Currently, 6.7 million unemployed people in the U.S. are actively seeking work, while the country has 6.3 million job openings. Theoretically, we would have no unemployment if the job seekers filled those open spots. The real world, however, is more complicated. We have a labor force largely deficient in the skills needed to fill many of the vacancies. In other cases, there aren’t enough workers willing to relocate to an area where they could be hired.
One industry suffering from such labor-market friction is construction. Home builders can pretty much find a buyer and pocket a tidy profit for any home they build. But they cannot build as many homes as they’d like to because of the difficulty in finding skilled construction workers. The average hourly wage for a nonsupervisory worker in construction is $27.36, or $57,000 a year.
The work is physically demanding, and that might be part of the problem behind the worker shortage. But there’s a skills gap, too. We’re beginning to see some good ideas to close that gap—in Tennessee, for example, some laid-off workers can get skills training free of charge at the community college—but more initiatives are needed.
Another problem is mobility. Americans aren’t moving as much as they did in the past. A generation ago, about 20 percent of Americans moved to a different place in a given year. Only 11 percent relocate today, and many don’t leave their county. Fewer than 2 percent of moves cross state lines.
Migration is in America’s DNA. Think of 1930s Dust Bowl farmers forced to seek opportunity in the West and the 20th century manufacturing boom that attracted African Americans from the South to the North. Think of Italian and Irish immigrants making the arduous transoceanic journey to escape poverty and Chinese immigrants who came to build the railroads. From a jobs perspective, a return to the country’s roving roots wouldn’t be a bad thing. Jobs are available, but people must go to them.