Rethinking 99 weeks of unemployment

Teaching our three-day intensive course in RDBMS and SQL development at MIT made me reflect on the wisdom of the government using tax dollars to pay people for 99 weeks (two years!) to stay home and play Xbox or watch TV while waiting for employers to return their calls. The standard 26 weeks of unemployment makes sense to me. People paid for the insurance with wage deductions and it might take 26 weeks to move to a new city or state, work one’s network of friends and relatives, etc. But the subsequent 1.5 years don’t make sense to me given what a human ought to be able to learn in that period of time.

In three days we took people, admittedly many of them very bright, from zero knowledge of RDBMS to basic competency in SQL programming. They were also able to modify, recompile, and test Android applications that pull information from a Web-based RDBMS. Many of the students had very limited programming experience and many were not MIT-affiliated, so it is not as though we took MIT computer nerds and made them slightly more nerdy.

Let’s try to come up a list of things that a person, effectively taught, could do in 99 weeks. Here’s a start:

  • earn most or all of a bachelor’s degree if done at an efficient school such as University of Phoenix where courses are self-paced and/or in session all year rather than the lazy half-the-year calendar of a legacy university
  • earn an MBA (1 year at a modern school; 2 years at a legacy school)
  • become a competent video editor in Final Cut or Adobe Premiere (two weeks?)
  • become a competent photo editor in Adobe Photoshop or The Gimp (two weeks?)
  • develop reasonably fluency in a foreign language, even without an instructor, using tools such as RosettaStone (one year, possibly including a trip to Guatemala or China or wherever)
  • start and finish an aviation maintenance degree and FAA certification (typically about 1.5 years)
  • learn heavy equipment operation
  • complete almost any trade school, e.g., plumbing or electrician
  • go from zero computer knowledge to being a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer or a Cisco network engineer

It seems strange to pay someone for 99 weeks and hope that somehow the employers that didn’t want them when they were fresh out of work would somehow want them after two years of idleness.

What about the following modifications to the system:

  • for people who live in states with an unemployment rate higher than average (see for the rates), offer a lump sum at the end of 12 weeks to assist the person in moving to a state with a lower-than-average rate
  • for people who’ve been unemployed for 12 weeks, simply pay for a year of education in programs with proven records of skills-building (I guess you measure by how many finished and were able to get jobs)

I have heard that there are various government training subsidies available, but none seem to be as well funded as the river of money that is going into the 99-weeks-of-Xbox system.

What’s wrong with my thinking? Is the 99-weeks-of-Xbox system that Congress created more sensible than it seems?

97 thoughts on “Rethinking 99 weeks of unemployment

  1. You’re a very high IQ guy who probably associates exclusively with people in the top half of the bell curve. I suspect you just don’t get the bottom third, who dominate the unemployment rolls. They simply cannot learn a language, get a bachelors, or make it through a technical trade school, let alone do it in 99 weeks. Not that I’m saying the benefits make sense.

  2. kkrev: Ouch! I hope that you’re wrong. I am a pessimist about most American schools, but an optimistic when it comes to human capacity (like Owen Wilson in the Wedding Crashers, who was sad that people only used 10 percent of their hearts). Students in our RDBMS course reported that it was 5-10X more efficient (learning/hour) than other programming courses they’d taken. So there should be a lot of room for improvement in skills even if peoples’ IQ remains constant (and low in some cases).

  3. My reservation about this is that the private skills-oriented education you’re talking about is already ubiquitous, effectively free, and mostly of low value. Late-night television is now filled with ads promising to get the viewer into the sort of fun easy online courses that are taken by hot chicks with vague career prospects. These commercials are run by placement agencies, which are paid, indirectly, by the numerous government programs that seek to encourage private skills-oriented education.

    When society decides to pay for more vocational education, it will get instead more enrollment, higher costs, more institutions with poorer teaching, less-qualified students, less-motivated students, and lower graduation rates.

    Of course, these same things can be said about traditional university education. There too, prices have increased and quality has decreased, but until unemployment benefits are extended to four years this is probably off-topic.

  4. “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”.


    MBA brings dubious value, ‘basic competency in SQL programming is as good as the drivers license is for professional driver: it’s a start. Difference between employed and unemployed is not so much in the skill but in supply vs demand.

  5. This is like asking why we don’t have Medicare for everyone. US law is based on mores, not rational cost-benefit analysis, and our mores are both inflexible and inconsistent.

    The obligation to treat everyone who dials 911 or enters the ER is enshrined in statute, so we already pay, just without reaping the benefit when healthy 26 year-olds want to start a business without risking their health as well as their capital. We can’t have untreated people dying in the streets, but it sounds too much like a free ride.

    Many of these unemployment programs terminate benefits if you leave the state for more than a few weeks, become a full-time student, etc. We can’t have unemployed people starving in the streets, but it sounds too much like a free ride.

    It’s not clear what happens as our service sector shrinks.

  6. Phil:

    You are 100% correct on every point, but there are some mitigating factors:

    These are extraordinary times where the former do-nothing middle management, marketing and paper shuffling jobs are gone, and are not coming back, and it is a rare person that can re-train in tech and just “turn and take a breath”.

    But, I do become very vexed and feel empathy for the poor, formerly well employed, that bemoan on TV and to me personally, that they have, “sent out 500 resumes, and have got no answers at all”. I have been self employed since 1992, and have had periods of slack time, and some very near poverty, but I was always able to remake my services as a product and industry relations / regulatory analyst, into things my clients need. some deals took me two years to close, and I did very little paying work in 08.

    I am no genius by any means, but i do realize that small technology companies need eyes and ears, and there are innumerable ways to tailor my services and prices to make a living at being a mouthpiece, a strategiest, a hired gun product manager.

    Not everyone can do this kind of agile re-inventing, but I can due the accidents of my career experience, and being fired so often for being a loudmouth. Now in the midst of this economic downturn, I am doing quite well, and I thank G-d. and Fate. Freeing myself from the “resume pool” has been a great blessing that at times seemed like a curse. I have not resorted to unemployment comp since 1977.

