A brief visit to a Staples store in Jackson, Wyoming revealed an ironic anomaly. We know that overall in the U.S., while the unemployment rate still hovers in the 7 ½ percent range, there are several million unfilled jobs requiring skills which are in very short supply.

This Staples store isn’t looking for specialized skills – it needs three or four people to stock shelves and ring up sales. Neither requires much education or any special skills beyond a rudimentary command of English and how a store works. Still, the store is having a hard time finding essential employees.

This example highlights the fact that it is not just a shortage of especially skilled people disturbing the equilibrium of our job market. There are a number of other rigidities, barely recognized much less addressed effectively, that are contributing to the problem.

People either cannot or do not want to move around the country to find jobs. Older people are stuck with homes they cannot easily sell or have dependants they cannot leave behind. Young people huddle with family out of fear of the unknown. And, in between, people everywhere are understandably reluctant to leave their present home or an existing job in search of a job somewhere else.

Indeed, new job growth remains the fundamental challenge to our historically high unemployment rate. The policy emphasis today on reducing stimulus spending is clearly a brake on both new jobs and the mobility required to find them.

There is no obvious, clear or easy fix to the mobility factor. But there are some ideas that perhaps should be considered. For example, people responded with alacrity to the tax credits offered to buyers of new cars when it was imperative to save the auto industry.

Perhaps something like that could be applied to seekers of jobs as well as employers of new people. Someone who moved to take a new job could get a tax break as an inducement to take the risk of moving. And, the employer of such a person might similarly get a tax break for inducing that person to move, which could enable that employer to pay a slightly higher wage, or to help with moving expenses.

That is just one, possibly controversial, idea. No doubt, if more people focus on this structural problem, more, and perhaps better, ideas might be forthcoming.

Still, the shock of seeing ordinary support jobs going begging prompted this call for more attention to a somewhat obscure point. This is vastly different from the problem of the non-existent jobs, or skilled jobs lacking candidates competent to fill them.

Clearly, there are people out there capable of doing jobs like those the Jackson Staples has open, but they simply cannot be found where those jobs do exist.


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