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MARCUS: How much do workers want to earn?

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Morton Marcus

Morton MarcusRegular readers know I’m a numbers guy. Give me a set of data and I can be happily occupied for hours. Sometimes I am distressed by numbers. Recently, I discovered that the manufacturers of men’s clothing inflated the sizes of jackets and trousers so one might think that I am now wider and shorter than I was just a few years ago. But I will not trouble you with my nominal size changes.

The Indiana Department of Workforce Development today does a much better job of providing the public with data that it did in the past. A simple visit to Hoosiers by the Numbers on the DWD website is a data junkie’s joy. Where else can you find what unemployed Hoosier workers seek in wages, by county?

This is possible because job applicants record their wage expectations on DWD computers and these are averaged by county. Thus we find that the average annual expectation of Hamilton County workers is the highest in the state, at $36,799. No surprise there. Yet who would have thought that Wells County (Bluffton) would be second, at $35,556? Or Wabash County fourth, at $34,732? The most modest expected wages were in Jay, Knox, Owen and Greene counties—each under $20,000 per year. The average for Marion County was $28,792.

Unfortunately, DWD calls the data “wage demand.” It would seem they did not get the website checked for political sensitivity. Isn’t the term “demand” usually reserved for a hostile press describing what unions seek? No one talks about the grocery demanding a particular price for corn flakes or Pepsi demanding so much for two liters of their product. Does your gas station’s posted price constitute a demand? I am sure someone at DWD will change that wording soon.

Less comforting is the fact that the latest data posted were for June 2008. These data should be up to date to be of value to employers and workers alike. DWD claims that, “Each week, we examine the pool of applicants who are registered in [the DWD computerized system]. Applicants define their wage expectations for the work they desire. An average wage demand is calculated for the selected geographic area.” Hence, we might have hopes that the data would be updated more frequently for the public website.

I am confident that DWD will examine this as closely as they do other statistical issues. For example, how is it that the median wage sought in 50 of the 92 Indiana counties is reported as $20,800? That seems an unlikely condition, but I may not understand the intricacies that abound here.

However, let’s not be picky. This is an extraordinary source of information, as are most files at DWD. With this sort of information, we could track how wage expectations change over time, as the unemployment rate for the county changes, and as the duration of unemployment changes for individuals. Where DWD has data on the wage finally accepted by the worker, the expected and realized values could be compared, which could have a feedback effect on other workers.

Almost every state and local agency has data that can be mined more effectively than at present. In some cases getting more from existing data can be costly, but often the costs are small, requiring just a little imagination and a pinch to the seat of government.•
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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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