  7. Alan: I do wonder what people hope to gain by sending out the 501st resume and why they expect the result to be different from the previous 500. U.S. employers truly are somewhat starved for people with required/relevant skills, so you’d think that the first 30 rejections would lead a sensible person toward school or an apprenticeship (though I guess apprenticeships are illegal under minimum wage laws).

  8. I also suggest looking at military course lengths to answer the skills question:
    (“Air Force Enlisted Job Descriptions and Qualification Factors”)

    These should serve as an upper bound, assuming you believe government is a bastion of incompetence but acknowledge that USAF planes rarely fall out of the sky due to faulty maintenance.

    For example, they use 55 training days (11 weeks) to produce a Computer Systems Programming specialist, anticipating a high school graduate with minimal preparation and average IQ.

    “Computer Systems Programming personnel supervise and perform as computer analyst, coder, tester and manager in the design, development, maintenance, testing, configuration management, and documentation of application software systems, client-server, and web-enabled software and relational database systems.”

    Foreign language training lasts between 47 and 63 weeks, depending on the difficulty of the language.

  9. I do not believe that any amount of time could train me to edit video or photographs. I believe there is a talent involved and you can’t do it if you don’t have it.

    Fixing airplanes, sure. Follow the spec to create a database behind a web site, okay. But those two examples should be removed.

    My friend with a USC MBA said that his MBA team did a study about MBAs and whether they were worth the money you spent on tuition. Apparently the statistics supported it for a handful of schools and it was essentially a tariff to join a network, not knowledge or skill you acquired.

    Giving someone a lump sum is impossibly ineffective. They are unemployed and (most likely) horribly in debt. Every one of them would use the lump sum to pay off a chunk of the debt, since that is the most pressing pain.


  10. Colin: Editing video, e.g., to produce 3 minutes of highlights from 20 minutes of raw footage at a social event, or to make a corporate internal video on on how to refill the copier with paper and toner, requires an innate talent that few people have? Maybe you need to be tiger-mothered! Being able to drive Adobe Premiere is a skill that people will pay for even if you’re not making the next Godfather.

  11. The problem here is that at present, lots of people pay their own way through community colleges, trade school, or whatever. If word gets out that you just have to lose your job and wait 12 weeks and the government will pay the fees for you, then the costs of the programme will quickly escalate.

  12. Having just finished Free to Choose (, I would say that unemployment benefits are the closest thing to Friedman’s idea of a negative income tax we have. You solve the problem of people not having enough money by giving them money. They can sort out for themselves what they should do with it better than any politician, professor, government official, or well-meaning blogger can.

    Of course, Friedman would also eliminate the minimum wage, so that wages could fall to the market-clearing rate.

    I have a specific problem with how Texas unemployment insurance works (and maybe this is the way it works everywhere). I was unemployed for about six months in 2004. Towards the end, I decided I had to get any job that would pay at all, rather than sitting around waiting for an appropriately-salaried job in my field (I had just graduated with a BA in computer science from Rice, but had been working full-time towards the end, so I qualified for the unemployment insurance payments). I started doing contract express delivery driving (“hot shots”). To collect unemployment insurance payments, you have to report every week how many hours you worked if any, and how many job search contacts you made. During the first week of doing the hot shots, I reported that I worked something like 12 or 16 hours, since that was the amount of time I had spent in my car running all over the city. Now, the amount of money I made for this work was a joke (after paying for gas, even at 2004 $1.70/gal prices, I doubt it was enough to buy a cheeseburger), but the Texas Workforce Commission said “you have worked too many hours this week to qualify for unemployment insurance”. So, in this case, I really would have been better off sitting around playing computer games than working and adding some (negligible) value to the economy. The payments should be based on how much money you earn, not on how many hours you work.

    Three months later, I was offered a software testing position for about double the salary of what I would have been willing to take for it, which maybe goes to show that another problem is whatever government regulations require paying people the same salary for similarly graded positions, even in economic downturns when people are desperate for a paycheck.

  13. Even if they’re sitting watching TV or playing XBOX all day for 99 weeks all that money is getting pumped back into the economy so what’s the big deal?

  14. Attikus: Thanks for the link to Obama’s proposed community college plan. It seems like a bad idea, mostly, because it rewards systems that have been proven to be failures, i.e., giving money to existing community colleges that are not effective in generating graduates whom employers want to hire.

    Matt: If ladling out tax dollars to folks who don’t work is just fine because “the money is getting pumped back into the economy” we should already be the most successful economy in the world. We pay retired government workers aged 41-120 with tax dollars. We pay Social Security recipients, mostly aged 62+, with tax dollars. And come to think of it, we pay a lot of government workers who don’t do anything more productive than playing Xbox. Yet somehow countries where people work are doing better than us…

  15. Stay in school!

    I know MBA’s that are out of work more than 26 weeks.
    If you are in the wrong industry, let’s say lumber, housing, real estate…, you have done it all your life, but there may not be jobs for years.
    You have lived someplace for a few years, paid X for it, now it is worth X-10% or -20% or … Now you would want these people to move for a job and take a bath on their homes.

    Like most anything there users who need it and abusers. Once you separate them, I agree with you for the abusers.


  16. John: “There may not be jobs for years” [in certain industries] and “would you want people to move for a job and take a bath on their homes”?

    It hadn’t occurred to me that people were born with the capability of working in only one industry. Let’s hope that very few Americans were born with the limitation that they could work only in a consumer electronics factory. I imagine that they will be sitting at home playing a Chinese-made Xbox for quite a few years waiting for the consumer electronics factories to return to the U.S. (perhaps they will if U.S. and Chinese wages eventually track the relative educational attainment of the populations).

    Should people stay in a house in a Rust Belt area playing Xbox for the rest of their lives in the hopes of the real estate market eventually recovering in their jobless/snow-blighted region? I guess that makes sense if you think the primary role of a working-age American is real estate investor. says the median price of a house in the Midwest is $139,000. So giving up 5-10 years of median income of about $32,000 (workers over 25) in hopes of realizing a 10-20 percent gain on $139,000 may not make financial sense.

