job. They are predominately male (80%) and older (75% age 45+) and overall have lower levels of educational attainment (although a percentage of college grads is included).

unemployement rate

Hope for expanding the labor force in NH comes mostly from a return to net in-migration from other states. NH’s primary source of for increasing the skill and talent of its labor force for three decades, this source became a net negative factor in recent years. Data on this comes with a long lag but some unofficial, non-government statistics suggest that in-migration is returning and accelerating in some parts of the state, supplying an influx of talent and additional labor that will contribute to expanding differential rates of growth in the state. Areas of the state that have seen labor force growth in recent years have been adding jobs at a much faster rate than the remainder of the state and is one reason why I advocate giving as much attention to making a community, region, or state “attractive to individuals and families”  as making them attractive to business. The Seacoast will continue to lead in job growth because of the region’s ability to attract “talent” and expand its labor force. Job growth in the Manchester region is picking up and I expect a stronger performance for that region in 2016, while the Nashua region will continue to lag.

labor forcde growth

The Business Tax Discussion NH Should Have

June 23, 2015

What to do about New Hampshire’s business taxes is near the top of lawmaker’s agenda in the Granite State. Many policymakers are concerned that the business tax climate is contributing to a fundamental erosion of New Hampshire’s business climate that is reflected in lackluster employment and revenue growth. Reports that NH has recently outperformed  New England and the U.S. in gross state product (GSP) growth highlight the disconnect that can occur between economic metrics of output (GSP) and measures that more directly affect individuals in their daily lives, such as employment and wage growth. Better than regional or national average growth in GSP is good but state-level GSP numbers are relatively imprecise and should not obscure the fact that employment, wages, and state revenue growth have all been disappointing in NH by the standards of the past few decades. Sustained, disappointing employment and revenue growth since the end of the recession have prompted well-meaning lawmakers in NH to consider a number of policies to accelerate growth in the state.

NH and US emp Growth

Business Taxes Seen as Key

Business tax rates impact business decisions but I don’t believe they are the fundamental factor behind NH’s disappointing economic performance. Lawmakers should consider “what to do about business taxes” but that consideration should go well beyond current tax rates and regulations. Lawmakers should also be concerned with the long-term prospects (revenue yield) of business taxes because business taxes are the largest source of general revenue supporting state government.  New Hampshire’s fiscal structure is fundamentally tied to the performance of the state’s business taxes.  As importantly, lawmakers should be concerned with how NH’s business taxes will interact with key economic and demographic trends to influence the state’s future economic performance. The chart below shows combined quarterly business profits and business enterprise tax collections on an annualized basis and illustrates that nearly six years post-recession and more than seven past their high mark, business tax revenues in NH have not fully recovered. Some of the failure of revenues to rebound following the recession is a result of changes in the state’s business tax rules and some is the result of total private sector wages and salaries (the largest portion of the BET tax base) that declined in  2009 and 2010. Whatever the reason it highlights concerns about the viability of business taxes as the primary source of support for state government. I don’t believe that either raising or lowering rates is likely to improve the performance of business tax revenue enough to alleviate those concerns or even result in revenue gains that match those seen in the first half of the 2000s.

NH Business Tax Revenue

The Business Tax Burden in NH

Using tax rates to measure burdens over time is not a true measure of the impact that business taxes have on companies. Comparing state business tax climates using rates is problematic because of the various provisions of each state’s tax code that affect nominal rates. Here I assess business tax “burdens” using an economic measure – business tax collections as a percentage of private sector gross state product (GSP). This metric documents the state’s business tax burden placed on the total value of private sector goods and services produced in a state. Even using this measure of “burden” is problematic because it does not include all of the taxes, fees, and charges that may apply to a business in each state. Nevertheless, when it comes to addressing the primary sources of tax burden and the ‘headline taxes” that are identified with a state’s business climate, it is a better measure than looking at just business tax rates.

