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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.


December 04, 2018


Defining Job Switchers in the Wage Growth Tracker

Among the questions we receive about the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker, one of the most frequent is about the construction of the job switcher and job stayer series. These series are derived from data in the Current Population Survey (CPS) and are intended to show how median wage growth differs for those who change their job from last year versus those who are in the same job. However, the monthly CPS does not actually ask if the person has the same job as a year ago.

So how to proceed? The CPS does contain information about the person's industry and occupation that we aggregate into consistent categories that can be compared to the person's industry/occupation reported a year earlier. If someone is in a different occupation or industry category, then we can reasonably infer that the person has changed jobs. To illustrate, for 2017, 18.8 percent of people in the Wage Growth Tracker data are in a different industry category than they were in 2016, and 28.6 percent are in a different occupation category. Of those who remain in the same industry, 23.9 percent changed occupation group, and of those in the same occupation group, 13.5 percent are in a different industry. However, this information doesn't allow us to identify all job switchers because being in the same industry and occupation group as a year earlier does not preclude having changed jobs.

Fortunately, the CPS also has questions based on who a person said their employer was in the prior month. It asks if that person still works there and if the employee's activities and job duties are the same as last month. If someone answers either of these questions in the negative, then it is likely that person is also in a different job than a year earlier. In 2017, 1.5 percent of people in the Wage Growth Tracker data said they have a different employer than in the prior month, and 0.9 percent report having different job responsibilities at the same employer.

Unfortunately, the dynamic structure of the CPS means that the responses to these "same employer/activity" questions can only potentially be matched with an individual's response in the prior two months, and not a year earlier. Moreover, some responses to those questions are blank, even for people whom we identify as being employed in the prior month. For those individuals, we simply don't know if they are in the same job as a month earlier. Of the non-null responses, the vast majority do not change job duties or employer from one month to the next. So if we assume the blank responses are randomly distributed among the employed population, it's reasonable to also treat the blanks as job stayers.

Previously, we had treated the blank "same employer/activity" observations as job switchers, but that approach almost certainly misclassified some actual job stayers as job switchers. Instead, we now define a job switcher as someone in the Wage Growth Tracker data who is in a different occupation or industry group than a year earlier, or someone who says no to either of the "same employer/activity" questions in the current or prior two months. We label everyone else a job stayer.

Does the definition matter for median wage growth? The following chart shows the annual time series of the difference between the median wage growth of job switchers and job stayers based on both the old and new definitions.

As you can see, the results are not qualitatively different. Job switchers have higher median wage growth during strong labor market conditions and lower growth during bad times. Not surprisingly, the gap in median wage growth is generally lower (more negative) using the old definition.

The next chart shows the annual time series of the share of job switchers in the Wage Growth Tracker data based on the new and old definitions. A caveat: we have been unable to construct occupation and industry groupings for 2003 that are completely consistent with the groupings used in 2002. This results in an erroneous spike in measured job switching for 2003.

Notice that the share of job switchers under the new definition peaked prior to the last two recessions, declined during the recessions, and then recovered. That share is now at a cyclical high. A discrete jump in the number of blank responses recorded for the "same employer/activity" questions in the CPS starting in 2009 masked this cyclicality under the old definition.

In about a week from now, the next update of the Wage Growth Tracker data will implement the new and improved definition of job switchers—I hope you'll check it out, and I'll be writing about it here as well.

December 4, 2018 in Employment, Labor Markets, Wage Growth | Permalink

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November 16, 2018


Polarization through the Prism of the Wage Growth Tracker (Take Two)

In a previous macroblog post, I thought I had discovered an interesting differential between the wage growth of middle-wage earners and that of low/high-paid workers. It turns out that what I actually discovered is that my programming skills could be improved upon. The following is an update to the post, written after correcting the coding error. Although there is no obvious wage growth polarization story, the wages of low-wage workers are currently rising at a faster median rate than for other workers.

Updated Post:

One of the most frequent questions we receive about the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (the median of year-over-year percent changes in individuals' hourly wage) is about the relationship between wage level and wage growth. For example, do high-wage earners also tend to experience greater wage growth?

