Perhaps some day we’ll find out when it apparently became mandatory for journalists to write articles about supposed labor shortages in the American economy without once mentioning the word “wages.” For now, RealityChek will have to settle for citing yet another example of this phenomenon that contains an interesting twist: The reporter in question did look at some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the U.S. Labor Department division that gathers and publishes employee compensation figures. But she still left out BLS numbers on wages and salaries.
“Hospitals nationwide face tough choices when it comes to filling nursing jobs. They are paying billions of dollars collectively to recruit and retain nurses rather than risk patient safety or closing down departments, according to Reuters interviews with more than 20 hospitals, including some of the largest U.S. chains.
“In addition to higher salaries, retention and signing bonuses, they now offer perks such as student loan repayment, free housing and career mentoring, and rely more on foreign or temporary nurses to fill the gaps.”
And as indicated above, she is clearly familiar with the BLS as a reliable source of information on the American employment picture. Later in the article, she writes that “Nursing shortages have occurred in the past, but the current crisis is far worse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be more than a million registered nurse openings by 2024, twice the rate seen in previous shortages.”
But for some reason, she didn’t mention the BLS wage data – a crucial omission because everything we (think we) know about economics tells us that when anything, including labor, is scarce, its price (pay in this case) will rise until the greater rewards attract an adequate supply. Common sense supports this analysis, too. If employers are scrambling to fill jobs, it stands to reason they’ll offer better pay to make sure they and not their competition attract the needed workers.
And what the BLS data tell us is that no such scramble is taking place – or at least not enough of one to bid up wages. The last year for which detailed data for occupations (as opposed to sectors of the economy) is available is 2016. The numbers say that last year, the mean (average) national annual wage for registered nurses was $72,180 before inflation, and the mean hourly wage was $34.70.
Now let’s go back five years. The 2011 numbers? An annual mean wage of $69,110 and an hourly median wage of $33.23 per hour. So pay by these key measures wages rose by 4.44 percent over those five years and 4.42 percent, respectively. And again, that’s before adjusting for inflation. Does that sound like the hospitals and other healthcare providers that employ nurses are desperate for more?
Even stranger: Nursing pay has been rising more slowly than pay overall during this period. Between 2011 and 2016, mean annual wages for all occupations were up 9.73 percent, and mean hourly wages were up by 9.75 percent. That’s more than twice as fast! (See the same links that contain the national nursing figures.)
In fairness, Reuters’ Mincer looks at an additional nursing issue – the labor situation in rural areas, which she describes as especially dire. And it does seem to make some intuitive sense that small towns and farm communities would have special difficulties staffing medical facilities. But the numbers don’t seem to back up that story, either.
The author spent considerable space reporting on West Virginia. But the BLS numbers show that, between 2011 and 2016, both hourly and average nursing pay advanced by 4.50 percent. That’s only slightly more than the national rates of increase.
Yes, Mincer’s piece did talk a lot about healthcare providers offering “higher salaries, retention and signing bonuses [and] perks such as student loan repayment, free housing and career mentoring….” It’s entirely possible that she’s right. (The government doesn’t keep detailed occupational figures on these scores.) It’s also entirely possible that the data that is tracked by BLS is way off base. But when you’re claiming “labor shortage,” shouldn’t you at least mention that the most comprehensive facts available about base pay say nothing of the kind?
Moreover, buried in the article – indeed at the end of the quote immediately above – is a clue to the apparent paradox: Mincer’s observation that the healthcare industry is relying “more on foreign…nurses to fill the [employment] gaps.”
If true, that would make clear that lax immigration policies are still enabling nurses’ employers to suppress pay by easing any shortages in the domestic labor force by hiring immigrant nurses who will work for significantly lower pay than native-born workers. And it would suggest that the Cheap Labor lobby encompassing so many American businesses is still able to keep these wage-suppressing global labor pipelines open by peddling a steady stream of warnings about bogus labor shortages to gullible journalists.