Trick or treat from the labor market : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Trick or treat! As we all know, some indicators are sweet, but others are scary. Luckily, one economist is here to help us separate the tricks from the treats in our labor market.

Labor market trick-or-treat

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

So, Adrian, it is getting close to Halloween, time of all things scary and all things sweet - you know, trick or treat - which, of course, got me thinking about the labor market.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: (Laughter) Of course.

VANEK SMITH: But, you know, the labor market really is in a very tricky place right now, you know? I mean, there are millions of open jobs. Employers are really desperate to hire. There are millions of unemployed workers who are, for some reason, not taking all those millions of open jobs. And a lot of them are quitting the jobs they do have.

MA: No, yeah, you're right. It's a confusing and strange time. And there's some dramatic effects on the economy. Some are kind of positive and exciting, and others are a little ominous and scary.

VANEK SMITH: So I'm looking at the labor market right now. And I'm wondering, is it sort of a trick-or-treat situation? Is it good? Is it bad?

JULIA POLLAK: Ah, well, it's both good and bad.

VANEK SMITH: It's like trick, yes, and treat.

POLLAK: Yes, that's exactly what it's like. But there are lots of treats - lots and lots and lots of treats.

MA: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Adrian Ma.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show - trick, yes, and treat (laughter) with the labor market. We look at the scary indicators - no, Adrian - the indicators that go bump in the night.

MA: But fear not, gentle listener - some of these indicators are actually sweet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: Trick or treat labor market - I think we should start with a treat 'cause, you know - get a little sugar to help us get through the scary parts.

VANEK SMITH: Agreed.

MA: So Julia Pollak is chief economist at the job site ZipRecruiter. And she basically spends all day watching labor market data move around.

POLLAK: The labor market is usually this very boring thing, right? It's a stable, inert, pretty boring system.

VANEK SMITH: Julia says, usually, changes in the labor market are so subtle that when things move around by, like, a tenth of a percent or a hundredth of a percent, even, it's, like, a really big deal.

What are all the labor economists in America doing now?

POLLAK: (Laughter) They're scratching their head and adjusting the y-axis on every single chart. Their graphs all went completely off the borders of their charts.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, you have to, like, make more room for big change in the chart. OK. We're going to need a bigger chart.

POLLAK: Exactly. You have to really zoom into that chart to see that change. But, you know, now everything is turning upside down.

MA: For workers, a lot of these changes have been really sweet.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. So here is a treat indicator - the number of open jobs right now is 50% higher than it was before the pandemic. This is across the whole economy - all kinds of jobs.

MA: Yeah. I mean, wages are the highest they've been in more than 10 years. And when people switch jobs, they're getting paid more - on average, nearly 6% more.

VANEK SMITH: And also, a lot of workplaces are now offering more flexibility, like working from home or working different schedules. And that is really great news, especially for people who need to accommodate child care or family care, things like that.

MA: But also, the possibility of remote work means many job seekers have way more options than they used to. Location has typically been a deciding factor for job seekers because taking a job at a new place means uprooting the family, pulling the kids out of school, you know, finding a new house. For a lot of positions, it doesn't mean that anymore.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. In fact, Julia Pollak herself experienced this. So back in 2018, she was looking for an economist job that was based in or very near her city, Santa Monica, Calif. And when she looked, there were two job openings. But now remote work means she could do her job from anywhere in the U.S.

POLLAK: Well, there are 20,000 cities in the United States that I could now search. And so in my case, there are now actually 179,000 relevant jobs when I just type economist.

VANEK SMITH: What?

POLLAK: Yes - or very closely related jobs that require economics. So...

VANEK SMITH: I think maybe ZipRecruiter needs to give you a raise.

POLLAK: (Laughter) So exciting - so in my case, you know, the remote work revolution has increased my options by 90,000 times.

MA: That is amazing. Can next - can she do a search on podcast hosts? Nevermind.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) No.

MA: This, of course, is not possible for all jobs. But for millions of jobs and workers, it's a whole new world.

POLLAK: If you're at a boring job, scrolling ZipRecruiter or Indeed or LinkedIn right now is like being a kid in a candy store. You can just see all of these amazing opportunities - not just one, not just two, not just three, but thousands, because you can search across the entire country or possibly even across the globe.

VANEK SMITH: And employers really needing workers - this is really good news for all kinds of groups that typically experience a lot of hiring discrimination. So people with less education or people with criminal backgrounds or women, people of color, trans workers - this is really good news for all of those groups.

POLLAK: Yes, there can be lots and lots and lots of positive impacts from this. On the other hand, though, there are also some pretty horrible things going on.

MA: Yeah. There is a dark side to the labor market situation we're in and some pretty scary indicators. Like, if you're running a business, this labor situation is very tricky.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. Businesses - they are having a really hard time finding workers and keeping the workers they do have. The quits rate, the share of workers quitting their jobs, is getting a little scary if you're running a business. Three percent of the labor force quit their jobs in August. Like, 3% of all workers quit their jobs in a four-week period.

MA: And that has all kinds of implications. It could mean that customer service gets worse. Or it means that supply chain issues get worse or fewer people to make things, ship things, stock things on shelves. Worker shortages slow everything down, so the results could be very tangible.

POLLAK: I have tried to order, you know, furniture, and I - some places give you a three-, four-, five-months' wait.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah, 'cause you're ordering furniture - you have a new baby.

POLLAK: Yes, the baby's room is unfurnished. You can't even get a BILLY bookcase from IKEA anywhere in Southern California at the moment. They won't even give you an estimated date. You just can't complete the order. So all of those issues are making for a horrible shopping experience. And I don't think this is really sustainable.

VANEK SMITH: And if the situation keeps happening, says Julia, things could get really scary. Like, if stores don't have enough people to fill orders or help customers, they just can't sell as much stuff. And when sales slow down, that means businesses are bringing in less money, which means they can't expand.

POLLAK: They just can't grow, and they can't thrive because of this labor shortage issue.

MA: So some of those businesses might stop taking orders from customers or turn sales away. They might even cut back hours or days and start to shrink. And if this keeps happening, the whole economy could shrink, start producing less, hiring less, paying less. And that would be pretty bad for everyone.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And not to mention, supply chain issues can really push up prices. You know, stuff gets more expensive because it's harder to get. Supply can't meet demand. So those higher wages workers are getting don't really matter because everything costs more. So that extra money gets sucked into, like, higher prices for gas and groceries and, you know, a BILLY bookcase.

MA: So there you go - labor market trick, yes, and treat. That just leaves us with one big question.

VANEK SMITH: If this moment in the economy were a Halloween costume, like, what would it be?

POLLAK: (Laughter) That is a very good question. Stacey, you've really put me on the spot here. So something a little bit crazy and wacky, like - you know, like, a bikini with the snow boots or something, you know - just something that kind of doesn't really make sense.

VANEK SMITH: I do feel like bikini with snow boots has legs because, you know, it's like the sexy version. It's already there, which is always essential in a Halloween costume.

POLLAK: (Laughter) Right. Yeah.

MA: Maybe the timeliest costume would be just regular clothes, you know, because you ordered your costume, and it's on back order, and you couldn't afford it anyway.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah, like the supply chain crisis costume - I'd like a conceptual costume, Adrian. I'm into that - plus, cost-effective.

MA: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Right?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Our senior producer is Viet Le. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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