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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

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August 5, 2019

What the Wage Growth of Hourly Workers Is Telling Us

The Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker has shown an uptick during the past several months. The 12-month average reached 3.7 percent in June, up from 3.2 percent last year. But in 2016, it depicted acceleration that eventually reversed course. So is this recent increase real or illusory?

Although using a 12-month average quiets much of the noise in the monthly data, it is possible that the smoothed series still may exhibit some unwanted variation due to the way the Wage Growth Tracker is constructed. For example, how the monthly Current Population Survey reports individual earnings might be a factor introducing unwanted noise into the Tracker. Specifically, some people directly report their hourly rate of pay, and some report their earnings in terms of an amount per week, per month, or per year.

Relative to those paid an hourly rate, there are at least a couple of reasons why using the earnings of nonhourly workers might introduce additional variability into the Wage Growth Tracker's overall estimate of wage growth. First, reported nonhourly earnings include base pay as well as any overtime pay, tips, and commissions earned, and hence can vary over time even if the base rate of pay didn't change. For a worker paid at an hourly rate, reported earnings exclude overtime pay, tips, and commissions and so are not subject to this source of variation. Second, the method we use to convert nonhourly earnings to an hourly rate is likely subject to some margin of error since it involves using the person's recollection of how many hours they usually work. These two factors suggest that the earnings of workers paid at an hourly rate might be a somewhat cleaner measure of hourly earnings.

To investigate whether this distinction actually matters in practice, we created the following chart comparing the 12-month average Wage Growth Tracker since 2015 (depicted in the green line) with a version that uses only the earnings of those paid at an hourly rate (blue line).

Median wage growth, 12-month moving average

As the chart shows, the 12-month average of median wage growth for hourly workers generally tracks the overall series—both series are about a percentage point higher than at the beginning of 2015. However, the hourly series is a bit less variable, making the recent uptick in wage growth more noticeable in the hourly series than in the overall series. This observation suggests that as we monitor shifts in wage pressure, the hourly series could complement the overall series nicely. Versions of the Wage Growth Tracker series for both hourly and nonhourly workers are now available on the Wage Growth Tracker page of the Atlanta Fed's website.

If you would like to use the Wage Growth Tracker's underlying microdata to create your own versions (or to conduct other analysis), follow this link to explore the data on the Atlanta Fed's website. See this macroblog post, "Making Analysis of the Current Population Survey Easier," from my colleague Ellyn Terry to learn more about using this dataset.

January 11, 2019

Are Employers Focusing More on Staff Retention?

Many people are quitting their current job. According to data from the Job Openings, Layoffs, and Turnover Survey (JOLTS) from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers are voluntarily leaving their current workplace (for reasons other than retirement or internal company transfers) at rates not seen since the late 1990s.

A high rate of quits is consistent with a tightening labor market. In such a market, the promise of more pay elsewhere lures an increasing share of workers away from their current employer. The potential benefit of changing jobs is also evident in the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker, which typically exhibits a positive differential between the median wage growth of people changing jobs versus those who don't.

However, this Wage Growth Tracker pattern has changed in recent months. Since mid-2018, the median wage growth of job stayers has risen sharply and is at the highest level since 2008. As the following chart shows, the gap between the wage growth of job switchers and stayers has narrowed.

Is it possible that this new pattern is just noise and will disappear in coming months? After all, the wage growth for job stayers has spiked before. But taken at face value, it suggests that the cost of losing staff (recruiting cost, cost of training new employees, productivity loss from having a less experienced workforce, etc.) might be forcing some employers to boost current employees' pay in an effort to retain staff. Interestingly, the pattern is most evident among prime-age workers in relatively high-skill professional occupations.

Firms are always focused on staff retention and employ various strategies to reduce turnover in key positions. One of those strategies—larger pay increases—might now be taking a more prominent role.

We will closely monitor the Tracker for further evidence on this emerging trend. However, that might be later rather than sooner because the source data is provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, which has cut most services because of the current lapse in congressional funding. But when information becomes available, we'll be ready to parse it—so stay tuned!

December 4, 2018

Defining Job Switchers in the Wage Growth Tracker

Among the questions we receive about the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker, one of the most frequent is about the construction of the job switcher and job stayer series. These series are derived from data in the Current Population Survey (CPS) and are intended to show how median wage growth differs for those who change their job from last year versus those who are in the same job. However, the monthly CPS does not actually ask if the person has the same job as a year ago.

So how to proceed? The CPS does contain information about the person's industry and occupation that we aggregate into consistent categories that can be compared to the person's industry/occupation reported a year earlier. If someone is in a different occupation or industry category, then we can reasonably infer that the person has changed jobs. To illustrate, for 2017, 18.8 percent of people in the Wage Growth Tracker data are in a different industry category than they were in 2016, and 28.6 percent are in a different occupation category. Of those who remain in the same industry, 23.9 percent changed occupation group, and of those in the same occupation group, 13.5 percent are in a different industry. However, this information doesn't allow us to identify all job switchers because being in the same industry and occupation group as a year earlier does not preclude having changed jobs.

Fortunately, the CPS also has questions based on who a person said their employer was in the prior month. It asks if that person still works there and if the employee's activities and job duties are the same as last month. If someone answers either of these questions in the negative, then it is likely that person is also in a different job than a year earlier. In 2017, 1.5 percent of people in the Wage Growth Tracker data said they have a different employer than in the prior month, and 0.9 percent report having different job responsibilities at the same employer.