  17. I think this time in our history should see an explosion in self employment, but I haven’t seen it. Here’s a crazy plan: After 12 weeks, pay for a year of trade school (just like your plan). After that, give them 2 years of very basic health insurance and guarantee a $10,000 loan to start a business.

    Many would fail, some would succeed. Can you imagine what this country would look like in five years? Our working poor would have a skill set and a taste of entrepreneurship that would be unparalleled. And the ones would did succeed would be employing some of the ones who failed.

    I’m not saying it’s a good or workable idea. I just think it would be an interesting experiment.

  18. You’re missing a few points (possibly because you really live in an entirely different world than a lot of America – having both money and education)

    * First off, your “99 weeks of XBox” is plain insulting. I know quite a few people who have been unemployed for a long time, and tried hard to find something else. And yes, they’ve taken classes. They are willing to move wherever they can find a job. And yet, nothing opens up. You’d do well to actually *talk* to people who live the situation before dismissing all of them as lazy bums…

    * As kkrev said, there are quite a few people that simply will not be able to complete the university courses. We’re moving further and further towards an economy that requires very high-level skill sets, and low-level (or ‘blue collar’) jobs are increasingly unavailable. Which is a long term problem that we’re *still* ignoring, and it’ll bite us at some point. We will have more workers than jobs, by a large margin.

    * Unemployment insurance unfortunately barely covers your health insurance premium. I got laid off at the end of ’08, and my COBRA premium exceeded my (maxed out) uninsurance benefits. That means you’re not free to “just learn” something or “play XBox all day” – you work odds and ends (often illegally due to rather stupid regulations, see Alex’s post), paying for the other expenses in your life.

    * “Just move” is easier said than done. If you happen to have a mortgage, you’re pretty much stuck. There’s no way you can sell in the current market without HUGE losses. And unless you have it for a long time, it’ll probably require additional money on your part, just to get rid of the house. At a time when you’re already strapped for cash, that is sometimes an impossible solution.

    * There is currently a glut of applicants and a dearth of openings. All the skills in the world don’t help you with that. Or at least there was, last year. So no, it’s not strange that the same companies who didn’t want you last year do want you this year. And that 501st resume might be the ticket.

    * Even the “get-a-degree” thing is hard. Universities are full to the gills. Most classes can’t take additional people, which draws out your study length. And let’s not forget that education isn’t exactly free… a year of unemployment is less than a year of tuition at many schools. Yes, there are online universities. A degree from them is of dubious use. As are MBAs. The study Collin mentioned is not the only one highlighting that.

    That said, I agree that simply extending unemployment over and over is not a solution. After a certain amount of time, being on unemployment should require people to be trained in different skills – but it needs to be covered by additional funds. (And require a passing grade to continue receiving unemployment)

  19. American unemployment is a bad solution, I agree. Two systems that work well:

    -In Europe, especially Germany and Belgium, companies can ask for partial unemployment funding for a limited time. Instead of laying off workers during slumps the government picks up the tab for part (e.g. 50%) of a workers salary.
    People remain at their job and when the economy picks up again no rehiring is needed.
    And it also prevents companies from going bankrupt.
    (Partaking in the program and making a profit is fraud, of course.)
    Of course this works especially well for industries that are very sensitive to the business cycle and it allows these same companies to better compete with foreign companies which don’t have these programs: during the next boom they already have a well trained workforce ready for action, while their competitors need to hire and train new employees.

    -In Singapore unemployment is financed with savings, not insurance. Instead of paying insurance premiums people in Singapore are forced to save money is special savings accounts (tax free of course).
    When unemployed, they draw money from these savings accounts (not everything at once).
    The money can’t be spent on just anything: medical expenses, college for close family members and down payments for a house and retirement are about it.

    People are incentivized to find a new job fast (and also to minimize medical and college spending), since a penny saved on unemployment/medicine/college is a penny that can be spent on a house and retirement (two highly prized consumption goods).

    Free money is usually a bad idea. I think with these two programs can greatly reduce the number of unemployed people due to recessions.

    And to fight structural unemployment you need access to education and work incentives: low welfare, high wages and tax benefits for those that employ the hard-to-employ.

  20. @Matt:

    Government takes from “X” citizens and hands it to “Y” citizens, but you say, “all that money is getting pumped back into the economy so what’s the big deal?”

    1. If that were true, if it’s really the best thing, then why don’t we go all the way? Why don’t we have the government take all of everyone’s money and hand it back out, since it’ll all get pumped back into the economy? If “all from everyone” is bad, then where’s the tipping point? How much SHOULD be taken and handed back out before it’s a bad thing instead of a good thing?

    2. “The economy” is simply a collection of the productive activities of people. There’s no substitute for people being productive. If no one does anything, then there is no economy. 99 weeks of XBox takes money from people who are being productive and enables others to avoid productivity. That doesn’t help the economy.

    3. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be unemployment, but I want to point out the error of the idea that “we can keep people on unemployment “forever” and it’s still good for the economy.” After a certain period of transitional/buffer time, unemployment payments are bad for the economy, not good for it.

  21. Matt…what’s the big deal? You are paying unemployment benefits with money that we don’t have. It is increasing the federal debt so that my children will WORK to pay those benefits. Debt will lead to either higher interest rates, a devaluation of the currency though inflation or both.

    Needlessly increasing the debt is very unwise.

  22. You’re missing a big issue here. Sure you could do these things–but would it land you a job? No. Employers much prefer to hire someone with actual experience doing whatever it is they are hiring for. There are plenty of experienced people out there. You don’t think you’re going to get a job by walking in and saying “I studied on my own”, do you???

    And sending out 500 resumes without getting a job proves very little about your abilities–when the supply of workers far exceeds the demand for workers (what we have these days) the majority of people will not find a job. All that trying harder/trying different approaches can possibly do is shuffle around who is unemployed, it can’t change the basic reality that there aren’t enough jobs to go around.

