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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jobs, Skills and development

Noni Mausa, in her blog Tunnel Under Snow: The trace elements of a nation, highlighted a comment she made on a spectacular discussion at Angry Bear about Sir James Goldsmith's views about jobs, skills and development. The original post makes a great reading and the comments, more so by Noni, simply elevate it to a must read discussion.

The arguments are often made against trade related job realignment. Make no mistake, trade does lead to realignment of jobs. Low value add jobs move from higher income countries to lower income countries. Except, of course, those jobs that cannot be moved like Janitors, hair dressers, restaurant operations etc. However, the idea of development means that the rest of the economy must be able to pay higher for these services even though the skills may not be dramatically high value adding. To pay higher and higher for same services we have two options.

First, we can improve productivity of jobs that cannot be moved. That is why floor cleaners at airport use a electric cart with mops rather than do it the old fashioned way like the floor cleaners in poor countries do. Essentially, as income increases, economies tend to throw capital at essential-labour problems to make them cheaper. Capital, naturally, is cheaper in high income countries. This worked fine in times when capital mobility was a constraint. However, the advent of GATT, WTO and later developments have made capital mobility almost frictionless. Thus this difference has been effectively negated and the only differentiation is now in wages.

Second, we can add more value that high-income people will appreciate and hence pay for. Thus, fashion consciousness in high income hair salons is higher than that in low income ones. Low income countries have tailors, while high income ones have clothes designers who have a reputed brand to talk about. The communication revolution has effectively negated this trend as well again reducing the differentiation to wages.

What this means is countries will have the jobs profile similar to the skill profile of the population. In other words, we are looking at a wage-skill rebalancing across the world. Thus we need to look at the skill profile of the economy and match the job profile with it. The skill profile can be managed through immigration i.e. by allowing those with relevant skills to come into the country. So US will do well to export financiers and import engineers. In that sense, the direction of the discussion is correct.

In other words, for arguments sake, a country of doctors will need to import engineers or entice customers to come over for treatment. Enticing customers seems ridiculous but hospitals in India are already offering low cost health care services to wealthy foreigners who fly in get their dental, cardiac treatments done and fly back after recovery. It is called medical tourism.

I have discussed the importance of matching job profile and skill profile within economies in my book "Subverting Capitalism and Democracy".