Jobs and Jobs Galore: Who Are the Workers?

Too many jobs. Not enough workers.

That would be a complaint not heard for a long time in the United States. But economists are now wondering if the tight labor market will restrain economic growth.

"A careful analysis of the demographics of the US population suggests that the economy is fast approaching binding constraints on the supply of labor," maintains Charles Lieberman, chief economist at Chase Securities Inc. in New York.

More and more Americans are going to work.

The Labor Department reported April 4 that a record 67.3 percent of all those 16 years and older were in the civilian labor force, that is, those actually working or seeking work. That's up from 66.8 percent in March 1996.

"There are good economic conditions out there," says John Stinson, a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) economist. "People are seeing a good availability of jobs."

More housewives, retirees, and others are deciding to work for pay. The number of people who said they weren't looking for work because they were discouraged about their prospects fell to 356,000 in March from 451,000 a year earlier.

Averaging the first quarter of 1997, employment totaled 135.9 million, up 2.47 million from the first quarter of 1996. That amounts to a 1.9 percent growth rate in the labor force - a growth rate not seen since 1989.

These are the sort of numbers that worry Federal Reserve officials - and prompted them to raise interest rates last month. They figure that a tight labor market will enable employees to win higher wages, pushing up costs and thus prices.

But the tighter job market is great news for women and minorities. In that 12 months through March, the number of Hispanic women in the labor force increased 9.1 percent and black women 4.8 percent.

That compares with a 1.5 percent rise in the white male labor force, 1.9 percent for white women, 1.1 percent for black men, and 3.2 percent for Hispanic men.

The overall growth in the labor force is well above the 1.1 percent annual rate projected by BLS expert Howard Fullerton for the period from 1994 to 2005.

Mr. Fullerton's 1996 projection of the labor force, by the way, was off a tiny 2,000. In his projections, he assumes a certain growth in the labor force as young people enter the work force and older people retire or die. He also counts on 820,000 immigrants, legal or illegal, starting work in the US each year.

Because of that modest growth in the labor force, the economy cannot grow much faster than a real 2 percent a year without kicking off inflationary wage increases, Fed officials argue.

Some economists see the tight market as offering some hope to those trying to move off welfare.

"The decision by Congress to force single mothers on welfare to seek employment could add over 1.5 million to the labor force during the next five years," says David Hale, an economist at Zurich Kemper Investment Inc. in Chicago.

Since the economy has been adding about 250,000 jobs a month this year, it could theoretically absorb welfare mothers quickly. "Workers from all walks of life will find it easier to find work," says Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington.

But, he adds, because many on welfare are weak in education and skills, they will be competing for low-paying jobs, such as retail clerks, maids, home-care aides, and cafeteria workers.

These jobs have been expanding in number but suffering from falling real earnings. So the new supply of workers could lower wages further, Mr. Bernstein cautions.

In 1996, the jobless rate for young, African-American women who were high school graduates was 21 percent. "This statistic reveals the daunting challenge of welfare reform," he notes.

One hope of economists is that a tight labor market will prompt both government and business to do more training to provide workers with the right skills. Companies, says Bernstein, can get tax credits against the expenses of training workers.

Another hope is that the tighter markets will encourage business to spend more money on productivity improvements. That would enable the economy to grow faster without stepping up inflation. That's like having your cake and eating it too.

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