Hey, That Famous 'Skills Shortage' You've Heard About? It's a Myth

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Are we good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, do people like us? 

Okay, ignore that last question, and focus on the first two. The issue of whether our workers are talented enough and clever enough for the jobs that actually are out there is an enormously important one. If our workers don't have the right skills, then there's very little policymakers can do to bring down unemployment, because it's a "structural" crisis. More monetary or fiscal stimulus won't make us more skilled.

The structural story -- what will all those construction workers and ex-mortgage brokers do now? -- certainly has intuitive appeal. All it needs is some evidence.

We would expect wages to be rising much faster in sectors where employers can't find enough qualified workers if a skills mismatch really was holding the economy back. But that hasn't really been the case. The chart below from the Chicago Fed tries to quantify how big an impact there's been from a skills shortage. The answer: not much.

StructuralUnemployment.png


The chart shows employer demand for low (blue), medium (black), and high (gray) skill work has changed since the end of the housing bubble era. If employers really couldn't find enough high-skill workers, we would expect the demand for them to increase substantially faster than for other workers. It hasn't. Instead, demand for all types of work has more or less moved in tandem. This is what a general shortfall of demand looks like.

So the next time you see a talking head claim that there's nothing we can do about unemployment because of a skills mismatch, remember that the biggest skills mismatch is in their understanding of the data.
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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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