As the chart below shows, as a percentage of GSP, business tax burdens have nearly doubled in New Hampshire since the early 1990’s. Much of that is the result of the addition of the Business Enterprise Tax in 1993, as well as increases in the BET’s rate from 0.25% to 0.50% in 1999, to 0.75% in 2001. But some is also the result of increases in the rate of the business profits tax (BPT) which began the time period shown at 8.0% (from FY 92 through FY 93), dropped to 7.5% in FY 94 and hit a low of 7.0% (from FY 95 through FY 99) and finally rose to its current rate of 8.5% in FY 02. Importantly, the chart also shows that business tax revenue as a percentage of private sector gross state product has fallen since the recession and is now at a level seen at the beginning of the last decade. Again, changes in rules and a decline in wages and salaries both play a role in that decline. For comparison purposes the chart also shows the percentage of GSP that corporate income taxes take in Massachusetts, however, as noted, a number of other taxes are applied to or affect business in addition to corporate income taxes.

Taxes as a pct of GSP

What’s Ailing the NH Economy?

I don’t believe there has been a substantial, fundamental erosion of the ‘business climate” in NH. Slow labor force growth is by far the largest factor contributing to New Hampshire having gone from a leader to a laggard in job growth. That labor force issue is much broader and more complicated than the simplistic and too often noted “young people moving out-of-state.” The chart below shows that labor force growth has slowed more in NH than nationally in recent decades. Where once NH enjoyed a significant advantage in labor force growth, the state now lags the nation as a whole. Above average labor force growth is what allowed NH to have exceptional job growth in the 1980’s and much of the 1990’s.

lf growth 3 time periods

Labor force growth (largely via in-migration of skilled, educated individuals and families from other states) provided NH with a resource advantage for decades. Slow labor force growth is now capping the amount job growth that is possible in the state. Some believe the state’s labor force would experience stronger growth if more job opportunities existed in NH and that simply reducing business taxes will make that happen. While that is true to a degree, today, businesses rarely locate where there is not clearly a sufficient supply of needed labor. A sharp rise in help-wanted advertising in NH in recent years even as private sector employment growth has remained relatively constant and disappointing (chart below) shows that in the near-term at least, demand for labor does not necessarily increase its supply.  Significantly, the chart also shows that after a rapid rise in help wanted advertisements that was not accompanied by a noticeable increase in the rate of private sector job growth, help wanted ads have begun to decline in what may be a sign that employers, because of labor supply constraints, are increasingly looking  elsewhere for labor.

help wanted june 2015

The demand for labor does generally increase the supply of labor but when the supply is growing slowly everywhere (especially in the Northeast where NH has typically attracted much of its increase in labor force), supply will respond accordingly. Increasingly businesses follow labor rather than the other way around and they do not rely on their demand to increase labor supply.  Looking ahead, population and demographic projections show that both nationally and in NH, the working age population (defined here as age 18-64) will show almost no growth over the next 25 years. Competition for labor among businesses will become more intense and to keep and attract a labor force businesses will have to offer more than just the promise of a paycheck. I would argue that states and communities will also have to offer more (in terms of amenities – natural, social, civic, cultural, and services) to attract and retain the labor force needed for employment and economic growth. Evidence of the importance of amenities to labor supply (and employment growth) can be seen in the differential employment growth between some of NH’s regions such as the Seacoast (which has had higher population, labor force, and employment growth and which has several high amenity communities) and other regions of the state.

New Hampshire can improve its business taxes and business climate but whatever reforms are enacted, alone, are not going to overcome demographic and labor force imposed constraints on employment growth in the state. Lawmakers should, however, seek to assure that business taxes do not worsen key constraints on the NH economy moving forward.

The Longer-Term Problem

NH’s combination of a traditional tax on the profits of business profits (the business profits tax or BPT), along with its “business enterprise tax” or BET (on the combined compensation, interest, and dividends paid by businesses) may well exacerbate some of the disadvantages the state’s economy will face as a result of national and state demographic trends, making it more difficult for NH to overcome key constraints on employment growth in the state.

Reducing business tax rates that many see as too high is a near-term solution to a longer-term problem. The longer-term problem is slow or no labor force growth nationally and in NH in the coming decades that will limit profit growth everywhere but which will also place additional burdens on NH businesses. The labor force problem and NH’s reliance on business taxes will present NH businesses and state government with challenges that are unique to the state.

