Paul Fain Highlights Illiteracy

Paul Fain writes a newsletter called The Job. The newsletter typically presents a few paragraphs one topic and then provides summaries and links to relevant news and current research. I subscribe because I write on and teach labor economics. The title of the letter this week is “Skills and Employability”.

As federal and state governments mull big spending on skills training, some experts say more resources should go toward boosting the literacy and numeracy of Americans without college degrees.

And despite the widespread belief that a quality liberal education in a college degree program is the best way to develop the sort of highly sought skills that pay off in the job market, many college degree holders also lack proficiency in literacy and numeracy.

Fain’s cites a recent essay by Irwin Kirsch calling for more opportunities for illiterate adults to achieve literacy, so that they can take advantage of continuing professional education. Kirsch is calling for more education so that the adults can do yet more education. I’m an educator and find myself sympathetic to Kirsch’s plan.

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More computer jobs than San Francisco

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports Occupational Employment and Wages from May 2020 for

15-0000 Computer and Mathematical Occupations (Major Group). The website contains a few interesting insights.

Where are the computer jobs in the United States? When looking just at total numbers of jobs, three major population centers make it into the top 7 areas: NYC, LA, and Chicago. San Francisco is ahead of Chicago, while San Jose is behind Chicago. In terms of the total number of jobs, the D.C. area is ahead of any West Coast city. Is Silicon Valley not as central as we thought?

Here’s a map of the U.S. that isn’t just another iteration of population density.

When metropolitan areas are ranked by employment in computer occupations per thousand jobs, then New York City no longer makes the top-10 list. San Jose, California reigns at the top, which seems suitable for Silicon Valley. The 2nd ranked area will surprise you: Bloomington, IL. A region of Maryland and Washington D.C. shouldn’t surprise anyone. If you aren’t familiar with Alabama, then would you expect Huntsville to rank above San Francisco in this list?

Huntsville, AL is not a large city, but it is a major hub for government-funded high-tech activity. The small number of people who live there overwhelmingly selected in to take a high-tech job. For an example, I quickly checked a job website to sample in Huntsville. Lockheed Martin is hiring a “Computer Systems Architect” based in Huntsville.

Anyone familiar with Silicon Valley already knows that the city of San Francisco was not considered core to “the valley”. Even though computer technology seems antithetical to anything “historical”, there is in fact a Silicon Valley Historical Association. They list the cities of the valley, which does include San Francisco. (corrected an error here)

The last item reported on this Census webpage is annual mean wage. For that contest, San Francisco does seem grouped with the San Jose area, at last. The computer jobs that pay the most are in Silicon Valley or next-door SF. Those middle-of-the-country hotspots like Huntsville do not make the top-10 list for highest paid. However, if cost of living is taken into account, some Huntsville IT workers come out ahead.

Current Research on the Gig Economy – Palagashvili

Online platforms are allowing us to trade used goods more easily than before. Similarly, sites like UpWork and Uber are making it easier to trade small blocks of human labor. Since the gig economy is growing (as documented by Dimitri Koustas), it’s important to understand how it is affecting workers.

Liya Palagashvili of Mercatus has a working paper with Paoula Suarez “Women as Independent Workers in the Gig Economy” examining particularly how the growing opportunities to work on a gig basis has affected women in different ways than men. They note, for example, that (in 2014–2015) 87 percent of independent workers on the Etsy platform were female, while 14 percent of workers on Uber’s platform were female.

Abstract: New technologies and digital platforms have ushered in a rise of gig, freelance, contract, and other types of independent work. Although independent workers and the gig economy as a whole have received plenty of attention, little research has examined the heterogeneity of work characteristics among different independent work opportunities, specifically as it relates to the participation of women in this workforce. Existing data indicate that some digital platforms are more male dominated, whereas others are more female dominated. What accounts for these differences? In this paper, we empirically examine the heterogeneity of work within independent work opportunities in relation to female participation by analyzing work characteristics in the United States from the Occupational Information Network (O*Net) database that reflect greater temporal flexibility, which has been shown to vary across occupations and to attract more female workers. Our findings suggest that women in the independent work context do self-select into the types of independent work jobs that reflect greater temporal flexibility, as is the case for women working in traditional employment. However, our findings also reveal that the way in which the existing literature measures temporal flexibility in traditional work settings may not be the same as the way it is measured in the context of independent work. We discuss the implications of our findings for public policy and labor laws. (emphasis mine)

Current Research on the Gig Economy – Koustas

Dmitri Koustas of U. Chicago has a forthcoming paper “Is New Platform Work Different than Other Freelancing?”

Abstract: The rise of freelance work in the online platform economy (OPE) has received considerable media and policy attention in recent years, but freelance work is by no means a new phenomenon. In this paper, we draw on I.R.S. tax records to identify instances when workers begin doing online platform work versus other freelance/independent contractor “gig” work for firms. We find gig work occurs around major reductions in outside income, and document usage over the lifecycle. Our results provide suggestive evidence on motivations for entering into each type of work. (emphasis mine)

His work was cited in the LA Times last year

people take on this work primarily because they’ve lost a job or some of their income — and particularly for younger workers, app-based services have been significantly more lucrative than more traditional side hustles.

I got to (virtually) talk to Dmitri Koustas, who is now a leading expert on gig work, this week. He became interested in the gig economy when he was thinking through a more traditional econ. question of generally how people modulate their labor supply in response to income shocks.

He also has a working paper “Is Gig Work Replacing Traditional Employment? Evidence from Two Decades of Tax Returns”

First half of the Abstract: We examine the universe of tax returns in order to reconcile seemingly contradictory facts about the rise of alternative work arrangements in the United States. Focusing on workers in the “1099 workforce,” we document the share of the workforce with income from alternative, non-employee work arrangements has grown by 1.9 percentage points of the workforce from 2000 to 2016. More than half of this increase occurred over 2013 to 2016 and can be attributed almost entirely to dramatic growth among gigs mediated through online labor platforms. We find that the rise in online platform work for labor is driven by earnings that are secondary and supplemental sources of income. Many of these jobs do not show up in self-employment tax records… (emphasis mine)

Working Hard for the Money

40 hours. That’s what we think of as a typical workweek. 8 hours per day. 5 days per week. Perhaps the widespread practice of working from home during the pandemic (as well as the abnormal schedule changes for those unable to work from home), has led some to rethink the nature of the workweek. But the truth is that the workweek has always been evolving.

Take this chart, for example. It comes from Our World in Data (be sure to read their excellent related essay as well), and the historical data comes from a paper by Huberman and Minns. I’ve singled out 4 countries, but you can add others at the OWiD link.

The historical declines are dramatic. This is especially true in Sweden. The average Swedish worker labored for over 3,400 hours per year in 1870. Today, that’s down to 1,600 hours. In other words, the typical Swede works less than half as many hours as her historical counterpart. Wow! The decline for the US is not quite as dramatic, but still astonishing: a US worker today labors for only about 57% of the hours of his 1870 predecessor.

It’s tempting to focus on the differences across countries today: the average worker in the US works about 250 hours more than the average French worker. That’s 6 weeks of vacation! And as recently as 1980, the US and France were roughly equal on this measure. We might also wonder why these historical changes happened. For a very brief introduction to the research, I recommend the last section of this essay by Robert Whaples.

But still, the historical declines are dramatic, even if we in the US haven’t seen much improvement in the past generation (and those poor Swedes, working 100 hours per year more than 40 years ago).

I think another natural question to ask is whether GDP data is distorted, at least as a measure of well being, given these differences in working hours. The answer is partially. Let’s look at the data!

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