When looking at wage growth by wage level, whether you use the prior or current wage level as the reference point matters—a lot. If we looked at wage growth categorized by the prior year's wages, we would find higher median wage growth for low-wage earners than for high-wage earners. This is because some workers who earned low wages last year earn middle or high wages this year, and some of last year's high-wage workers earn middle or low wages this year. If we instead categorized people based on current-year wages, we would see exactly the opposite: lower median wage growth for low-wage workers than for high-wage workers (see here for more discussion).

One way to lessen this wage-level base effect is to categorize an individual's wage growth according to their average wage across the two years. The following chart shows this categorization for the 2016–17 wage growth distribution of all workers in the Wage Growth Tracker data. (Note that since 1997, the annual salary for people whose earnings are only reported on a weekly basis is top-coded at $150,000 a year—these masked observations are excluded from the analysis). In the chart, the first quartile depicts the lowest-paid 25 percent of workers based on their average 2016–17 hourly wage, and so on. The center line of the box for each quartile is the median of that group's wage growth distribution, and the lower and upper boundaries of the box are the 25th and 75th percentiles, respectively. The outer lines are the thresholds for outlier observations (see here for the calculation.)

Macroblog - November 16, 2018 - chart 1: Distribution of Growth in Hourly Wage

The chart shows that the wage growth distribution across the average-wage quartiles does, in fact, differ. In particular, the median wage growth for the lowest-paid workers is higher than the median for other types of workers. The median wage growth from 2016 to 2017 for the lowest quartile is 3.8 percent, 3.0 percent for the second quartile, and 3.2 percent for the third and fourth quartiles.

However, the pattern of relatively higher median wage growth for low-wage workers is not uniform over time. This difference is apparent in the following chart, which plots median wage growth over time for each average-wage quartile.

Macroblog - November 16, 2018 - chart 2: Median Wage Growth by Average-Wage Quartile

As the chart shows, median wage growth of low-wage workers (the green line, representing the first quartile) currently exceeds that of higher-wage workers, but it was below the median for higher-paid workers in the wake of the Great Recession. This pattern is consistent with the both the severity of the recession and what we have been hearing more recently about emerging shortages of low-skilled workers. It also appears that the median wage growth of the highest-paid workers (the blue line, representing the fourth quartile) slows by a bit less than that of other workers during downturns but is otherwise not much different than for workers in the middle of the wage distribution.

So, relative to the incorrect charts I had in the previous version of this post, there is no obvious wage growth polarization story here. The wages of low-wage workers are currently rising at a faster median rate than for other workers, and these other workers are experiencing broadly similar median wage growth.

November 16, 2018 in Employment, Labor Markets, Wage Growth | Permalink

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November 14, 2018


Polarization through the Prism of the Wage Growth Tracker

One of the most frequent questions we receive about the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (the median of year-over-year percent changes in individuals' hourly wage) is about the relationship between wage level and wage growth. For example, do high-wage earners also tend to experience greater wage growth?

An earlier macroblog post explored this question. Unfortunately, answering it is not as easy as it might appear. When looking at wage growth by wage level, whether you use the prior or current wage level as the reference point matters—a lot. If we looked at wage growth categorized by the prior year's wages, we would find higher median wage growth for low-wage earners than for high-wage earners. This is because some workers who earned low wages last year earn middle or high wages this year, and some of last year's high-wage workers earn middle or low wages this year. If we instead categorized people based on current-year wages, we would see exactly the opposite: lower median wage growth for low-wage workers than for high-wage workers.

One way to lessen this wage-level base effect is to categorize an individual's wage growth according to their average wage across the two years. The following chart shows this categorization for the 2016 to 2017 wage growth distribution of all workers in the Wage Growth Tracker data. In the chart, the first quartile (labeled <$13.8) depicts the lowest-paid 25 percent of workers based on their average 2016–17 hourly wage, and so on. The center line of the box for each quartile is the median of that group's wage growth distribution, and the lower and upper boundaries of the box are the 25th and 75th percentiles, respectively. The outer lines are the thresholds for outlier observations (see here for the calculation.)