Wages and salaries are generally lower for comparable positions in NH than they are in Massachusetts. At one time it was easy to justify that wage differential because of large differences in the cost of living between the two states. Today, the cost of living differential between the two states has narrowed and NH is considered a high cost-of-living state. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) produces a “regional price parity index” Regional Price Parities (RPPs) measure the differences in the price levels of goods and services across states for a given year. RPPs are expressed as a percentage of the overall national price level (100). As the chart below shows (apologies for the poor quality – I lifted it directly from a BEA publication), NH (seen in red) has become a high cost state (largely because of housing costs), nearly as costly as Massachusetts.

price parityIn a state (NH) with living costs that are increasingly comparable to Massachusetts, workers in NH can be expected to seek wages nearly comparable to wages available in Massachusetts. For the most part, however, NH employees do not receive wages comparable to wages in Massachusetts and that contributes to some of NH businesses inability to hire needed workers and to NH’s modest job growth, despite increased job openings in the Granite State.   It may also be a contributing factor to NH’s significant drop in its unemployment rate with only modest job growth (the unemployment rate is a residency-based measure that considers only whether or not a resident of NH has a job or not, regardless of where that job is located).  Little or no growth in the labor force in the coming decades will increase competition for workers and will put more pressure on NH businesses to narrow wage and salary differentials with other, higher-cost states, if higher-skill jobs located in NH are going to grow. The catch 22 is that higher wages increase the BET liability of businesses at the same time they can reduce profitability (if productivity isn’t rising along with wages). A growing disconnect between the profitability of businesses in NH and the tax burden placed on them is not likely to be an incentive for businesses to compete for labor in a era when it is ever more scarce.

Higher wages would not be a problem as long as productivity increases justify wage growth. When workers produce more they should see higher wages. Productivity growth has been modest over the past decade and shows little sign of accelerating. Thus increasing wages will likely mean slower profit growth for businesses in NH and elsewhere. I think we have seen the high mark nationally for corporate profitability for some time. But in NH, the higher wages needed to attract labor will also increase the business enterprise tax (BET) liability of companies. If profitability is indeed more modest because of faster wage growth and modest productivity growth, the BET liability of NH businesses relative to their business profits tax (BPT) liability will increase. An ad valorem tax on a resource (labor) in short supply with a rising price and that is paid regardless of the profitability of a business may increase (or cushion from decline) state revenue for a time but it also seems like a disincentive for businesses to pay the wages necessary to compete for labor and to hire in New Hampshire over the longer term.

New Hampshire’s tax structure has never really been a boon or an advantage for business but it has been attractive to large numbers of individuals and families over the years and it contributed to growth in the state’s labor force via inter-state migration into NH. Growth in key demographic groups within the labor force – skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment  and regardless of their age ( two wage-earner, college educated, married couple families with children characterized the typical inter-state migrant to NH) made New Hampshire a much more attractive place for businesses to operate. The in-migration of “talent” fueled the state’s transition to a more sophisticated, technology dependent economy. But there is less state-to-state migration everywhere today and national and regional population, demographic, and labor force growth make it much less likely that NH will continue to realize those benefits from its fiscal structure. In the coming decades as competition for labor increases because of limited growth in the labor force, stronger wage growth will be needed to attract a limited pool of labor. Taxing compensation (as NH’s BET does) will increase tax liabilities for many NH businesses even as higher wages limit their profitability.

It is time for a discussion of NH’s business taxes, but that discussion needs to involve a lot more than just tax rates, credits, and how the rules apply to publicly traded companies.

The Locus of Economic Activity in NH is Shifting

January 21, 2014

I gave a presentation last month during which I argued that the locus of economic activity in New Hampshire is shifting to the Seacoast.  That is a provocative statement destined to offend the population centers of Manchester and Nashua and quite likely the individuals elected to represent them. Provocation isn’t my intent, it rarely is, but is often the result nevertheless.  This shift will take years to become more apparent but the evidence for its occurrence appears across a range of important economic and demographic metrics.  Over the past decade, private sector job growth in the combined Portsmouth and Dover/Rochester NECTAs** has outpaced growth in either the Manchester of Nashua NECTAs.  The Seacoast is home to only about 15% of private sector employment, but that percentage is growing.  The shift is not really about the job growth numbers because the Seacoast will always have smaller employment numbers than will the population centers of Manchester and Nashua.  It is about how so much more of the innovation and transformation that is occurring among businesses and industries in the state’s economy is occurring in the Seacoast region.