Unfortunately, the dynamic structure of the CPS means that the responses to these "same employer/activity" questions can only potentially be matched with an individual's response in the prior two months, and not a year earlier. Moreover, some responses to those questions are blank, even for people whom we identify as being employed in the prior month. For those individuals, we simply don't know if they are in the same job as a month earlier. Of the non-null responses, the vast majority do not change job duties or employer from one month to the next. So if we assume the blank responses are randomly distributed among the employed population, it's reasonable to also treat the blanks as job stayers.

Previously, we had treated the blank "same employer/activity" observations as job switchers, but that approach almost certainly misclassified some actual job stayers as job switchers. Instead, we now define a job switcher as someone in the Wage Growth Tracker data who is in a different occupation or industry group than a year earlier, or someone who says no to either of the "same employer/activity" questions in the current or prior two months. We label everyone else a job stayer.

Does the definition matter for median wage growth? The following chart shows the annual time series of the difference between the median wage growth of job switchers and job stayers based on both the old and new definitions.

As you can see, the results are not qualitatively different. Job switchers have higher median wage growth during strong labor market conditions and lower growth during bad times. Not surprisingly, the gap in median wage growth is generally lower (more negative) using the old definition.

The next chart shows the annual time series of the share of job switchers in the Wage Growth Tracker data based on the new and old definitions. A caveat: we have been unable to construct occupation and industry groupings for 2003 that are completely consistent with the groupings used in 2002. This results in an erroneous spike in measured job switching for 2003.

Notice that the share of job switchers under the new definition peaked prior to the last two recessions, declined during the recessions, and then recovered. That share is now at a cyclical high. A discrete jump in the number of blank responses recorded for the "same employer/activity" questions in the CPS starting in 2009 masked this cyclicality under the old definition.

In about a week from now, the next update of the Wage Growth Tracker data will implement the new and improved definition of job switchers—I hope you'll check it out, and I'll be writing about it here as well.

November 16, 2018

Polarization through the Prism of the Wage Growth Tracker (Take Two)

In a previous macroblog post, I thought I had discovered an interesting differential between the wage growth of middle-wage earners and that of low/high-paid workers. It turns out that what I actually discovered is that my programming skills could be improved upon. The following is an update to the post, written after correcting the coding error. Although there is no obvious wage growth polarization story, the wages of low-wage workers are currently rising at a faster median rate than for other workers.

Updated Post:

One of the most frequent questions we receive about the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (the median of year-over-year percent changes in individuals' hourly wage) is about the relationship between wage level and wage growth. For example, do high-wage earners also tend to experience greater wage growth?

When looking at wage growth by wage level, whether you use the prior or current wage level as the reference point matters—a lot. If we looked at wage growth categorized by the prior year's wages, we would find higher median wage growth for low-wage earners than for high-wage earners. This is because some workers who earned low wages last year earn middle or high wages this year, and some of last year's high-wage workers earn middle or low wages this year. If we instead categorized people based on current-year wages, we would see exactly the opposite: lower median wage growth for low-wage workers than for high-wage workers (see here for more discussion).

One way to lessen this wage-level base effect is to categorize an individual's wage growth according to their average wage across the two years. The following chart shows this categorization for the 2016–17 wage growth distribution of all workers in the Wage Growth Tracker data. (Note that since 1997, the annual salary for people whose earnings are only reported on a weekly basis is top-coded at $150,000 a year—these masked observations are excluded from the analysis). In the chart, the first quartile depicts the lowest-paid 25 percent of workers based on their average 2016–17 hourly wage, and so on. The center line of the box for each quartile is the median of that group's wage growth distribution, and the lower and upper boundaries of the box are the 25th and 75th percentiles, respectively. The outer lines are the thresholds for outlier observations (see here for the calculation.)

Macroblog - November 16, 2018 - chart 1: Distribution of Growth in Hourly Wage

The chart shows that the wage growth distribution across the average-wage quartiles does, in fact, differ. In particular, the median wage growth for the lowest-paid workers is higher than the median for other types of workers. The median wage growth from 2016 to 2017 for the lowest quartile is 3.8 percent, 3.0 percent for the second quartile, and 3.2 percent for the third and fourth quartiles.

However, the pattern of relatively higher median wage growth for low-wage workers is not uniform over time. This difference is apparent in the following chart, which plots median wage growth over time for each average-wage quartile.

Macroblog - November 16, 2018 - chart 2: Median Wage Growth by Average-Wage Quartile

As the chart shows, median wage growth of low-wage workers (the green line, representing the first quartile) currently exceeds that of higher-wage workers, but it was below the median for higher-paid workers in the wake of the Great Recession. This pattern is consistent with the both the severity of the recession and what we have been hearing more recently about emerging shortages of low-skilled workers. It also appears that the median wage growth of the highest-paid workers (the blue line, representing the fourth quartile) slows by a bit less than that of other workers during downturns but is otherwise not much different than for workers in the middle of the wage distribution.

So, relative to the incorrect charts I had in the previous version of this post, there is no obvious wage growth polarization story here. The wages of low-wage workers are currently rising at a faster median rate than for other workers, and these other workers are experiencing broadly similar median wage growth.