Showing posts with label skill shortages. Show all posts
Showing posts with label skill shortages. Show all posts

Monday, June 7, 2021

Morrison needs the guts to save business (and the unions) from folly

Talk about don’t mention the war. The great and good – who miss jetting off overseas several times a year – keep telling us the economy won’t recover until we’ve reopened to the world. Seems they just can’t bring themselves to focus on the obvious: it’s wages, stupid.

It’s self-evident that, ultimately, it would be bad for our economy for us to stay a hermit kingdom. But these worthies are wrong if they imagine that re-opening our borders would immediately strengthen the recovery.

It’s true that our airlines won’t recover until the borders open, and our universities will remain crippled. But because Aussies normally spend far more on touring overseas than foreigners spend touring here, our tourism industry (including every country town) has been doing nicely thank you from the temporary ban on Aussies doing their touring abroad.

Our econocrats have been busy extending the fiscal stimulus to get unemployment down and skill shortages up, in the hope this will bid up wages, and so give the nation’s households more to spend through our businesses.

Trouble is, business has grown used to covering shortages of skilled labour by importing workers on temporary visas, thus avoiding pushing up wage rates (and training costs). Get it? The real reason they want the borders re-opened ASAP is so they can go on playing this game.

But it’s just one of many stratagems our businesses have been using to keep the lid on wages: increased use of part-time and casual employment, labour hire companies, discouragement of collective bargaining and greater use individual contracts, evading labour laws by pretending workers are independent contractors, and even wage theft.

Little wonder “most Australians have not had a meaningful pay rise for almost a decade” and “living standards have stagnated”, as Brendan Coates, of the Grattan Institute, reminds us.

And little wonder the economy’s growth was so weak before the arrival of the pandemic, and threatens to go back to being weak once last year’s massive fiscal stimulus has dissipated.

Market economies are circular – the money goes round and round. And nowhere is this clearer than in the two-sided nature of wages. Wages are both the chief cost faced by most businesses, and the chief source of income for their customers.

See the problem? The more success the nation’s businesses have in keeping the lid on wage costs, the less money the nation’s households have to spend on all the things business wants to sell them.

When the two sides of the wage coin get out of whack, so to speak, business starts strangling the golden goose. Efforts to achieve a healthy rate of economic growth – and rising living standards – won’t be sustained.

This is a form of market failure called a collective action problem. What seems to makes sense for the individual business is contrary to the interests of business as a whole. But no business wants to be the first to stop skimping on wage costs for fear of losing out to its competitors.

The solution to collective action problems is for some authority to come in over the top and impose a solution on all players, thus leaving none at a competitive disadvantage and all of them better off in the end because their customers have more money to spend.

In other words, the only way for us to escape an anaemic, wage-less recovery is for Scott Morrison to intervene in the economy to get wages up.

Since the Fair Work Commission’s annual minimum wage case affects the wages of one worker in four, he should have intervened in the case – as has always been the feds’ right – to encourage the commission to give a generous increase after last year’s miscued pandemic minginess.

He should be trying to set a higher wage “norm” for private sector employers by giving his own federal employees a decent, 3 per cent annual pay rise, and pressuring the premiers – Labor and Liberal – to do likewise.

He should be legislating to protect Australian workers – and his own tax collections - from the ravages of the “gig economy”, which tries to hide its evasion of our labour laws behind its genuine and welcome technological innovation.

And the very least he should be doing is to beef up the Fair Work Ombudsman’s staffing and ability to stamp out wage theft which – purely by mistake, you understand – has become endemic. This outbreak of utterly unAustralian illegal behaviour tells us a lot about the ultimately self-destructive, anti-wage mania that is gripping the nation’s business people.

The obvious problem is that doing anything to increase wage rates is totally foreign to a Liberal politician’s every instinct. The Business Council would be incandescent. Nixon going to China is one thing, but a Liberal putting up wages? Never.

Sorry, but the world turns, and successful leaders must turn with it. We used to have a chronic problem with inflation; now it’s chronic spending weakness. The unions used to have too much power; now they have too little.

Even so, there’s one thing a Liberal Prime Minister could be doing to help without giving offence to Liberal sensibilities. It would actually be a blow against his union and Labor enemies that would do a lot to strengthen the economy’s prospects over the next four years, should he have the strength to put the economy ahead of his own political discomfort.

It would save Australia’s workers from the self-interest of the union elite and the mindless tribalism of Labor (not to mention the bullying of a certain former Labor prime minister), which is happy to give their unions mates what they demand because the Libs want to destroy industry super (which is true, but not a good enough reason to oppose a change that would leave workers and the wider economy better off).

The strange thing about last month’s budget is that, though it sees the econocrats’ wage-lifting strategy getting unemployment down to 4.5 per cent by about the end of 2023, it sees no growth in real wages for the next four years.

In evidence to a Senate committee last week, Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy was obliged to explain this discrepancy. It’s because, starting next month, legislation requires compulsory employer contributions to their workers’ superannuation to be increased by 0.5 percentage points for five Julys in a row, until they reach 12 per cent of wages in July 2025.

Relying on strong empirical evidence, Treasury has assumed that employers will cover 80 per cent of the cost of this impost by raising wages by that much less. The nation’s workers will thus be forced to save rather than spend a significant portion of what would have been their future pay rises.