NH Regional job growth

Alone, the increase in private employment in the Seacoast relative to the Manchester and Nashua regions would not be that significant.  Rather, it is the increasing share of innovation and growth in key industries that the Seacoast is capturing that indicates the locus of key economic activity is shifting.  As the chart below shows, the Seacoast region has marginally increased its share of New Hampshire’s private sector employment since 2004, but it has, in relatively short time, substantially increased its share of finance and insurance industry employment, information industry employment, as well as both health care and manufacturing employment.  Annual town-level data stops in 2012 but with the coming addition of technology dependent, international companies like Safran, the manufacturing trend appears to be continuing.   The one key industry where the Seacoast has not gained share is in professional and business services.   This is a large, important, and growing sector of the New Hampshire economy.  In most states, key professional and business services firms often locate in the state’s largest city.  Major NH Law firms, engineering firms, advertising agencies, and many of the other industries that comprise this sector still seem to prefer to be centrally located and have their main offices in the state’s largest city, Manchester.  Having a main office anywhere other than  the largest city seems to signal, to some, that a business is “regional,” that it does not serve the entire state or the larger New England region. The Seacoast is also capturing a smaller share of retail employment, which is surprising given its location along two state borders.  It is not that retail is declining in the region but rather that it has grown faster elsewhere in the state.

Seacoast share of industries

Manchester and Nashua are still home to more companies in key industries than is the Seacoast and that will be true for some time, maybe always.  Still, there was a time when the Greater Nashua and Manchester areas were the technology and manufacturing center of New Hampshire and almost all important developments in manufacturing and technology industries occurred there.  These regions remain the technology leaders by numbers, but more key developments and new companies in technology and manufacturing are  occurring in the Seacoast.  The development of the Pease Tradeport into a premier location for industries of all types, along with the presence of a major research university (UNH), have played important roles in the shift.  But what is really sustaining the trend is the ability of the region to attract the talent (skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment) that companies in emerging, growing and higher value-added industries desperately need.   As I say far too often, brains are the most valuable resource in the 21st century.  Skilled, well-educated people have the most economic opportunities and they are the most mobile members of society.  Where they choose to locate, robust economic growth is likely to follow.  Examining Census data indicates that skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment have increasingly chosen to live in the Seacoast, and that has provided a key source of competitive advantage to the region.  The chart below shows how the population of individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher has changed in some NH cities over the past two decades.  The chart shows that on a percentage basis, Portsmouth and Dover, by far, had the greatest increase of individuals over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree among their populations.  Somersworth, although beginning with a lower concentration of individuals with a bachelor’s degree, had the next largest percentage increase in subsequent decades.  Among the largest cities in the Seacoast, only Rochester has not seen a substantial increase in its population with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Changes in Ed Attainment

If the Seacoast continues to increase its concentration of “talent,” then the locus of economic activity in the state will continue to shift toward the region.  Communities in the region continue to attract skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment because, to varying degrees, most have been able to provide a mix of services and social, cultural, and civic amenities, at a price more affordable than communities in other states.  But if being the “cheapest” place to live were the key, the Seacoast would not be thriving.  Rather, it is the combination of services and amenities at  relatively more affordable price (providing a good value) that has been attractive.  Many communities and regions are looking to thrive.   Like all regions in New Hampshire the Seacoast has heard, and for the most part heeded, the call for fiscal restraint (although you can never spend too little for some or too much for others), but most of its communities have looked for ways to continue to provide or increase the quality of their services and the amenities (natural, built, civic, social and cultural) they offer.  It is more difficult for urban areas to attract and retain the skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment that are increasingly the key to a vibrant economy because urban cities have to find ways to provide and encourage a level of services and amenities to compensate individuals for living in cities that have the problems associated with urban environments.

Most of the focus of economic development strategies is on creating policies to ensure a “good business climate.”  I think that is important and I also think NH has a pretty good business climate.  With so much concern over population and labor force growth and demographic changes in NH, more emphasis needs to be placed on creating a good “talent climate” as well as a good business climate. I don’t know that the Seacoast of NH has sought to do that but the demographic and economic data suggest they have done so regardless.   The result has been a competitive economic advantage. On a smaller and slightly different scale you can say the same thing about the Hanover/Lebanon area which serves as a nice control group to assure the importance of amenities don’t just mean having an ocean nearby.