  23. Alex- I agree, there is a problem with unemployment in that regard. In Boston I became unemployed and I think my weekly checks were coming in around $450/week. Now, I preferred to be ‘productive’ and working, but I was stuck in a holding pattern. I couldn’t go work at a waiter somewhere, or at a coffee shop, because even getting $7/hr would lose my unemployment… but oddly enough, it would have been less money than I’d have made to sit there and do nothing.

    If anything, people are most motivated to not work then at even min wage jobs (being productive and such), but rather stay on the benefits and work odd jobs under the table for cash.

    Either that or you ‘start a consulting business’, and have everyone pay the business or try some other loophole to try to stay on the benefits for a little longer. Again, not that most of this is probably legal, but when the state offices are flooded with people and too busy to even pick up their phones, the risk vs benefit analysis comes out positive for many people.

  24. Rachel: Thanks for the thoughtful response. I can’t get my head around the idea that because the U.S. house price bubble has burst that none of us should ever move again. The losses on a house have already occurred. Staying in a jobless region for 5 or 10 more years in hopes of some sort of recovery just adds to the loss.

    Loren: Your point that job experience is valuable is unarguable. On the other hand, young people fresh out of school do sometimes find jobs. And if more job experience is better, a government program that encourages people to stay home for two years would not seem prudent.

  25. Phil,

    My reading of the unemployment problem is that it is a demand problem, so job retraining is not going to be much of a help. I heard somewhere that for ever 1 opening there are 5 applicants, so it can be understandable for a person to send out 500 resumes without a response depending on what his skill set is and his location. I know in my line of work we can be very picky on who we hire and hold out for someone with the exact skills and experience we want.

  26. It should really be no wonder to anyone why we remain a failing country. If the comments here are any true sample of the US population, most of us are crying “poor me, when will someone help us?” and just waiting. This, truly is the author’s point. DO SOMETHING and ADAPT to your current circumstances. There is always an option. Playing the victim only adds to OUR failure as a nation.

    If the job market is desolate from the perspective of a job seeker, create your own job with your own unique talents and abilities. Employ yourself. 99 weeks is more than enough time to try at least 3 business ideas. Take responsibility for your own success and find the opportunity available rather than expecting it to show up on your door step like a daily paper or come nicely packaged like a TV Dinner.

  27. Charles: your theory.

    My personal experience with applicants even for my simple aviation internship is that few Americans have sufficient skills. They are not able to write an email with correct English grammar and spelling, which means that they cannot be used to respond to customer inquiries. And/or they don’t have basic video production skills. At most 1 in 20 would qualify for this entry-level position.

  28. @Alex,

    the market clearing price for some employees could be less than $0. I’ve certainly seen people who cost more in supervision and other costs than their wage, so letting the minimum wage go to $0 isn’t going to make unemployment go to 0.


    I completely agree that a person who has sent out 500 resumes and is about to send out #501 is wasting his time. He’s better off doing the dishes, cleaning the house, or even playing the XBox.

    Some people show initiative and will find ways to escape the resume mill, but the fact is that if N people go into business for themselves, more than 50% will fail.

    You ought to read “The Job Training Charade” by Gordon Lafer. The government has been subsiding job training for years, and political support is universal, but there’s no evidence that job training creates jobs, other than for the trainers.

    For one thing, there’s consistently a mismatch between what the system will teach and what the market will demand. For instance, in the traditional university, it takes seven years for a person to become a “made man”. Well, a tenured teacher of web programming will be an obsolete teacher of web programming, at best we’re going to get somebody who teaches what’s in your book (which changed by life 10 years ago) but modern aspects of front-end development, AJAX, and back end development at large scales will be completely missed. Google and Facebook are poaching each other’s employees because there are few other places where people can really learn how to work on systems at the scale they work.

    I’m skeptical of the answer that people should move to where the jobs are. Superficially this makes sense, and it certainly makes new jobs for movers, real estate agents, home builders and such, but I’ve got a feeling that hyperconcentration of economic activity is one of the reasons for stagnant economic performance. One might argue that the digerati of Silicon Valley have little idea of what’s going to sell in the other 49.75 states of the U.S. I’m always tripping over homeless people when I travel to San Francisco or San Jose, because the influx of people has driven the price of housing in the sky.

    Note also that the economic system doesn’t have a prerogative to take advantage of all the talent that’s there. Obama blathered about training people for jobs in STEM in the State of the Union address, but the reality is that the “system” wants 21-year old graduates in STEM subjects to put them into graduate schools, Y Combinator startups and other organizations that want to chew them up and spit them out, providing real careers for fewer than 5% of them. No wonder the “best and brightest” have gravitated towards finance and law, where the odds have been (until recently) much better.

    Finally, we could be facing fundamental changes in technology that will radically reduce the need for human labor… And then what? For one thing, I think A.I. is reaching the point where we’ll find that the majority of white collar jobs disappear by 2030. A similar situation happened in the early 20th century, where the mechanization of agriculture meant that a large fraction of the population in Europe and the U.S. was surplus. You could say that WWII was a “final solution” to this in Europe, and it’s no accident that the civil rights movement came on the scene when technology made black sharecroppers superfluous in the U.S. resulting in mass migration and increasing oppression in the south.

    The very success of STEM could lead to a world where work, and workers as we know them, will no longer be necessary… And then what?

  29. Paul: Moving to places where the jobs are has made sense in the past. It has been a common human practice for thousands of years. Suppose that you want to work as a nanny or a house-cleaner, for example. There is much more demand for such services in Imperial Washington, D.C., than in, say, Rhode Island or Nevada. My experience with Windows 7 and Windows Home Server does not lead me to conclude that technological progress will render (skilled) humans obsolete (in fact I think the HP Mediasmart support team will eventually grow to employ 50% of Americans, should sales of the underlying servers be sufficiently robust).

  30. I begin by saying I agree with the essence of what you are saying. Then stepping back I would then ask why do people pay to hear a motivational speaker?