The chart shows that the wage growth distribution across the average-wage quartiles does, in fact, differ. For example, the median wage growth from 2016 to 2017 for the lowest quartile is 3.9 percent, 1.6 percent for the second quartile, 1.9 percent for the third quartile, and 3.2 percent for the top quartile.

The pattern of higher median wage growth in the lower and upper quartiles, compared with the middle part of the wage distribution, is reasonably uniform over time.  However, there is a cyclical difference between the median wage growth of high- and low-wage earners. This difference is apparent in the following chart, which plots median wage growth over time for each average-wage quartile.

As the chart shows, median wage growth of low-wage workers (the green line, first quartile) currently exceeds that of high-wage workers (the blue line, fourth quartile), but it was below the median for high-wage workers in the wake of the Great Recession. This pattern is consistent with the both the severity of the recession and what we have been hearing more recently about emerging shortages of low-skilled workers. In contrast, median wage growth for workers in the middle of the wage distribution (the orange and purple lines) remains lower than for either high- or low-wage workers. Overall, these findings reinforce the idea of polarization, where the demand for workers has generally grown more in the tails of the skill/wage distribution than in the middle.

November 14, 2018 in Employment, Labor Markets, Wage Growth | Permalink

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October 01, 2018


Demographically Adjusting the Wage Growth Tracker

In a recent report, the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) referred to the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker, noting its usefulness as a people-constant measure of wage growth because it looks at the over-the-year changes in the wages for a given set of individual workers. The CEA's preferred version of the Wage Growth Tracker is the one created by my colleague Ellie Terry and described in this macroblog post. It weights the sample of individual wage growth observations so that the worker characteristics resemble the population of wage and salary earners in every month. However, the CEA report also noted that this measure does not adjust for the fact that the characteristics of wage and salary earners have changed over time.

The following table, which shows the percent of workers in different age groups for three years (in three different decades), illustrates this point. The statistics are shown for the unweighted Wage Growth Tracker sample (the green columns), and for the population of wage and salary earners (the blue columns).

 

Wage Growth Tracker Sample

Wage and Salary Earner Population

 

16-24

25-54

55+

16-24

25-54

55+

1997

10.0

77.8

12.2

15.5

73.3

11.2

2007

8.5

71.7

19.8

14.1

69.2

16.7

2017

7.5

65.8

26.7

12.8

65.1

22.1

Source: Current Population Survey, author's calculations

The table shows that the Wage Growth Tracker sample in each year has fewer young workers (and more old workers) than does the population of all wage and salary earners, a fact for which the weighted version of the Wage Growth Tracker adjusts. However, the weighted version doesn't adjust for the fact that the workforce has also become older over time—the share of workers over 54 years old has risen nearly 11 percentage points since 1997.

Shifts in the distribution of demographic and other characteristics over time could matter for measures of wage growth because, for example, wage growth tends to be much higher for young workers. Young workers switch jobs more often, whereas workers aged 55 and older tend to have the lowest rates of job switching. Other changes in the composition of the workforce could also be important, such as changes the mix of education, the types of jobs, etc.

To investigate the impact of changes in workforce characteristics over time, we developed another version of the Wage Growth Tracker. This one weights the sample for each month so that it is more representative of the wage and salary earner population that existed in 1997. So, for instance, it always has about 15.5 percent aged 16-24, 73.3 percent aged 25-54, and 11.2 percent over 54 (the blue columns in the 1997 row of the table above).

As the following chart shows, the shifting composition of the workforce has put some additional downward pressure on median wage growth in recent years. That is, median wage growth would be even stronger if the sample each month looked more like it came from the population of wage and salary earners in 1997.