** NECTA = New England City and Town Area, a grouping of towns into a connected labor market area, akin to a metropolitan or micropolitan statistical area.

The Incredible Shrinking Labor Force

January 10, 2014

The employment growth report released today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was disappointing for sure (74,000 job growth when 200,000 was the consensus estimate) but December employment numbers are more prone to seasonal adjustment errors because of the large amount of hiring that occurs prior to the holidays and this year presented even more issues because of the shortened time between Thanksgiving and Christmas (Thanksgiving was on the 28th, its latest possible date).  December’s employment growth may still be disappointing but my bet is that December’s numbers will be revised up in future months.  Help wanted ads have been increasing for the past six months and the labor supply/demand ratio has been falling.  Unless there is an even bigger “skills gap” than many think, that implies stronger job growth than was reported in December.

The best thing about the report was that it helps focus more attention on the nation’s incredible shrinking labor force, a problem that significantly lowers the potential economic growth of our nation’s economy.  Too many media reports on the nation’s and NH’s economy focus almost entirely on the unemployment rate.  That is especially true in New Hampshire where, because of our demographics (a lower percentage of harder to employ populations are in our state’s labor force), we always have a lower unemployment rate than the U.S.   No matter how weak job growth is in New Hampshire, many will cite our lower than the U.S. unemployment rate as a sign of economic strength.  Some reporters (hat tip to John Nolan of the Rochester Times) have avoided confusing job growth with the unemployment rate but too many in our state confuse the two.

The problem of smaller or slower growing labor force is an important and vexing one for New Hampshire and the entire U.S. A smaller or slower growing labor force implies slower economic growth because the output of the economy grows when more people are producing, when more capital (equipment and machinery) allows the same number of people to produce more, or when knowledge/technology/skill levels improve and allow greater productivity per worker. So unless productivity is increasing to compensate, a shrinking or slow growth labor force means slower economic growth.

There are several reasons a labor force can shrink or grow more slowly. Some related to economic conditions, some related to demographics, and some (such as the current situation) seem to have an unexplained element. Nationally, population trends have meant slower labor force growth as lower birth rates over the past few decades and as baby boomers reach ages where labor force participation starts to decline. NH benefited from strong population growth in the 70’s and especially 80’s and 90’s. That provided a strong boost to our economy, especially since much of that pop. growth was the result of in-migration from other states by skilled, well-educated individuals (a good characterization of our in-migrants from other states is a two wage earner, married couple family, probably both college educated with children). That migration added tremendous talent to our labor force and made NH an attractive location for many business looking to employ skilled workers.

The labor force grows or shrinks by population growth in the working age population, or by changes in labor force participation (those of working age who choose to be in the labor market or not). NH and the U.S. have seen slower population growth in the working age pop., but more disturbingly, both have seen a decline in the labor force participation rate.  Yes NH still has a relatively higher participation rate but the trend decline is similar to the U.S.  The graph below shows the decline in participation among individuals aged 25-64 (to minimize schooling and retirement decisions as possible causes).

nh us labor force particpation 25-64

If your working age population isn’t growing, having high labor force participation rates is critical for economic growth.   NH has had very high participation rates compared to the U.S. because of our favorable demographics (few people who traditionally have lower levels of participation – minorities, those without a high school diploma etc., and because our population overall has higher levels of educational attainment that is associated with labor force participation).  Women in NH especially tend to have higher participation because of higher levels of education and lower fertility rates (child-bearing lowers labor force participation).  I have written many times on gender and employment (search on gender in this blog) and the “feminization of the workforce” is a theme (non-pejoratively as the father of daughters) I believe is continuing.   As the chart below shows, virtually all of the decline in the labor force participation rate in NH is a result of a reduction in the rate among males.

