August 17, 2015
Al Jazeera America, August 17, 2015
Last week the New York Times ran a lengthy piece calling attention to school districts across the country that are having a difficult time attracting new teachers. The piece reported that many school districts are relaxing standards in order to get teachers, in some cases hiring teachers who have not yet completed their training. Others have increased the intensity of recruiting, making more effort to court good applicants. It also reported on some districts going to Puerto Rico or even Spain in search of teachers.
The one tactic that is not mentioned is higher pay. While the piece notes that many recent college grads are opting for higher-paying alternatives to teaching, it doesn’t discuss why school districts are not raising wages as a way to pull some of these people back into teaching.
This is not the first time that we have seen assertions about labor shortages even though wages don’t appear to be growing. It is a regular theme in reporting on the economy. Times columnist Thomas Friedman has repeatedly complained that employers can’t get qualified workers due to inadequate training. Last year Slate told its readers there is a shortage of truck drivers. And the Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy piece on the shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing.
The traditional way to attract qualified workers is to offer higher wages. This is the basic logic of supply and demand. If the price rises, or in this case the wage, then it will also increase the supply.
If it turns out there are not currently enough unemployed workers with the necessary skills, higher wages will lure qualified workers away from competitors. If a company can’t afford to pay enough to get or keep qualified workers, they go out of business. This is the way a market economy works. That’s why half of our workforce no longer works in agriculture. Workers were able to get higher paying jobs in manufacturing. This forced farmers to either use new machinery to increase productivity or face bankruptcy.
The prospect of getting higher pay in the future will also encourage more workers to acquire the necessary skills. People spend years training to be doctors because they get high wages once they have acquired the knowledge needed to be a physician. If there are not currently enough workers with the skills needed by trucking or manufacturing companies, the lure of higher pay will soon attract a more qualified workforce.
But for some reason wages are not rising. There is no major occupational grouping that is seeing rapid wage growth. In most occupations wages are just barely outpacing inflation. This is a strong argument that we really do not have a skills shortage; rather, we just have managers that would rather pay less than the market rate for their workers.
Of course teaching is a special case. In addition to not being an especially well-paying job for college grads, teachers have been vilified for years by politicians and the media. There have been endless stories about how inept teachers are to blame for the poor performance of many of the country’s children.
A few years ago, Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school system, was briefly raised to superhero status based on her willingness to fire teachers she viewed as incompetent. Her star faded somewhat when it became known that the remarkable turnaround of test scores at an inner city school was the result of cheating rather than improved teaching.
But this and other failures of school “reform” have done little to reverse the vilification of teachers. In fact just last week, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and Republican presidential candidate, expressed his desire to punch teacher unions in the face. Is it possible to imagine a political figure expressing a desire to punch the representatives of doctors, firefighters or any other profession?
And the attacks on teachers don’t end when they stop teaching. Teachers along with other public sector employees are vilified for having traditional defined benefit pensions. Pensions are of course part of a workers’ pay package, they get lower wages to offset the employers’ contribution and typically contribute a portion of their salary as well.
Nonetheless, there is a well-funded attack on public sector pensions, with millions of public sector workers being threatened with the loss of benefits they already worked for. In fact, Governor Christie seems to be making this attack one of the main planks of his presidential campaign. He has boasted about reneging on a commitment to make a large pension contribution as part of pact negotiated with New Jersey’s unions.
The story of labor shortages in teaching and other occupations is not very mysterious. Employers who are willing to pay workers a decent wage and treat them with respect seem to have little difficulty attracting qualified workers in this economy. The problem is the media takes seriously the complaints by employers who don’t want to pay the market wage and give workers respect.