    At the bottom rung of the unemployed roles are those who have never had any real skills. The same ones you have seen in your office environment pushing the mail cart, etc. Reinvent your self learning video photo editing as one of your examples, you would need a computer for that and a fairly good one at that. To get said computer you would need disposable income as the unemployment benefit if being applied properly only pays the rent, lights and food. By the way those with computers are likely to have an old underpowered machine.

    Most in the bottom rung would have to resort to credit which is probably already tapped out to make this purchase. Enter the predatory lender with the fantastic offer to get a complete computer system for xx / week multiplied by up to two years number of weeks. The poor are always taken advantage of, the rich getting richer.

    So they get an under powered computer and debt well above what the computer is worth and you have not yet purchased the software for video editing. And what do legal copies of software cost?

    What I am saying is in your scenario you treat everyone as equals to you and fail to acknowledge that everyone has their own set of circumstances. And yes there are the trifling few but hardly the majority.

    I find your characterization of all sitting around playing XBOX or other time wasting endeavors as uninformed to employments harsh realities. All you would need to do is visit any pawn shop and you will see stacks of Xbox’s, Play stations, etc that the unemployed have long ago sold to keep the lights on or purchase food.

    A mandatory uniform employment training program would be a nice start, although I can already hear the howls about government interference in their lives.

  31. mnwcsult: I was not proposing that the unemployed learn Adobe Premiere, MCSE, or Cisco networking at home, but rather in an intensive hands-on classroom environment. So our childrens’ tax dollars, instead of paying for two years of unemployment, would pay for a year or two of intensive skills-building.

    [To your point about software licensing cost, many otherwise expensive applications are free for development and/or training use. The Oracle database management system is a notable example. I don’t think that there are many skilled Oracle database administrators and developers who can’t find jobs.]

  32. My recent experience in Nebraska. This state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. The University system is turning out many scientist, engineers. Yet the Nebraska laments the fact that they are losing these trained people to other states. Why? Lack of employment opportunites for highly trained people in the state of Nebraska. Now if you want to farm or work in service industry Nebraska is your place. Nice low wages just the perfect initaive to attract skilled labor.

    I thought about the idea of moving to another state and immediately I have visions of the “Grapes of Wrath”. The mass migration of large numbers of people to the prospect employment.

    Worked in the 20’s and 30’s. Then the government also went on a spending binge to put people back to work. Programs like the TVA, WPA employed thousands of people. Thats how the interstate system and most of our aging infrastructure was put in place.

    Can we do such a thing now?, would young unemployed workers move to a tent city to build a bridge, a road or lay track. Probably not!, the United States has been out of the business of hard labor for quite sometime.

    See large numbers of immigrants doing those jobs. So everyone can just upgrade their skill set and become employable. Just like that. Right!

  33. mnwcsult: I would say that the fact that University of Nebraska science and engineering graduates are able to find jobs that pay enough to lure them away from friends and family is actually strong evidence that an upgrade in skills leads to employability. Which circles back to my often-expressed point about improving the efficiency of education as the key to pulling any economy on any continent out of a slump. If people have the kinds of skills that the world market demands, they can get a job and pay for whatever else they might need. If they don’t have those skills, they will need perpetual food and health care aid. (Maybe Nevada is the new Zambia!)

  34. Dick: You might not be “saying it’s a good or workable idea”, but I’ll go ahead and say it for you.

    It may not be the _perfect_ solution, but it’d be a massive improvement over what we have today, where even those who’d think of doing such a thing on their own are _punished_ for it if they get caught.

    Not everybody is going to become a programmer, or a sysadmin, or even a video editor. But you don’t need a 3-sigma IQ to be a plumber or an electrician, you just need training and some experience. (I’ve been running large server farms for 20 years, and my plumber charges me more per hour than I’ve ever, even at the peak of my bargaining power, been able to charge an employer. I’ve probably got 50 IQ points on him, but when the shit is up to my ankles, he’s the one holding all the good cards. So I open my wallet, watch it get much lighter, and then even thank him for it. A year of training and $10K for tools and a Yellow Pages ad could potentially turn just about _anybody_ into him, if they’re willing to actually work.)

  35. We have a situation here in the UK where a fifth of recent graduates remain unemployed after two years. Our education system is similar to that in the US (ie controlled by teacher unions) and so very few kids actually have decent basic skills like reading and writing (only the ones from private schools, usually). We had a graduate work for us for six months. Lazy and opinionated, he didn’t seem to realise just how little he actually knew, and how little he was contributing (may have gotten a small clue when fired).

    The sad truth is that many parents let the state look after their kids for twelve years, expecting at the end of it that a job will somehow be waiting for them, without either parent or child showing the slightest interest in commercial realities of skills and usefulness to employers. Schools aid and abet this thinking by excessively praising children for doing very little, and telling them that they are valuable regardless of how they behave and what they learn.

    To crown it all, the Labour government spent the last thirteen years systematically increasing the percentage of school leavers who enter university, and presiding over a massive expansion of useless degrees in cultural studies and feminism etc. to mop up the new recruits.

    Once all the diversity outreach coordinator jobs are taken, there is little that can be done with these unfortunates. The unskilled used to be able to pull up the ladder of immigration behind them, but outsourcing now means they are competing with people in India who are fluent in a language not their own.

    It’s hard not to see a future where confiscatory taxes on those unfortunate enough to be productive members of society are required to support the over-entitled and underskilled burdens created by well-meaning meddlers.

  36. One of the worst things about unemployment insurance is that you cannot go back to school and continue to collect your benefits. So, most of the – excellent – examples you gave of good ways to use your time are disallowed under our system.

  37. Phil,

    Several times you have alluded to the fact that industry(s) can’t find people with specific skills.

    With respect to these skills; Do you have a specific course offering in mind that can take a reasonably intelligent person, with zero experience in the field, and make them marketable as a new hire?

    How many of the students who successfully completed your recent RDBMS/SQL course are now skilled enough to garner job offers? If they are not, how much more instruction will they need to be marketable? How much competition will they face from job seekers with actual experience?

