photo by Kathryn Decker
I don’t usually need to put a spoiler alert at the top of this column, but be warned: If you plan to see the film “Draft Day” and don’t want the ending ruined for you, skip down to paragraph five.
For the rest of you, “Draft Day,” which stars Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner, struck me as a better movie than its box office numbers might indicate. In the film, a quarterback who is surefire top pick in the NFL draft does not end up getting taken first. Or second. Or third, for that matter. Once the team with the first pick decides to use it on somebody else, other teams start thinking they might have overlooked something negative about the golden boy with the golden arm. Or they began to think that maybe they just didn’t need a rookie quarterback as much as they needed help at another position.
Was there really anything wrong with the no-longer-number-one quarterback, or was it all a matter of unfair and mistaken impression? You’ll have to see the film; my spoilers don’t extend as far as telling you the final score.
Of course I am talking about fiction, film and football. For most of us, real life bears little resemblance to any of these things. But being passed over by prospective employers who, you are certain, ought to desire your services is very real and can happen to anyone.
Nearly five years of economic expansion has still left millions of Americans among the long-term unemployed. Not all of them show up in the official statistics. Some have managed to qualify for disability benefits, even though they are in pretty much the same condition as when they were working. Others have gone back to school, or they have just dropped out of the labor market. But they are out there, and the economists who are studying the causes and consequences of long-term unemployment seem to suffer from a striking lack of familiarity with the way employers go about choosing which workers to hire, which ones to keep and which to lay off.
A case in point: research cited in a recent article in The Washington Post. The article and the research upon which it was based treat employment as almost a statistically random event, like the probability of snow falling on the National Mall on Christmas Day. Someone who is out of work for an extended period of time faces daunting odds of getting a new job, as economists have long understood. The newly examined data shows, however, that a worker who actually gets a new job after a long period of unemployment has a significant likelihood of losing that new job as well, typically not too long after getting it.
Bad luck? Bad skills induced by the extended period of unemployment? Bad behavior on the part of employers?
It could be any of those things. In some cases, inevitably, it will be one of them. But the article in the Post, and the economists themselves, seem to give short shrift to the idea that employment decisions are typically not random events.
In the government and some unionized private sector workplaces - a tiny share of the private sector these days - layoffs frequently occur in reverse order of seniority. This practice probably boosts the re-employment prospects of the group who are cut loose, since those workers will tend to skew younger, lower-paid and, unless the employer's hiring standards have recently slipped, at least as well-qualified as the employer’s average employee.
In academia, home to a disproportionate share of economists conducting ill-informed research, layoffs generally occur first among part-time adjunct instructors, then among non-tenured faculty, and finally among tenured professors, who sometimes cannot be laid off unless entire departments are downgraded or eliminated. Again, not a terrible harbinger for those who are let go. Being part-time anyway, the adjuncts will often have other employment to fall back on, not to mention marketable skills. Non-tenured faculty at least have a chance of finding employment at another institution, with their age and lower salaries again working in their favor. It’s the tenured faculty who truly have reason to dread the loss of a job. In an era of shrinking enrollments and increasingly price- and debt-conscious students, faculty in many disciplines have good reason to worry that they’ll never get such a good gig again.
But the majority of workers are employed by enterprises seeking to make a profit. When such businesses need to lay off staff, they don’t cut randomly, and they don’t cut their best people. All else being equal, they try to let their least productive employees go. These workers are not necessarily the ones who generate the least output; they are the ones who generate the least output relative to what they cost in salary or to what it would cost to replace what they do by other means. They can have stellar histories and excellent work habits, but their skills and training may have become outmoded. Picture an experienced marketing executive who has only a thin understanding of social media. This type of executive is easy to cut. Once cut, that executive is also liable to have a tough time finding a similar job elsewhere.
Sometimes, of course, first-rate workers lose their jobs because of company downsizing, bankruptcies, mergers and other events that are completely outside their control. These people, who can communicate their skills to prospective employers - and who often have professional acquaintances who know how good they are - are the ones most likely to land a new job quickly. It isn’t the stars who tend to stay unemployed. It’s the bench-riders and journeymen.
Workers older than 40 also carry the handicap of a law that was intended to help them, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. It is illegal to discriminate against most workers ages 40 to 70 in hiring, promotion, firing and other decisions. That’s the law’s language and its theory. In practice, the ADEA makes it harder for protected workers to get hired in the first place, because nobody has to give a reason for not hiring someone. Once hired, however, a protected worker is a lawsuit waiting to happen if the new employer decides, for whatever reason, to let the worker go. Some employers will take the chance, but many others won’t.
Some workers keep getting fired for the same reason that some drivers keep getting into accidents and some quarterbacks keep getting intercepted: They just aren’t terribly good at what they do.
Yes, unemployment carries its own stigma among prospective employers, made worse when the unemployment is extended and the worker begins to be seen as damaged goods, fairly or not. On average, however, the long-term unemployed are not the cream of the crop. As a group, they probably are not even average. They are more likely to be inferior workers, a fact that does not escape the attention of people who, unlike most economists, actually make hiring decisions and have to live with them. They might lose a good worker who is unfairly passed by, a golden boy who simply wasn’t snatched up for one reason or another - but those are long odds for an employer to play in a process already filled with uncertainty.
Employers want the best workers they can get. That’s a fact, not a criticism. Treating unemployment as a random event that just happens to people mischaracterizes the condition. We should not be surprised when it leads us to misunderstand the consequences.