Cyclopedia Of Economics 1st edition


Skill Acquisition Failure



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Skill Acquisition Failure – People who failed to acquire the minimum education necessary to participate in today's workforce (secondary high school) are doomed to be permanently unemployed or part time employed. School dropouts form a large part of the structural unemployment in many countries. In countries which are in the process of shifting from one economic system to another, even those with the right formal education are made redundant and useless by the new paradigm. Think about a professor of economy who studied and taught Marxist economy from the wrong textbooks – he is quite useless in a capitalist market economy and might find himself unemployed despite his high education.

The last, benign, type of unemployment is the cyclical one. It is the result of the natural business cycle (at least natural to capitalism) and of the ebb and tide of aggregate demand for workers which is a result of these cycles. This is considered to be an unavoidable side effect of market economy. The pain of the laid off workers can be ameliorated (through the introduction of unemployment benefits) but the solution comes from sorting out the cycle itself and not by attacking the unemployment issue in an isolated artificial manner.

The "Natural Rate of Employment" takes into account that frictional and structural employment must exist. What is left is really the full employment rate. This is highly misleading. First, economists are forced to rely on government data which, normally, tend to underestimate and understate the problem. For example: the statistics ignore "discouraged workers" (those who despaired and stopped looking for work). A second, more philosophical issue, is that, as opposed to frictional unemployment, which is a welcome sign, structural unemployment is not and must be fiercely fought by the state. But Economy give Politics a legitimacy to ignore structural unemployment as a part of life.

But the third problem is the most pressing: what is the "natural" rate of unemployment and how should it be determined? This is where NAIRU came in: the natural rate of unemployment could be construed as that rate of unemployment which prevented bad economic effects, such as inflation. In the USA this was estimated to be 5-6%. But this estimate was based on a long history of labour and inflation statistics. History proved the wrong guide in this case: the world has changed. Globalization, technological innovation, growing free international trade, growth in productivity, electronic money, the massive move to the "Third Wave" (Information and knowledge) industries – all this meant that inflationary pressures could be exported or absorbed and the employment could go much higher without fostering them. This became part of a new paradigm in economy which proclaimed the death of the business cycle and of the inflationary boom-bust phases. Though exaggerated and probably untrue, the "New Paradigm" did predict that productivity will grow, inflation will remain subdued, unemployment will decrease drastically and the prices of financial assets will explode – all simultaneously (which was considered hitherto impossible). The unemployment rate in the USA has stayed well below 5% and there are still no sign of inflation. This is remarkable (though probably short lived. Inflation will pick up there and the world over starting in 1998).

And what about Macedonia? It is one of a group of countries in transition that suffered an unprecedented series of external shocks separation from a Federation, the loss of virtually all export markets, economic siege, monetary instability, a collapse of the financial system, and, lately, interethnic tensions. Small wonder that it endured an outlandish (official) rate of unemployment (more than one third of the active workforce). Granted, the real unemployment rate is probably lower (many workers in the black economy go unreported) – still, these are daunting figures.

Is this a structural or frictional or cyclical unemployment? It is tempting to say that it is structural. It seems to be the result of trying to adapt to a brave new world: new technologies, new determinants of survival, new market mechanisms, the need for a set of completely new skills and new consumer preferences. But a closer analysis will yield a different picture: most of the unemployment in Macedonia (and in countries in transition in general) is cyclical and frictional. It is the result of massive layoffs which, in themselves, are the results of efficiency and productivity drives. It is not that the workforce is ill adapted to cope with the new, post-transition situation. The composition of skills is well balanced, the education, in some respects, better than in the West, labour mobility is enforced by the cruelty of the new labour markets, the pay is low and is likely to remain so (wage pressures don't go well with high unemployment). The workforce has adapted wondrously.

The failures belong to the management levels and, above all, to the political echelons. Unwilling to adapt, eager to make a quick (personal) buck, entrenched in cosy offices and old ways of thinking, more interested in their perks that in anything else, not educated in the new ways of the markets – they led themselves and their workers (=their voters) to the unemployment swamp. This unfortunate condition was avoidable.

There is no reason to assume that structural unemployment in Macedonia should be much higher than in Germany. The relative sizes and richness of the two economies is not relevant to this discussion. What is relevant is that labour in Macedonia is by far more mobile than in Germany, that it is paid much less, that it is, therefore, relatively more productive, that it is better educated, that both countries suffered external shocks (Germany the unification, Macedonia the transition), that both countries are macro-economically stable, that Macedonia has real natural and human endowments. By certain measures and theoretic formulas, the structural unemployment in Macedonia should be circa 9%, the frictional unemployment (the business cycle is turning up strongly so cyclical unemployment is bound to go down) contributing another 5%. The natural unemployment rate is, therefore, circa 15%.

Moreover, Macedonia is in the rare and enviable position of not having to worry about inflation or wage pressures. Even much higher employment will not create wage pressures. Only the most skilled workers will possess the ability to dictate their own wages and, even then, we are talking about ridiculous wages in Western terms. There is so much competition for every vacancy ("an employers' market") that the likelihood of demanding (and getting) higher wages (and, thus, generating inflationary pressures is all but non-existent). So NAIRU in Macedonian terms is an abstract notion with no applicability. Every additional percent of permanent employment in the West entails 2-3 as much in economic (GDP) growth. Macedonia has to grow by 10% and more annually to reduce the level of unemployment to 15% in 5 years (taking additions to the workforce into account). This is doable: Macedonia starts from such a low base that it would take little effort to achieve this kind of growth (to add 300 million USD to the GDP annually=3 months exports at today's rate).

But this rate of unemployment can be achieved only with the right policy decisions on the state level – and the right management cadre to take advantage of these decisions and of the thrilling new vistas of the global market scene. It is here that Macedonia is lacking – it is here that it should concentrate its efforts.

Communism abolished official unemployment. It had no place in the dictatorship of the proletariat, where all means of production were commonly owned. Underemployment was rife, though. Many workers did little else besides punching cards on their way in and out.

For a long time, it seemed as though Japan succeeded where communism failed. Its unemployment rate was eerily low. It has since climbed to exceed the United States' at 5.6%. As was the case in Central and Eastern Europe, the glowing figures hid a disheartening reality of underemployment, inefficiency, and incestuous relationships between manufacturers, suppliers, the government, and financial institutions.

The landscape of labour has rarely undergone more all-pervasive and thorough changes than in the last decade. With the Cold War over, the world is in the throes of an unprecedented economic transition. The confluence of new, disruptive technologies, the collapse of non-capitalistic modes of production, the evaporation of non-market economies, mass migration (between 7.5% - in France - and 15% - in Switzerland - of European populations), and a debilitating brain drain - altered the patterns of employment and unemployment irreversibly and globally.

In this series of articles, I study this tectonic shift: employment and unemployment, brain drain and migration, entrepreneurship and workaholism, the role of trade unions, and the future of work and retirement.




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