    The reason I ask these questions is in my own, statistically insignificant, job searches lack of field experience has always been an opportunity killer – especially in trying economic times.

    My current employer and my field has questionable longevity and these questions all have a very practical side to them. Most of my colleagues who have decided to re-train themselves for a questionable future have elected to obtain a law degree. They have reported uneven progress in the employment front.

    Interestingly enough the last individual with whom I worked who had gone the law route said that he felt law school itself was not necessary for either the practice of law or passing the bar (California). It was his opinion that law school itself was more necessary for admission to the club than it was for the practical knowledge imparted.

  38. Jon: As far as I know, all of the people who took the course already had jobs or were full-time students, so none of them went looking for jobs as SQL developers. Given that the course was free and open to the public, and given on a holiday weekend (Saturday, Sunday, Monday), it is an interesting question as to why none of the unemployed showed up! Massachusetts has a lower-than-average, but still significant, unemployment rate. Rhode Island is one of the most moribund economies in the U.S. and it is just an hour’s drive away from the class we taught (also accessible by train).

    If they wanted to take the skills that they learned from the course right to the bank, I suppose that could join the Android app gold rush. One of my helicopter students, despite having almost no programming experience and an undergrad liberal arts degree, has managed to create a steady iPhone application business with about $100,000/year in revenue (and no expenses since he is young and lives with his parents).

    I would say that a course as intense as ours, continued for 99 weeks, would make a person far more skilled in computer nerdism than most programming jobs (students reported that they were learning 5-10X as much per hour compared to previous standard-format programming classes). That’s a little unfair because such courses don’t exist (maybe because there is no way for teachers to get paid for them? I don’t think sitting people in a room for 99 weeks and assisting them while they solve problems would meet accreditation standards and therefore no student could get loans or grants.) makes it look like the best two-years-or-less path is dental hygienist (median wage $66,570; says that you need $30,155 on average for tuition and 2666 “total clock hours” of education (typically done over two years, but presumably could be compressed since the average working year is 2000 hours)).

    Computer programming is not far behind and the BLS says it requires a bachelor’s degree, but of course that did not stop Bill Gates from doing some coding, and in any case a bachelor’s in CS can be obtained in 2.5 years at . I do think sysadmin/dbadmin/network admin is a great combination to get hired by a smaller company. A person with all three skills saves the company from hiring two extra people and paying the ruinous cost of their health insurance.

  39. How about spending the 99 weeks learning to make Xbox videos for YouTube and get paid doing that? I’m working on my 4th prestige in Call of Duty Black Ops.

  40. And @philg,

    the whole reason you can teach your course is that you’re independently wealthy and you can look at your jobs teaching and flying as a hobby. You can do them the way that you want when you want to do them, and if one organization won’t host your class you can get another one to do it by lowering your rate. You’re also not that interested in practicing the software arts yourself, or you’d be doing it.

    If you were going to try to scale this and teach this class in 100 different places, you’d need an army of teachers who know how to program Android apps, know RDBMS inside-and-out and all that. Most of those people need to work for a living (and, hypothetically, save for retirement, college education for their kids, and stuff like that) and get paid more doing what they can do than they can teaching about it.

    Working inside the academic system, you’re going to be tightly constrained by what the system wants to teach, the workload that they give you, in terms of both teaching and in terms of research, which is grievously divorced from the needs of practicing software developers in computer science. (Why is it that academic semantic web research is practically outlawed in the U.S. but the engineering library at my local Uni is choked with several shelving units of conference proceedings about IP QoS which have no impact whatsoever on real-word networks?)

  41. Paul: “the whole reason you can teach your course is that you’re independently wealth”. The course was over a holiday weekend. We prepared for it mostly in the evenings. My co-teachers are all guys with full-time jobs. We were able to teach the class because we chose to spend our after-work evenings preparing rather than watching TV and we chose to spend our holiday weekend helping people who were interested in learning our skills rather than going to the mall and watching movies.

    [I wish that I knew as much about my own life and situation as some of the strangers commenting on this blog seem to know!]

  42. The fundamental problem is that collecting unemployment is like being in a well: the system is setup so that if you try to get out, you get pushed back. As one of the commenters wrote, if you earn a little bit then your unemployment gets cut off.
    I’m sure economists can devise a function such that it encourages people to start working part-time. Once you get into the workforce, it is easier to ramp up.

    So, for example, if someone works 20 hours/week, then still give him half of his unemployment. If he works 30 hours, give him 25%. Maybe add a bonus so that if he starts working fulltime, he still collects a little bit for a few weeks, as a “reward”. In other words: a well-designed reward system that encourages people to get off their couches.

    Secondly: if we had national healthcare, we would see a lot more self-employment. Unfortunately, the current system is horribly biased against the self-employed. You are literally gambling with your entire assets if you don’t have adequate health insurance (and sometimes even if you do). We need national-level catastrophic health insurance so that the American people can go out and take risks and put their ingenuity to work.

  43. I’ve had similar thoughts to this but with some minor variations. Basically –

    – Provide the 26 weeks of unemployment payment that we all pay for anyway as is. Let people look for a job however they see fit.
    – At the end of the 26 weeks, provide some measure of training be it computer skills, trades, etc along with a continued payment for the timeframe of the training.
    – Here’s the minor difference – require that people work some reasonable number of hours with a non-profit or in a community service role. Ideally these roles would be something based around the training they went through to gain some measure of usable experience (the whole college vs experience argument.) The “unemployment” payments are continued for a time but the person is actually doing work to benefit the community.

    It’s not perfect, but I don’t think any solution can be. It’s just a question of being better than what we have…

  44. Philg: ” I can’t get my head around the idea that because the U.S. house price bubble has burst that none of us should ever move again. The losses on a house have already occurred.”

    You and I realize that, but banks and servicers don’t. A short sale forces them to book those losses, so they’re reluctant to let you sell your underwater house and walk away. This, combined with effective bank propaganda against jingle-mail and strategic defaulting, actually does trap people in those areas.