All three versions of the Wage Growth Tracker—unweighted, weighted to each month's workforce characteristics, and weighted to 1997 workforce characteristics—are available in the data download section of the Wage Growth Tracker web page. Which one you prefer depends on the question you are trying to answer. The monthly weighted version makes the Wage Growth Tracker more representative of the characteristics of the employed in each month, and in doing so gives young workers more influence, but it does not control for the fact that today's workforce has a smaller share of young workers than in the past. The 1997-weighted version fixes the workforce characteristics at their 1997 levels. It says that the median growth in individual wages would be higher than it is today if the composition of the workforce had not changed (other things equal). Nonetheless, any version of the Tracker you consult in the previous chart tells a pretty similar overall story: median wage growth is significantly higher than it was five or six years ago, but it hasn't shown much acceleration over the last couple of years.

October 1, 2018 in Employment, Labor Markets, Wage Growth | Permalink

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Please explain how to interpret the wage growth statistic in context of CPI.

My initial instinct is to simply subtract cpi growth from wage growth to normalize.

It isn't jumping out at me as to how to interpret the results in terms of standard of living for the median and quartile earners.

Posted by: John Fitzgerald | October 23, 2018 at 06:57 PM

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August 15, 2018


Does Loyalty Pay Off?

A newspaper article last week posed the question: Why do bosses pay new hires better than loyal staffers? The article looked at the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker data on job stayers versus job switchers and noted that job switchers are getting a bigger percentage gain in their pay than job stayers.

Does that mean that people who switch jobs are paid better than those who stay with their employer? Well, it's useful to keep in mind that job switchers and job stayers differ along a number of dimensions, and perhaps the most important is that job switchers tend to earn less than job stayers. For example, using the data that go into constructing the Wage Growth Tracker we see that the median job switcher's pay in 2017 was around 9 percent lower than the median pay of those who stayed in their job. So even though the 2017 median wage growth for job switchers was 3.9 percent versus 3.0 percent for job stayers, those who change jobs are typically paid less than those who don't.

Why is the median pay higher for people who remain in their jobs? For one thing, job stayers in Wage Growth Tracker data are relatively older, with commensurately more work experience. In addition, job stayers tend to be more educated and hence more likely to be in jobs that require specialized skills. Economic theory also suggests that holding a higher-paying job reduces the likelihood of quitting. The argument goes that as a worker's wage increases, other employers will make fewer offers that exceed the person's minimally acceptable wage (their reservation wage). As a result, as an individual moves into better paying jobs, on-the-job search efforts and expected wage growth decline.

So what should you make of the higher median wage growth enjoyed by job switchers in the Wage Growth Tracker data? I view it as an indication that the demand for labor is strong and provides plentiful opportunities for less experienced and less educated workers to improve their circumstances by changing jobs. A job has an option value, and the possibility of getting a better-paying job offer is high when the worker's reservation value is low and the frequency of offers is high.

August 15, 2018 in Employment, Labor Markets, Wage Growth | Permalink

Comments

Another possibility: periods between jobs. If job switchers are out of work for a percentage of their work life, their overall earnings would be lower than the loyal, continuously-employed worker.

Posted by: RepubAnon | August 16, 2018 at 10:22 PM

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June 01, 2018


Part-Time Workers Are Less Likely to Get a Pay Raise

A recent FEDS Notes article summarized some interesting findings from the Board of Governors' 2017 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking. One set of responses that caught my eye explored the connection between part-time employment and pay raises. The report estimates that about 70 percent of people working part-time did not get a pay increase over the past year (their pay stayed the same or went down). In contrast, only about 40 percent of full-time workers had no increase in pay.

This pattern is broadly consistent with what we see in the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker data. As the following chart indicates, the population of part-time workers (who were also employed a year earlier) is generally less likely to get an increase in the hourly rate of pay than their full-time counterparts. Median wage growth for part-time workers has been lower than for full-time workers since 1998.

Wage Growth Tracker

This wage growth premium for full-time work is partly accounted for by the fact that the typical part-time and full-time worker are different along several dimensions. For example, a part-time worker is more likely to have a relatively low-skilled job, and wage growth tends to be lower for workers in low-skilled jobs.

As the chart shows, the wage growth gap widened considerably in the wake of the Great Recession. The share of workers who are in part-time jobs because of slack business conditions increased across industries and occupation skill levels, and median part-time wage growth ground to a halt.

