Where the job seekers aren’t

September 3, 2009

Even in weak employment markets, the United States has typically had a trump card to play. The nation’s workers are legendary for their willingness to travel across the country for new opportunities.

The result has been a speedier recovery of job growth than in Europe and possibly a higher productivity rate, since skilled workers are better matched to openings.

With the August employment report on Friday expected to show little improvement in the job market, America has never needed this flexibility more. Yet, at the risk of adding to the gloom, this advantage appears to be fading fast. The good news is that the United States still boasts one of the most dynamic labor markets of any rich nation. OECD rankings of its 30 wealthy member nations put the U.S. far
ahead of other large countries. (It comes second only to Denmark, which has unmatched programs to help the unemployed back to work.)

On average, around a quarter of American workers change jobs each year, compared with 15 percent in Italy and 13 percent in Greece, says Stefano Scarpetta, head of employment research at the OECD. slide1

Yet there has been a striking decline in U.S. mobility in recent years. Since 2000, the movement of Americans across state lines has halved to just 1.6 percent of the population this year — the lowest rate since records began in 1948. Even movement between counties is at historic lows.

(Click chart to enlarge in new window)

Americans may be becoming less adventurous because they are getting older. During the recession of the early 1980s the median age in the labor force was 35, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now it is 41.

In middle age, people are less willing to leave their home and yank their children out of a school district for anything less than a dream job. OECD figures show that workers above 45 are half as likely as those under 34 to change companies.

Another factor is at work — the housing meltdown. Tighter lending standards and negative equity make it much harder to relocate. The willingness of people to move for a new job halves when a family is suffering from negative equity, according to research by Joseph Gyourko and Fernando Ferreira at the University of Pennsylvania.

Those who owe more on their mortgage than the property is worth face a tough choice if they are offered a job elsewhere. Either they can sell and hand over the balance of the debt to the lender — often tens of thousands of dollars — or walk away and suffer years of higher borrowing costs.

This is a problem that is certain to grow. Negative equity currently afflicts around 26 percent of borrowers, or 14 million properties, according to Deutsche Bank. By the time the slump is over, Deutsche expects that close to half of households will suffer from negative equity. More than a quarter of borrowers could end up owing more than 125 percent of the value of their home.

Economists believe there may be other factors chipping away at the flexibility of the workforce. Rising healthcare costs have increased the risks associated with going without insurance — something than many dynamic startups can’t afford.

When a recovery gathers pace, the frustration of being tied down to depressed areas will become ever more acute. The United States may not have the onerous labor market laws seen in much of continental Europe. But the housing market collapse combined with an aging population may end up having a similar effect.

If American companies find it harder to draw on the nation’s full pool of talent or if workers can’t move where they will be most productive, the prospects for a full-blooded recovery will dim.

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