    Philg: “”

    While I think that’s a valid point, you’re talking about 3-4 million jobs, and there are 14.5 million unemployed people even by strict U3 standards. Now, I’m not saying partial solutions are worthless, but while training people might solve some of out job-mismatch issues, it’s not going to do anything to create another 10 million jobs. That’s going to require something else (and admittedly I don’t have a silver bullet solution for that either).

    I also think that spending all your time with people in Harvard and MIT is giving you an inflated impression of the power of a college degree in this economy. I know a lot of people from Tier-One schools (which is to say quality, highly-ranked, non-Ivy schools) who had difficulty securing jobs Certainly it didn’t take them 99 weeks to find jobs, but if it took intelligent people a while to find a job with a degree from a good school, then someone with a few months of training or an online degree is going to have an even larger problem. They’ll probably be better off than if they were untrained, but again, training is not a panacea here.

  45. Zach: I don’t think a bank can force a person to stay in a house. If you move to a new state and stop sending in mortgage checks, the bank will eventually get the idea. It might have a negative effect on one’s credit rating, but there is really no reason for a lot of Americans to be borrowing money (since they’re not going to be any wealthier 5 years from now than they are now).

    Hanging out at MIT and Harvard has given me an inflated and distorted idea of the power of education? says that the unemployment rate among college grads is 4.8 percent, compared to 9.8 percent for the overall population. In any case, I don’t think that I was advocating for formal degrees, merely pointing out that they can be earned in 99 weeks. I’d much rather see people go to plumbing school than for a degree in communications.

  46. A number of friends and acquaintances are getting training to be diesel technicians and the like, and from all accounts, will be snapped right up for a job in the field. They’re all getting certified in around two years for training that offers more, and pays more, in a far shorter time span than it did for me to get a degree from a typical University (with two minors throw in because there is so much wasted time in the normal class schedule) in computer information sciences. The course listing for a CIS degree from Clarion University would probably make you cry in your sleep, Phil. At least when I went to school, the most marketable classes, database and networking, were *electives*.

    This does seems to lend decent credibility to your theory that it really doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take four years at a school to earn a degree or skill set that would make you marketable to someone. I honestly can’t imagine, if most people from my current workplace were found unemployed, that they could current get hired anywhere – except maybe ace COBOL programmer getting picked up to maintain legacy systems, but who are also youngish, with good people skills, eager to learn more – without picking up new training, and quickly. Two years off the job with nothing to show for it but rusty MVS/TSO/REXX/COBOL/VSAM skills isn’t going to help (nevermind the fact that databases and SQL seriously seem to confuse half this place). There most assuredly would be difficulties with the unemployment system indirectly hampering efforts, and just dealing with day-to-day issues, and experience thing does tend to help, but, like most people here seem to be saying, it’s better than playing XBox.

  47. Josh: Thanks for the diesel mechanic idea. A person who can repair an engine is probably a person who will always be able to earn his or her next meal. Especially as the average American grows poorer there will be more demand for people who can keep older machines running.

  48. Among “all college grads” the unemployment is low, but for people just graduating from college and just entering their fields, it’s 7.5-8%, which is better than the overall rate, but still far from fully employed. I’d argue this is a better metric to compare someone receiving training and switching fields to because they’re entering their new fields with no experience – 10 years as a logger doesn’t give you much of an edge when applying for a Systems Administration job.

  49. Some thinking from fly-over country:

    “move to a state with low unemployment” #1- America has a high divorce. When children are involved, the custodial parent needs to live within 100 miles of the other parent (in the one example I’m familiar with). Not sure what %age of unemployed this would affect, but suspect millions.

    #2 – from reading blogs, it sounds quite difficult for a person to land a job in another state. Maybe the job requirements state “local applicants only” and want the first interview in-person within 48 hours of contact. Sure moving makes sense for a higher value job, but remember median male income is down to ~$29,000, does it make sense to uproot a family for a $14/hr job?

    #3 – looks like most of the states with low unemployment are also low population. Realistically, how many of the 5 million in CA can move to ND and still find a job?

    You mention plumbing, heavy equipment and electrician. All great fields, if there are jobs. But there is no real reason for America to build another house until 2015+. These people are sitting idle in most states, I hear. One electrician I hear of lives in Florida and the closest work he can find is New Orleans.

    Cyclical vs structural – a popular opinion on many of the blogs I follow is that the current recession isn’t cyclical, but structural. The US economy just doesn’t need as many workers now, or in the future. But what will we do with the excess?

    The good news is that enough people in Michigan followed your advice, our population declined in the last census.

  50. @philg

    Is it true that community colleges are ineffective at creating attractive employees? This article suggests that community college graduates’ starting salaries are higher than their private university counterparts:

    The article also suggests that community colleges work closely with employers to figure out what they need, so the higher starting salaries make sense.

  51. Attikus: I didn’t mean to suggest that community colleges were worse than four-year colleges, only that they are part of an established system (K-12, 2-year colleges, 4-year colleges, grad schools) that has left a substantial fraction of young folks without enough skills to be useful in the 21st Century economy.

    John: Your electrician friend can’t find work without traveling to New Orleans? That doesn’t sound like a crisis. Humans have migrated for work for millennia. Divorced parents might have to separate geographically for both to have jobs? That doesn’t surprise me. I believe that custody arrangements can be reviewed as necessary. I’m not sure who supposedly guaranteed Americans that they would always be able to find work close to their existing house and in the same field as their last job.

    The idea that the U.S. economy doesn’t “need” more workers strikes me as odd. Worldwide, more jobs have been created in the last 10 years than at any other time in human history. The U.S. did not add any private sector jobs during this period, but that isn’t because the world economy doesn’t demand more workers. It simply doesn’t demand more workers in our skill, tax, health care, and educational achievement environment.

    [See for how total private sector employment was 111.6 million Americans in December 2000 and 107.1 million in December 2009 (looks as though the December 2010 comparable number is 108.5 million, according to ).]