While part-time wage growth has improved since then, the wage growth gap is still larger than it used to be. This larger gap appears to be attributable to a rise in the share of part-time employment in low-skilled jobs since the recession. In particular, relative to 2007, the share of part-time workers in the Wage Growth Tracker data in low-skilled jobs has increased by about 3 percentage points, whereas the share of full-time workers in low-skilled jobs has remained essentially unchanged. Note that what is happening here is that more part-time jobs are low skilled than before, and not the other way around. Low-skilled jobs are about as likely to be part-time now as they were before the recession.

How does this shift affect an assessment of the overall tightness of today's labor market? Looking at the chart, the answer is probably “not much.” As measured by the Wage Growth Tracker, median wage growth for both full-time and part-time workers has not been accelerating recently. If the labor market were very tight, then this is not what we would expect to see. The modest rise in average hourly earnings in the June 1 labor report for May 2018 to 2.7 percent year over year, even as the unemployment rate declined to an 18-year low, seems consistent with that view.  A reading on the Wage Growth Tracker for May should be available in about a week.

June 1, 2018 in Data Releases, Economic conditions, Employment, Labor Markets, Wage Growth | Permalink

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April 18, 2018


Hitting a Cyclical High: The Wage Growth Premium from Changing Jobs

The Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker rose 3.3 percent in March. While this increase is up from 2.9 percent in February, the 12-month average remained at 3.2 percent, a bit lower than the 3.5 percent average we observed a year earlier. The absence of upward momentum in the overall Tracker may be a signal that the labor market still has some head room, as suggested by participants at the last Federal Open market Committee (FOMC) meeting, who noted this in the meeting:

Regarding wage growth at the national level, several participants noted a modest increase, but most still described the pace of wage gains as moderate; a few participants cited this fact as suggesting that there was room for the labor market to strengthen somewhat further.

Although wages haven't been rising faster for the median individual, they have been for those who switch jobs. This distinction is important because the wage growth of job-switchers tends to be a better cyclical indicator than overall wage growth. In particular, the median wage growth of people who change industry or occupation tends to rise more rapidly as the labor market tightens. To illustrate, the orange line in the following chart shows the median 12-month wage growth for workers in the Wage Growth Tracker data who change industry (across manufacturing, construction, retail, etc.), and the green line depicts the wage growth of those who remained in the same industry.

As the chart indicates, changing industry when unemployment is high tends to result in a wage growth penalty relative to those who remain employed in the same industry. But when the unemployment rate is low, voluntary quits rise and workers who change industries tend to experience higher wage growth than those who stay.

Currently, the wage growth premium associated with switching employment to a different industry is around 1.5 percentage points and growing. For those who are tempted to infer that the softness in the Wage Growth Tracker might signal an impending labor market slowdown, the wage growth performance for those changing jobs suggests the opposite: the labor market is continuing to gradually tighten.

April 18, 2018 in Data Releases, Employment, Labor Markets, Wage Growth | Permalink

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February 28, 2018


Weighting the Wage Growth Tracker

The Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (WGT) has shown its usefulness as an indicator of labor market conditions, producing a better-fitting Phillips curve than other measures of wage growth. So we were understandably surprised to see the WGT decline from 3.5 percent in 2016 to 3.2 percent in 2017, even as the unemployment rate moved lower from 4.9 to 4.4 percent.

This unexpected disconnect between the WGT and the unemployment rate naturally led us to wonder if it was a consequence of the way the WGT is constructed. Essentially, the WGT is the median of an unweighted sample of individual wage growth observations. This sample is quite large, but it does not perfectly represent the population of wage and salary earners.

Importantly, the WGT sample has too few young workers, because young workers are much more likely to be in and out of employment and hence less likely to have a wage observation in both the current and prior years. To examine the effect of this underrepresentation, we recomputed median wage growth after weighting the WGT sample to be consistent with the distribution of demographic and job characteristics of the workforce in each year. It turns out that this adjustment is important when the labor market is tight.