male female labor force participation

Labor force participation always drops during recessions as workers get discouraged and drop out.  What is especially troubling today is that labor force participation continues to be weaker even as the economy has improved. Some has to do with demographics as more of the working age population ages into groups with lower participation rates although participation among those with higher levels of educational attainment seems to have held-up best. The best explanation of why labor force participation has continued to be lower than in the past is that the skills required by the economy have been changing, making many workers less qualified than before and creating more discouraged workers. I think that is part of the issue but I don’t think the “skills gap” could have so abruptly hit the labor market to cause participation rates to fall so much over the last half-decade. The skills gap has been a more slowly growing phenomenon.  Among older men without a post-secondary degree, participation has been declining for decades.  The skills mismatch between the supply of labor among males and the demand has been ongoing for decades.  Did it peak so suddenly in the past decade to create a permanent decline in the male workforce?  I don’t think so, additional factors are contributing.  I remember in the 70’s when the first real oil crises hit (related to Middle East wars) and a lot of job losses resulted, especially in mill towns like the one I festered in as a youth.  Someone whom I thought was wrong about almost everything said to me at that time “a man should never be ashamed of any job he takes to feed his family.”   I didn’t think much about that back then, but today it seems especially appropriate, even as it appears to be increasingly a relic of an outdated ethic.  Economic conditions today aren’t the result of people not wanting to work and a labor market where many individuals are working at jobs that don’t fully utilize their skills is not desirable.  Changes in and the performance of the economy are  obviously largely responsible for declining labor force participation.   Still, with so many troubling indicators for males  – especially younger males (educational performance and attainment, household formations etc.)  emerging over the past decade or more , I can’t help wonder how much of the decline is the result of a lost ethic among my gender.

What Do Help Wanted Ads Say About the “Skills Gap”?

April 18, 2013

It has been quite a while since I wrote about some of my favorite topics, the “skills gap” and occupational supply and demand.  But since there are recent media reports about the issue and more and new or renewed groups in NH looking to influence the debates and discussions on the issue, let me once again add my $.02.

I’ve made the plea for empirical rather than anecdotal or ideological evidence on the issue and produced a little evidence myself that both points to a skills gap as a contributor to slower than desired employment growth as well as evidence that suggests the issue may not be as prominent an explanation for slower job growth as some believe.  I’ve also noted the larger economic policy debate that engulfs the skills gap issue.  The data I’ve presented in this blog only hints at  answers to the fundamental question of whether slower job growth is more of a problem of labor supply (the number and/or quality available workers with the education, skills and training desitred by employers), or one more of labor demand (not enough employers looking to hire qualified, educated and skilled workers in NH).  I think the charts below  again provide some clues to labor supply and demand trends in NH and also illustrate some bigger trends in the NH economy.

The first chart most directly addresses the skills gap issue.  It shows that in terms of broad occupational groupings, professional and technical job openings are the largest component of on-line help wanted advertisements in NH.  Because these tend to be among the most-skilled and highest-paying jobs we assume that if there were a sufficient supply of labor then job growth in the industries that most employee these occupations would be relatively strong.  In fact, one  industry grouping – business and professional services  – employs a lot of professional and technical occupations and it is growing almost twice as fast as is overall private sector employment in NH.

The crux of the skills gap issue is this: “would a larger or better qualified supply of individuals in these occupations result in faster job growth in NH, or are there other or complimentary factors that also need to contribute to faster growth?”   How you define the problem of slower job growth also largely defines the range of your solutions. Increasingly, and I think somewhat disappointingly,  it also seems to define your ideology (if you have one).

March 2013 HW

The chart  below is less sanguine.  It shows that compared to the same month in 2012, March 2013 help wanted ads in NH for professional and technical ads declined by more than 10 percent.  One month isn’t a trend but recent months have shown more weakness than strength in this indicator.  The chart also shows that the largest improvements in labor demand are not among the most skilled occupations, although changes in the occupational make-up of manufacturing industries makes it increasingly likely that production workers will  have higher levels of education, training and skills.

Pct Change in HW in March


What’s Behind the Weak Jobs Report?

April 5, 2013

Bad news arrived today with the release of the monthly employment report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Only 88,000 non-farm jobs were added across the country in March. Following  two months which saw the U.S. add 148,000 and 268,000 jobs respectively in January and February, the low number raises concerns that the U.S. may again be heading for a “Summer slump” after showing signs of stronger job growth early in the year.

I share that concern but I am most interested in what the job growth numbers may or may not imply about recent U.S. economic and domestic policies.  I know sequestration is the hot policy topic and may be blamed or credited for all evil or good that occurs in the U.S, economy this year, but it is really too early for it to register much  impact on March’s job growth.  Two other policies have the potential to more significantly impact job growth in the near term.  The details of the March employment report provide some clues about if and how these policies may affect job growth in the future. The elimination of the temporary reduction in the payroll tax and health care coverage mandates in the Affordable Care Act are policy impacts that we worried about before we started worrying more about the potential impacts of sequestration.

