How to Identify a Labor Shortage (Hint: It’s Probably Bullshit)

A little while ago, I saw a news story about the major pilot shortage now facing the airline industry. No, it wasn’t a tasteless (and premature) MH370 joke. It was a serious argument advanced by straight-faced industry representatives at a Congressional hearing. According to these experts, a wave of pilots recruited decades ago is now retiring, and airline routes are simultaneously expanding, making it impossible to fill all the cockpits. The punchline, which you probably see coming, is that they want Congress to relax some “burdensome” regulations to make it easier for the industry to hire more pilots.

It’s total bullshit. In fact, there are tens of thousands of fully qualified pilots who aren’t currently working for the airlines. The labor pool is huge. Considering that “airline pilot” is about the most glamorous job this side of “movie star,” why aren’t these folks jumping at the chance to strut through the terminal in leather jackets? You probably see this coming, too: the pay and working conditions at airlines these days suck. There’s no shortage of pilots. There’s a shortage of pilots willing to work for cheap. This is Economics 101: raise the pay and improve the working conditions and the “shortage” will evaporate.

I was reminded of that story when I saw Michael Teitelbaum’s thorough and well-written exploration of the “shortage” of scientists and engineers. You’ve definitely heard the official line, espoused by everyone from the President down, that America is facing a crisis in scientific leadership. With a generation of Sputnik-era researchers retiring, we must start training replacements and developing new government initiatives to keep our airline transportation system scientific research enterprise running. See where this is headed?

As Teitelbaum points out, it’s hard to square this account with the reality of scientific employment trends. He’s not the first to notice the discrepancy, either. Beryl Benderly penned a nice summary and history of the same argument two years ago for the Columbia Journalism Review, and within the research community the sorry state of the job market has been a running joke for over a decade.

The scientist and pilot “shortages” share the same dissonance between employers’ claims and employees’ reality, but they have different causes . We have plenty of scientists willing to work under labor conditions that would make a Foxconn executive drool. They’re called postdocs. You can’t swing a dead cat in a research lab without knocking over a dozen of them, all of whom are qualified to run their own labs. The problem is that there’s nowhere near enough money flowing into science to employ that many researchers. We lack science, not scientists

It’s as if the airlines decided to have only a single flight each day from New York to Chicago, and then claimed that they needed more pilots to improve the service. There would indeed be a shortage of flights on that route, but throwing more pilots at the problem wouldn’t fix it. We’d need more planes.

Unfortunately, the “labor shortage” story never seems to outlive its welcome. Over the years we’ve heard about a lack of nurses, doctors, teachers, and even lawyers. All of these scarcities have been completely fictional. As a public service, I now offer this simple guide for reporters who are about to write another “shortage of x” story:

  1. Ask who’s promoting the story. If an industry, sector, or employer is the main source, then you should presume that the labor shortage is false until clearly proven otherwise. It’s overwhelmingly more likely that the industry or employer just isn’t willing to pay market wages for the workforce they want. According to Economics 101, any job can be filled if you set the price high enough. This question would have immediately spiked the pilot, nurse, engineer, and doctor shortage stories, for example.

  2. If you’ve established with certainty that there really are highly desirable jobs in the labor-starved industry, ask how many of those positions have gone unfilled in the past year solely because of a lack of qualified applicants. This spikes the scientist story and probably the lawyer one.

  3. If the source answers (2) by saying “well, the positions are filling now, but we’re about to have a huge wave of retirements that will lead to a massive crisis,” tell them to call you back when that happens. Don’t expect to hear from them again.

  4. In the event your story survives steps 1-3, and you’ve confirmed that awesome jobs with great pay and benefits are begging for workers, apply immediately. It’ll beat the hell out of what you’re doing now.