During periods of low unemployment, young people who stay employed tend to experience larger proportionate wage bumps than older workers. In 2017, for example, the weighted median is 40 basis points higher than the unweighted version. However, both the unweighted version (the gray line in the chart below) and the weighted version of the WGT (the blue line) declined by a similar amount from 2016 to 2017. The decline in the weighted median is also statistically significant (the p-value for the test is 0.07, indicating that the observed difference is unlikely to be due to chance).

Another issue that could affect comparisons of wage growth over time is the changing demographic characteristics of the workforce. In particular, we know that workers' wage growth tends to slow as they approach retirement age, and the fraction of older workers has increased markedly in recent years. To examine this trend, we re-computed the weighted median, but fixed the demographic and job characteristics of the workforce so they would look as they did in 1997.

Our 1997-fixed version shows that median wage growth in recent years would be a bit higher if not for the aging of the workforce (the dashed orange line in the chart below). Moreover, this demographic shift appears to explain some of the slowing in median wage growth from 2016 to 2017. Whereas the 1997-fixed median also slows over the year, the difference is not statistically significant (a test of the null hypothesis of no change in the 1997-fixed weighted median between 2016 and 2017 yielded a p-value of 0.38).

Long story short, our analysis suggests that median wage growth of the population of wage and salary earners is currently higher than the WGT would indicate, reflecting the strong wage gains young workers experience in a tight labor market. Moreover, the increasing share of older workers is acting to restrain median wage growth. Although the decline in median wage growth from 2016 to 2017 appears to be partly the result of the aging workforce, there still may be more to it than just that, and so we will continue to monitor the WGT and related measures closely in 2018 for signs of a pickup. We also want to note that with the release of the February wage data in mid-March, we will make a monthly version of the weighted WGT available.

 

February 28, 2018 in Data Releases, Employment, Labor Markets, Wage Growth | Permalink

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October 19, 2017


How Ill a Wind? Hurricanes' Impacts on Employment and Earnings

According to the Current Employment Statistics payroll survey, seasonally adjusted nonfarm payroll employment declined 33,000 in September. This decline was the first drop in employment since 2010 and followed a 169,000 gain in August. At the same time, seasonally adjusted average hourly earnings in the private sector increased 2.9 percent year over year in September. This increase in average wages was the largest since the end of the Great Recession in 2009. However, it seems likely that the decline in employment contributed to the rise in average hourly earnings. Why would a decline in employment contribute to an increase in average hourly earnings? We're glad you asked!

As noted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reduced employment in the payroll survey, whose reference period is the pay period that includes the 12th of the month. Hurricane Harvey first made landfall in east Texas on August 25 and again in Louisiana on August 30, and Hurricane Irma made landfall in south Florida on September 10. The storms forced large-scale evacuations and severely damaged many homes and businesses. For workers who are not paid when they miss work, being unable to work during the surveyed pay period means they are not counted in September payrolls.

To measure the size of Harvey and Irma's effect on payroll employment, we first looked at data from the Current Population Survey (CPS). We found that the bad weather forced about 1.5 million nonfarm workers who had a job during the September reference week to miss work. Of those, about 1.2 million were wage and salary earners, and about 760,000 of those were unpaid during their absence from work.

Our analysis indicates that September saw a shortfall in seasonally adjusted payroll employment between 200,000 and 300,000 jobs, suggesting that workers returning to work could result in a large rebound in payroll employment. (Not to get too far into the weeds, but our analysis involved regressing payroll employment growth on its lagged values as well as current and lagged seasonally adjusted changes in shares of workers who were not at work because of bad weather.)

What about average hourly earnings? Changes in average hourly earnings over time reflect both the effect of people getting pay raises and changes in who is working this month versus last month or last year. This latter effect can be large during recessions, when workers in lower-wage jobs are disproportionately more likely to be laid off. The absence of these workers from payrolls increases the average wage among the remaining employed workers, even if those remaining workers are not getting much of a pay increase (see this macroblog post for more discussion).

