The labor shortage claims from American businesses keep filling the media (even though wages, which are supposed to rise sharply in such circumstances, are improving only sluggishly). So it was more than a little interesting to look over the latest statistics on labor productivity released by the Department of Labor.
After all, companies and industries really facing dire labor shortages, and unwilling or unable to raise wages, are supposed to boost their productivity (generally by introducing labor-saving devices and practices). But the new Labor Department numbers show that they’re doing surprisingly little on this front, either.
Let’s examine two sectors of the economy that say with special vigor that they’re running out of workers: trucking and restaurants.
According to a typical account (from yesterday’s Washington Post), American trucking companies are facing “an extraordinary labor shortage” and their CEOs (including industry veterans) are saying things like “I’ve never seen it like this, ever….It doesn’t matter what the load even pays. There are just not drivers.”
The sector does appear to be raising pay. But not until the last two years have its overall employment costs been rising faster than those for the private sector overall – and the latter’s increases have hardly impressed. These data cover the entire transportation and warehousing sector, but after shooting up from a 2.1 percent annual pre-inflation pace to four percent (between the fourth quarters of 2011 and 2012), total compensation advances slowed to 2.3 percent annually during the next two years, and then to 2.2 percent in 2015 before accelerating.
Moreover, trucking industry productivity growth hasn’t been world-beating, either. The Labor Department reported last week that its overall gain in labor productivity (the narrower of two productivity growth measures tracked by Labor, but the one whose data is more up to date) in 2017 was 0.8 percent. A comparable figure for services industries in general isn’t available, but the Department does track labor productivity for non-farm businesses and for manufacturing.
Since labor productivity productivity for the former increased by 1.3 percent in 2017 and only 0.4 percent in manufacturing, it seems safe to conclude that services sector labor productivity grew by more than 1.3 percent – and therefore much more than trucking’s 0.8 percent. Nor does this picture change much going back to 2013.
Further, a remarkably similar pattern emerges upon examining the restaurant business. Labor shortages are widely claimed and reported, along with examples of the industry starting to improve compensation practices. New technologies are also apparently being tried to improve efficiency in the sector. But according to the data, these responses to the purported shortage of workers have been belated at best.
For example, as with trucking, annual total compensation gains in the accommodation and food services sectors (no restaurant-specific numbers are available) trailed those for the overall private sector for several years until 2016. And their owners and lobbyists have been making labor shortage claims for at least that long.
Data for restaurants (and bars) specifically are available for their labor productivity, and their performance here is only roughly comparable to the dreary results for non-manufacturing non-farm businesses.
Industries like trucking and restaurants may indeed not be able to choose their employees from as many applicants as they would like, or from numbers to which they’ve become accustomed. But if they haven’t been doing anything special, at least until recently either to hike pay, improve productivity, or both, then several explanations are possible. Maybe they’re waiting for another wave of wage-depressing legal and illegal immigrants to save their days without the need to fatten paychecks of invest in new plant and equipment. Maybe they’re don’t know how to improve productivity in particular, in which case, their businesses simply may not be viable, or they’re simply lousy managers.
But unless the Labor Department figures are completely off-base, one explanation we can rule out completely is that, as groups, they’re utterly desperate for workers.