I last posted that gains in home values, stocks and, retirement accounts along with increases in wages and salaries would help the economy overcome the large potential impact on consumer spending from the rise in the payroll tax (elimination of the temporary rate reduction) that took effect in January.  I may have been a little too optimistic about those factors ability to help the U.S. economy overcome more than $100 billion in lost consumer spending power (over $600 million in New Hampshire).   For me, the most troubling piece of data from the March job growth report was the seasonally adjusted decline of 24 thousand retail trade workers and generally downward trend since January, that has followed several months of solid gains in late 2012 (chart below).

U.S. Retail emplyoyment

When housing values are recovering, homeowner’s equity is rising, and employment and wages are growing, retail employment should not decline.  The elimination of the payroll tax cut (along with higher gasoline prices early in the year) likely provided a greater shock to consumers than anticipated.  But another explanation is that implementation of the health care mandates of the ACA could be affecting employment more in some industries.  If so, it would likely impact industries that typically are less likely to offer their employees health care coverage and industries that employ more part-time workers.  Retail and leisure and hospitality industries  meet those criteria but only retail trade lost employment in March.  Because the ACA mandates coverage for full-time employees, one way to avoid the mandate would be to increase part-time employment.  In that case I would expect the average weekly hours of workers in retail or other industries that may be more  affected by the mandate to decline, as more workers were shifted to part-time status but average hours have increased slightly in retail over the past three months.  Looking more closely at the data on part-time employment is needed to get a handle on any ACA impacts.  Over the next few months I will be looking for evidence of  increases in the number of workers working “part-time for economic reasons” – meaning they are working part-time when they want to be working full-time, as well as employment trends in businesses employing between 50 and 499 workers (those most affected by ACA).  Trends in these employment data would provide stronger evidence of any ACA effects but for now, it looks like the payroll tax is the culprit in the retail employment data.

Small Business is Not Booming

March 12, 2013

The National Federation of Independent Businesses just released its monthly report on the condition of  small businesses nationally.  The report is based on a national survey and state-level results are not available.  However you feel about NFIB or their advocacy positions their monthly report is a valuable source of  information about the issues and factors affecting small businesses.

Robust economic growth does not occur unless small businesses are confident, healthy, and hiring.  That seems especially true in NH and is one reason NH’s job growth has been slower than the national average.  I especially pay attention to the headline portion of the NFIB’s monthly survey,  it’s “Small Business Optimism Index”,  because it seems to be a pretty good indicator of near-term job growth in the U.S. and NH.  The simple correlation between the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index (lagged 3 months because it takes some time for optimism/confidence to affect hiring plans) and U.S. Job Growth  is about .68, while the correlation between the NFIB Index and NH employment growth is about .74.   Thus the relationship is slightly stronger between the Index and job growth in NH than it is for the U.S. as a whole.  The NFIB Index inched-up in February, but overall it remains relatively low, suggesting that small businesses aren’t yet ready to provide the boost to hiring that typically occurs in a strong recovery from recession.

NFIB Index and Job Growth


A more troubling indicator of the health of small businesses (and thus hiring plans) comes from the Experian/Moody’s Analytics Small Business Credit Index.  This quarterly assessment of the financial health of small businesses suggests the balance sheets of small businesses (in the aggregate) deteriorated in the fourth quarter of 2012.   According to the quarterly report:

“Delinquent balances rose, pushing the share of delinquent dollars higher to 9.7 percent from the prior quarter’s 9.4 percent. A slowdown in personal income growth led to sluggish retail sales, hurting small-business revenues. Though small firms have worked to trim their labor costs in recent months, sales have fallen more quickly, forcing many small companies to borrow funds to cover their payroll expenses…..The next six to nine months likely will be lean ones for small businesses as rising taxes strain household budgets  and nervous firms of all sizes postpone hiring, thereby stunting the jobs recovery. Consumer sentiment is likely to remain subdued, and spending will be underwhelming, which will keep pressure on small-business balance sheets.”

Experian Moodys  Credit Conditions



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