Brink Lindsey of Cato is gathering academic essays on the topic "If you could wave a magic wand and make one or two policy or institutional changes to brighten the U.S. economy’s long-term growth prospects, what would you change and why?" I am by no means in the distinguished academic company that were invited to contribute, but I thought it was an interesting topic. Here is my (uninvited) contribution.
The question of skills and the American workforce is typically tackled in only one direction: that we need more high-skilled workers to meet the challenge of emerging industries and business models that are increasingly driven by technology. A recent report by the OECD, and as summarized in the New York Times, is a typical example of this concern. As Eduardo Porter writes in the Times:
To believe an exhaustive new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the skill level of the American labor force is not merely slipping in comparison to that of its peers around the world, it has fallen dangerously behind.
The report is based on assessments of literacy, math skills and problem-solving using information technology that were performed on about 160,000 people age 16 to 65 in 22 advanced nations of the O.E.C.D., plus Russia and Cyprus. Five thousand Americans were assessed. The results are disheartening....
“Unless there is a significant change of direction,” the report notes, “the work force skills of other O.E.C.D. countries will overtake those of the U.S. just at the moment when all O.E.C.D. countries will be facing (and indeed are already facing) major and fast-increasing competitive challenges from emerging economies.”
A lot of head scratching goes on as to why, when the income premium is so high for gaining skills, there are not more people seeking to gain them. School systems are often blamed, which is fair in part (if I were to be given a second magic wand to wave, it would be to break up the senescent government school monopoly with some kind of school choice system). But a large portion of the population apparently does not take advantage of the educational opportunities that do exist. Why is that?
When one says "job skills," people often think of things like programming machine tools or writing Java code. But for new or unskilled workers -- the very workers we worry are trapped in poverty in our cities -- even basic things we take for granted like showing up on-time reliably and working as a team with others represent skills that have to be learned. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, despite his Princeton education, still learned many of his first real-world job skills working at McDonald's. In fact, back in the 1970's, a survey found that 10% of Fortune 500 CEO's had their first work experience at McDonald's.
Part of what we call "the cycle of poverty" is due not just to a lack of skills, but to a lack of understanding of or appreciation for such skills that can cross generations. Children of parents with few skills or little education can go on to achieve great things -- that is the American dream after all. But in most of these cases, kids who are successful have parents who were, if not educated, at least knowledgeable about the importance of education, reliability, and teamwork -- understanding they often gained via what we call unskilled work. The experience gained from unskilled work is a bridge to future success, both in this generation and the next.
But this road to success breaks down without that initial unskilled job. Without a first, relatively simple job it is almost impossible to gain more sophisticated and lucrative work. And kids with parents who have little or no experience working are more likely to inherit their parent's cynicism about the lack of opportunity than they are to get any push to do well in school, to work hard, or to learn to cooperate with others.
Unfortunately, there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities for unskilled workers to find a job. As I mentioned earlier, economists scratch their heads and wonder why there are not more skilled workers despite high rewards for gaining such skills. I am not an economist, I am a business school grad. We don't worry about explaining structural imbalances so much as look for the profitable opportunities they might present. So a question we business folks might ask instead is: If there are so many under-employed unskilled workers rattling around in the economy, why aren't entrepreneurs crafting business models to exploit this fact?
A few months back, I was at my Harvard Business School 25th reunion. Over the weekend, they had dozens of lectures and programs on what is being researched and taught nowadays at the school. I can't remember a single new business model discussed that relied on unskilled workers.
Is this just the way it is now? Have the Internet and computers and robotics and complex genomics made unskilled work obsolete? I don't think so. I have been running a business for over a decade that employs more than 300 people in unskilled positions. I will confess that the other day I came home tired from work and told my wife, "Honey, in my next company, I have to find a business that doesn't require employees." But that despair doesn't come from a lack of opportunities to deliver value to customers with relatively unskilled labor. And it doesn't come from any inherent issues I might have running a large people-driven service company -- in fact, I will say there has been absolutely nothing in my business life that has been more rewarding than seeing a person who has never had anything but unskilled jobs discover that they can become managers and learn more complex tasks.
The reason for my despair comes from a single source: the government is making it increasingly difficult and costly to hire unskilled workers, while simultaneously creating a culture among new workers that short-circuits their ability to make progress.
The costs that government taxes and rules add to labor have been discussed many times, but usually individually. Their impact is clearer when we discuss them as a whole. Let's take California, because that state is one I know well. To begin, the minimum wage is $9 (going to $10 an hour in 2016). To that we have to add taxes and workers compensation premiums, both of which are high because because California does little to police fraud in unemployment and injury claims. For us, these add another $3.15 an hour. We also now have to add in the Obamacare employer mandate, which at a minimum of $3000 per full-time employee (accepting the penalty is cheaper than paying for health care) adds another $1.50 an hour. And the new California paid sick leave mandate adds another 45 cents an hour. So, looking just at core requirements, we are already up to a minimum of $14.10 an hour, less than 2/3 of which actually shows up in the employee's paycheck.
