Springtime hope for latest job numbers

Michael Saltsman Contributor
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Just in time for spring, new employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) finally show some “green shoots” of economic recovery appearing in the labor market. There were 162,000 jobs added in March, and the unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent as more Americans re-entered the labor force.

But this rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats; for Americans without a high school diploma, the unemployment rate remains high at 14.5 percent.

This employment gap didn’t start with the 2008-09 recession, and we shouldn’t expect it to end once the recession’s behind us. Well-meaning politicians have guaranteed that the job outlook for Americans with less education or low literacy levels will remain poor even in improved economic conditions.

The long-term unemployed who are out of a job for 27 weeks or more are often “stuck” in a cycle of joblessness. By continuing to increase state and federal minimum wages – with little regard for their unintended consequences – we’ve created a new glass ceiling that keeps these Americans from getting started in the workforce

Entry-level work, by definition, requires less skill than jobs for experienced workers. But that doesn’t mean these jobs can be filled by just anyone. Even simple restaurant or custodial jobs require the ability to make change, punch an order into a computer, or follow the directions on a bottle of cleaning solution.

Now consider this: Department of Education data show that 27 million Americans lack the basic literacy skills needed to fill out a job application, and 30 million Americans have difficulty reading basic prose. If you were a restaurant owner, how much would you pay someone who needs help reading your menu?

The answer to that question may be “nothing at all.” Hiring a new employee is an expensive investment, and businesses want workers who can learn new skills fast.

Nationally, the minimum an employer can pay for entry-level work is $7.25. It’s higher in many states and cities; in San Francisco, the minimum wage for any job is $9.79 an hour – and that doesn’t include the additional cost of payroll taxes and paid sick leave mandates.

If that investment were less expensive, some businesses might be willing to take a chance on illiterate applicants – and in turn help them acquire basic workforce skills. But federal, state, and local governments have shown little interest in making this investment attractive or affordable to employers.

So what happens if employers have to pay more than $10 an hour to have someone stock shelves? Whether they’ll admit it or not, our representatives in Congress already know the answer to this question. There isn’t a single one who would hire an intern for their office that wasn’t able to use a computer, or read a constituent letter. And those positions aren’t even paid!

For most employers, especially those with narrow profit margins, it’s just not possible to pay a high hourly wage to someone unable to perform the basic tasks of a job without costly and extensive training.

The jobs numbers bear out this conclusion: BLS data show that, between 1998 and 2007, those without a high school diploma spent 57 percent more time unemployed than their counterparts who completed high school – about 154 more days!

Spring is a time for fresh starts. As the labor market emerges from the downturn, and Americans return to work, Congress should take a new look at the plight of those who’ve been left behind by the unintended consequences of their minimum wage increases.

What was intended as a floor has become a locked door. Though a rollback of the federal minimum wage might offend some staid partisan sensibilities, our representatives should keep this in mind: inexperienced or less-literate individuals will be far worse off if they never have a job to begin with.

Michael Saltsman is the research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding entry-level employment.