The nation’s greedy, ticket-clipping super-fund managers play on everyone’s instinctive fear that they aren’t saving nearly enough to provide for a comfortable retirement. It suits the union elite (and their gullible Labor mates) to go along with this deception, even though Grattan’s Coates (and Treasury before him, and the recent Retirement Income Review since him) has demonstrated that, after including a part-pension, most workers will have plenty.

So the Labor tribe wants to force the nation’s employees to live on less during their working lives so they can live like royalty in retirement. Why doesn’t Morrison seek to reverse this Labor-initiated legislation? Because he fears he’d lose votes in the labour movement’s ensuing fear campaign.

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Monday, May 10, 2021

Years of neglect won't make it easy to get wages up

In Tuesday night’s budget, it will be important to note its assumptions about when our international borders will be back to functioning normally. Not because they’re sure to be right, but because our borders will have a big impact on Scott Morrison’s new strategy of getting unemployment down to get wages – and thus living standards – up.

As the Commonwealth Bank’s Gareth Aird has reminded us, fancy calculations about how low unemployment has to fall before labour shortages force employers to bid up wages, rest on the (usually reasonable) assumption that our borders will be working the way they always have.

If our borders are temporarily closed to immigration and overseas students, however, the point where skill shortages emerge may arrive a lot earlier than the fancy calculations suggest. What’s more, it’s become clearer that the day where our border conditions return to normal may be a lot further into the future than we’d first hoped.

It will be interesting to search the budget papers for signs that these complications don’t come as news to the economic managers, but have been built into the new strategy’s design.

The point is that over the decades of what we used optimistically to call “micro-economic reform”, our employers have become used to the idea that finding enough skilled labour – or even unskilled people willing to do the crappy, badly paid jobs that most Australians aren’t, fruit-picking for instance – isn’t something you have to worry much about.

Whenever you look like running out of the workers you need, you just bring someone in on a temporary visa. If they turn out okay, you help them move to a permanent visa. Our immigration program used to be about recruiting factory fodder for the manufacturers, now it’s about people on many classes of temporary visas allowing employers instant access to skilled workers trained by someone else at some other country’s taxpayers’ expense.

The trouble with this is that it’s come at the expense of our technical education system and our young people. Our business people no longer need to worry about whether they’ll have enough skilled workers a few years down the track, so no longer put enough money and effort into training apprentices, trainees and other technical workers.

I see it as further evidence for my theory that part of the reason both productivity improvement and wages have been weak for some years is our businesses’ preference for improving their profits by cutting costs – particularly wage costs – rather than improving their efficiency.

One implication of this emphasis on employers buying skilled (or cheap) labour off the shelf, so to speak, is that the longer the economy recovers behind closed borders, and the more the government tries to use labour shortages to get some decent wage growth, the more pressure employers and their lobby groups will put on the government to open the temporary-visa floodgates.

The more the government gives in to its business mates – who are used to getting their way – the more it will sabotage its strategy for getting wages, consumer spending and the voters’ standard of living going up not sideways.

But Dr Mike Keating, a former top econocrat, argues there’s a different weakness in the new strategy: it continues the economic managers’ earlier error of analysing the wages problem in purely cyclical terms.

For seven years they told us not to worry about weak wage growth because the recovery from the global financial crisis was just taking longer than usual. Wrong. Now they’re saying the problem is too much slack in the labour market, so we must stimulate harder to reduce the rate of labour underutilisation (unemployment plus under-employment) and, once we have, healthy wage growth will return as sure as demand and supply go together.

This thinking fails to acknowledge the likelihood that the problem is more structural than cyclical. It’s not just weak demand that’s the problem, it’s a change in the structure of the labour force, particularly as skill-biased technological change has increased employers’ demand for high-skilled labour and dramatically reduced demand for semi-skilled labour, while not having as much effect on demand for services-performing less-skilled labour.

Even so, the notion that much unemployment is the result of “structural mismatch” rather than weak demand is hardly new. That is, many of the unemployed lack the particular skills employers are looking for. So it’s wrong to assume that unemployment falls in lock-step with rising demand.

We’ve been marvelling at the recent rapid increase in job vacancies, which has reduced the number of unemployed per vacancy to 2.75, well below its decade average of 3.9. Many have taken this as indicating the strength of the recovery and a sign that unemployment will continue its rapid fall.

But Keating, a labour economist, says it indicates “a substantial and increasing degree of structural mismatch in the labour market”. (It could also be a sign that our employers’ dependence on importing the skilled labour they need is already making itself felt.)

“If this mismatch continues through the economic recovery, the wage increase in some jobs will most likely exceed the increase in other jobs. Consequently, pursuit of the target rate of unemployment may well result in an increase in wage inequality, which in turn may not produce the increase in demand that economic recovery requires,” Keating says.

I think the econocrats need to remember that, in the old days, the tendency for wage rises caused by skill shortages in some occupations – or some parts of the country – to spread to all other workers was caused by the operation of the old centralised wage-fixing system. The move to enterprise bargaining was intended to stop that happening. And it has.

These days, the labour market’s only equalising tendency comes from the existence of the more amorphous “wage norms” (“other bosses are giving pay rises of X per cent, so I’ll do the same”).

Keating says the best way to remove structural impediments in the labour market is to ensure the necessary development of education and training so that people have the particular skills needed to meet the requirements for the jobs that are available.

But that, of course, is just what we haven’t been doing.

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