But these direct costs don't even begin cover the additional fixed costs of hiring employees. We pay a payroll company thousands of dollars a year to make sure that regulations on taxes and paychecks are followed. We spend so much time making sure our written plans and documentation on safety meet the requirements of OSHA and its California state equivalent that we barely have the capacity to actually focus on safety. In California we have to have complex systems in place to make sure our employees don't work through their lunch break, that they have the right sort of chair and that they sit in them frequently enough, that they follow all the right procedures when the temperature outside goes over 85 degrees, that they get paid for sick leave and get their job back after extended medical leave.... the list goes on and on.
In a smaller company, we don't have lawyers and a large human resource staff. In fact, we tend to have little staff at all. If some new compliance issue arises -- which happens about every day the California legislature is in session -- the owner (me) has to figure out a solution. In one year I literally spent more personal time on compliance with a single regulatory issue -- implementing increasingly detailed and draconian procedures so I could prove to the State of California that my employees were not working over their 30 minute lunch breaks -- than I did thinking about expanding the business or getting new contracts.
Towards the end of last year I was making a speech to a group of business school students, and someone asked me what my biggest accomplishment had been over the prior year. I told them it was probably getting the company down from hundreds of full-time workers to less than 50, converting everyone to part-time. And it was a huge effort, involving new systems and a number of capital investments to accommodate more staff working fewer hours. And it had a huge payout, saving us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in Obamacare penalties and compliance costs. But come on! How depressing is it that my biggest business accomplishment was not growing the business or coming up with a new customer service but in cutting the working hours for good employees? But that is the reality of trying to run a service business today. The business couldn't be profitable until we'd adjusted our practices to these new regulations, so there was no point in even thinking about growth until we had done so.
Labor-based business models that work at a $7 or $8 total labor cost may well not work at $15, and they certainly are not going to grow very fast if the people responsible for seeking out growth opportunities are instead consumed in a morass of legal compliance issues. But there is perhaps an even more damaging impact of government interventions, and that is to the culture of work. I will confess in advance I don't have comprehensive data to prove my hypothesis, but let me tell a couple of stories.
Until 2010, we never had an employee sue us. We had over 8 years hiring 350 seasonal workers a year, mostly older retired folks, without any sort of legal issues. Since 2010, we have had eight employee suits threatened or filed, all of which we have won but at a legal cost of $20-$25 thousand each (truly Pyrrhic victories). So what changed around 2010? Well, our work force composition changed a lot. Before that time, we typically hired older retired folks, because the seasonal nature of the job is simply not very appropriate for a younger person trying to support themselves without other means (like retirement or Social Security). However, after 2009 when a lot of younger folks were losing their traditional jobs, they began applying to our company. Our work force shifted younger, which actually excited me because I felt it would help us in attracting a younger demographic to the campgrounds we operate. But all eight of these legal actions were by these new, younger employees. I asked one person who was suing us over what was a trivial slight, really a misunderstanding, why they did not just call me (my personal number is in their employee handbook) to fix it. They said that if I had fixed it, they would have lost the opportunity to sue.
I mentioned earlier that we had struggled to comply with California meal break law. The problem was that my workers needed extra money, and so begged me to be able to work through lunch so they could earn a half-hour more pay each day. They said they would sign a paper saying they had agreed to this. Little did I know that this was a strategy devised by a local attorney who understood meal break litigation better than I. What he knew, but I didn't, was that based on new case law, a company had to get the employee's signature every day, not just once, to avoid the meal break penalties. The attorney advised them they could get the money for working lunch AND they could sue later for more money (which he would get a cut of). Which is exactly what they did, waiting until November to sue so they could get some extra money to pay for Christmas bills. This is why -- believe it or not -- it is now a firing offense at our company to work through lunch in California.
Hopefully you see my concern. I fear that we have trained a whole generation that the way one gets ahead is not to work hard and gain new skills but to seek out and exploit opportunities to file lawsuits. That the way to work in an organization is not to learn to manage the inevitable frictions that result from different sorts of people working together but to sue at the first hint that you have been dissed. As an aside, I think this sort of litigiousness, both of employees and customers, is yet another reason employers are reluctant to hire low-skilled employees. If as a business owner one is absolutely liable for any knuckle-headed thing your most junior employee might utter, no matter how clear you are in your policies and actions that such behavior is not tolerated, then how likely are you to hire a high-school dropout with no work experience?
Is it any surprise that most entrepreneurs are pursuing business models where they leverage revenues via technology and a relatively small, high-skill workforce? Uber and Lyft at first seem to buck this trend, with their thousands of drivers. But in fact they prove the rule. Uber and Lyft are very very careful to define themselves and their service in a way that all those drivers don't work for them. I would go so far to say that if Uber were forced to actually put all of those drivers on their payroll, and deal with they myriad of labor compliance issues, their model would fall apart
We cannot address the skill gap unless people have entry level, low-skill-tolerant jobs to take the first steps up the ladder of success. If the government continues on its current course, it will become impossible to run a business that employs unskilled workers. The value of the work performed will simply not justify the cost. We may be concerned about income inequality today, but if we kill off the profitability of employing unskilled workers, then we are going to be left with a true two-class society -- those with high-skill jobs and those on government assistance --and few options for moving from one to the other.