The September payroll survey depicted a particularly large decline in employment in the leisure and hospitality sector, which is significant because average hourly earnings in that sector are typically about 40 percent lower than overall average hourly earnings. In addition, from the CPS we see that the usual hourly earnings of workers not at work because of bad weather is much lower than for other workers. These data suggest that temporary absences from work because of bad weather likely put upward pressure on average hourly earnings, and some of that upward pressure could reverse itself as these workers return to their jobs. If the pace of average hourly earnings doesn't relax, however, then that would suggest more workers getting larger pay raises due to a tightening labor market.

October 19, 2017 in Economics, Employment, Wage Growth | Permalink

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July 31, 2017


Behind the Increase in Prime-Age Labor Force Participation

Prime-age labor force participation has been on a tear recently. Over the last eight quarters, it is up by about 65 basis points (bps) and more than 40 bps in just the last year. When combined with declines in the rate of unemployment, this increase has helped lift the employment-to-population (EPOP) ratio for this key population group by around 120 bps during the last two years.

Placed in the context of an almost 260 bp decline in the prime-age EPOP ratio between 2007 and 2015, this development is significant. Although the unemployment rate is close to what most economists consider full employment, rising labor force participation can indicate that the labor market might still have some room to run before the employment gap is fully closed. (The Congressional Budget Office offers some analysis consistent with this idea.)

So what's behind the increase in prime-age (defined as people between 25 and 54) participation in the last year? Changes in the labor force participation rate (LFPR) either can be the result of changes in the mix of demographic groups in the population with different average rates of participation (for example, across education and race/ethnicity), or they can result from changes in average participation rates within demographic groups. It turns out that most of the increase in the prime-age LFPR has been because of increased LFPR within demographic groups—in particular, prime-age women and especially women without a college degree. Prime-age men have not contributed much to the rise in participation beyond the increased participation associated with a more educated population.

The following chart shows the contribution to the change in the prime-age LFPR over the last year as a result of changes in the relative mix of age-education-race groups (the blue bars) and changes in participation rates within age-education-race groups (the orange bars). It shows the contribution from both sexes combined and from prime-age women and men separately.

Note that the we computed the contributions using six five-year age groups, three education groups (less than high school, high school but no college degree, and college degree), three race/ethnicity groups (Hispanic, non-Hispanic black, and non-Hispanic white/other), and two sexes.

Of the total increase in the prime-age LFPR, most of that was the result of changes in labor force participation behavior within female demographic groups. In fact, changes in LFPR behavior from prime-age men served as a drag on the overall prime-age LFPR. The modestly positive demographic effect on the LFPR for both men and women reflects the higher LFPR for those with a college degree and the relative increase in the share of both prime-age men and women with a college degree.

This development stands in contrast to the drivers of the change in the prime-age LFPR between 2015 and 2016. Of the 24 bp increase in prime-age LFPR between the second quarters of 2015 and 2016, changes in the demographic composition of the population (primarily increased education levels) accounted for all of it rather than changes in average participation rates within demographic groups.

The next chart shows the contribution to the change in the prime-age LFPR between 2016 and 2017 due to changes in the LFPR behavior of women for specific education-race groups.

As the chart shows, the bulk of the demographically adjusted contribution from female labor force participation came from women without a college degree, and the largest contribution across female education-race groups was from Hispanics without a college degree. The increase in labor force participation among women with less education is consistent with evidence of recent improvement in the wage gains for relatively low-wage earners.

Although this simple decomposition doesn't explain why nondegreed women are increasingly finding the labor force to be an attractive option, we can infer some clues by looking at changes in the reasons people give for not participating. In particular, the largest contribution from changes in behavior among prime-age women over the last year came from a decrease in the propensity to be out of the labor force because of poor health or being in the shadow labor force (wanting a job but not looking).

Recently, former Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota has argued that macroeconomists should take more seriously the differences in behavior across demographic groups. The Atlanta Fed's Labor Force Dynamics web page contains more information on the behavioral trends in the reasons people give for not participating in the labor force across demographic groups, and the page was just updated to include data for the second quarter of 2017. Check it out, and we'll keep reporting here on the relative contributions to the labor force of behavioral versus demographic changes—and whether the winning streak for prime-age labor force participation continues.


July 31, 2017 in Economic conditions, Employment, Wage Growth | Permalink

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