  52. @Philg

    Is it true that the established system is leaves young folks without useful skills? The unemployment rate for college systems is only 4.6% (source: ).

    I’m not sure if a 0% unemployment rate is realistic.

    IMO, the main problem with the existing system is the cost involved. With skyrocketing tuitions (at least at 4 year institutions), it’s getting very hard to justify it. And god help you if you find out you don’t like the thing you’re doing after spending 4 years and $100,000+ becoming certified in it.

  53. Attikus: Not all young people graduate from college. Our educational system does not train to proficiency, but rather accepts that a percentage of high school students won’t finish, a percentage of college students won’t finish, etc. Basically anyone who doesn’t learn well in a sit-still-while-someone-lectures environment is likely to drop out of the system prior to getting a bachelor’s degree.

  54. Thanks for helping the world out a bit philg. I was in a pharmaceutical company that terminated manufacturing ops and lost my job as a scientist. While on unemployment I taught myself some c#, HTML, objective-c and am now finishing up a Java cert. I also started a small software business to stay gainfully employed. Its frustrating at times but I have learned so much and it’s a lot of fun.

    I see a lot of age 40+ people in school who lost thier jobs as our manufacturing moves oversees. It would be interesting to know the percentages of the people who go back to school or go indie vs stagnate.

  55. @Ceph

    I’m a grad student (PhD) in chemistry that thought an industry job in pharma would be a good job to aim for. However, it seems that I was wrong, almost no one I know has gotten any jobs beyond post-docs. As someone who left pharma, would you recommend dropping the PhD now? It really seems like such a hard road anymore. However, because I have been in school for so long, it’s really hard to see what else I could even do.

  56. @philg: Yes, it’s a rather difficult situation to get your head around.

    Yes, the losses have already happened – but that doesn’t help you much. First, you need to be able to sell your house *at all* – and depending on the market, that’s still a tough nut to crack.

    Second, when you do sell, you do so at a *steep* loss. Which quite likely means you need to declare bankruptcy. If, on the other hand, you try to sit things out, it takes a *lot* of time to reach and go through the whole foreclosure thing, and you can do a lot to stall it even further.

    In other words, you have the choice between a huge, immediate, and certain loss, or a gradual and potentially much lower loss. And faced with that choice, of course people go with the latter one. Basically, they are gambling that their reserves will last them longer than the economic downturn.

    That doesn’t mean you’re stuck for 5 or 10 years, or that you’ll never move again – but *right now* it’s a rather disastrous economic decision to make.

    “Just go and learn something” is an overly simplistic answer to a rather complex problem.

  57. @ceph: “I see a lot of age 40+ people in school who lost thier jobs as our manufacturing moves oversees.”

    And I see this as the biggest problem of the US but also Germany. If you give up on manufacturing you loose much more then just this “manufacterer”. Mechanics, Electricians etc etc will be gone also. And with allways cheaper production the “repairing” jobs will go also. Agreed the jobs in factories are mostly terrible, but without it you loose a whole lot of abilities.

    Outsourcing is not the solution….

  58. @AnonChemX

    A couple options are to go for the MBA or JD and combine that with your PhD. I’ve had friends who’ve done the JD combo with some success (though they only had BS/MS degrees). It’s a great combo that a lot of biopharm companies are interested in.

    Another option is to work for a management consulting firm like McKinsey or Bain. These guys just look for brains, regardless of background.

  59. Rachel: Thanks for the response. I still think it would be more sensible for an underwater-on-the-mortgage jobless person in a jobless region to mail the keys to the mortgage company and move to where the jobs are.

    Karla: You raise a good point. A freelancer should not be entitled to the first 26 weeks of unemployment checks because he or she did not make insurance payments. However, the 73 additional weeks that Congress is funding from the public trough should, in fairness, be available to freelancers as well. I.e., anyone who, within the preceding two years, filed an income tax return showing W2 or 1099 income, but who no longer has that income, should be getting checks.

    [I know that this sounds unfair to people who never had any income to begin with. Why are they left out? Let’s not confuse unemployment payments with poverty relief. By definition people getting unemployment checks had standard W2 jobs fairly recently and/or are likely to be married to a current W2 worker. So they are not among America’s poorest residents, many of whom have not had a W2 job in a decade or more and live in communities where they aren’t likely to marry a W2 worker. Congress’s 99-weeks-of-Xbox program cannot be considered an anti-poverty measure.]

  60. I agree that the 99 weeks of unemployment payments is a bit silly. However, your proposed solutions miss the mark, I believe.

    “for people who live in states with an unemployment rate higher than average (see for the rates), offer a lump sum at the end of 12 weeks to assist the person in moving to a state with a lower-than-average rate”

    Wouldn’t this oversaturate the markets in those places with lower unemployment? I’m not sure you’d actually be giving people jobs, you’d just be distributing the unemployment.

    “for people who’ve been unemployed for 12 weeks, simply pay for a year of education in programs with proven records of skills-building (I guess you measure by how many finished and were able to get jobs)”

    Again, you’d just be saturating the market. Say jobs in underwater basket weaving were in demands, and you send a bunch of people to schools for degrees. Sure, the first ones out would probably get jobs, but eventually the jobs would run out and those graduating still wouldn’t be able to find work.

    Not to mention that employers in those areas (for the moving scenario) or markets (for the education scenario) would see a lot of competition arise for their job offerings, which would end up with them offering less pay, less benefits, and worse working conditions (if a job is in demand, you can get away with offering worse compensation).

    We’re getting to a point where just finding jobs in the existing marketplace isn’t going to cut it anymore — international communication is too easy and the education levels in emerging economies are too high not to send jobs to those places. Too many jobs are being sent out — this is not necessarily a bad thing, I’m not against outsourcing, there are just consequences. We’re to the point where we need more innovation and entrepreneurs. We need an entirely new system of work and employment, not the Industrial Revolution model we have now that was built around the focus of filling the production plants to the brim with workers who were just educated and capable enough not to cause themselves serious injury.

  61. Russell: You’re arguing that people shouldn’t get educated because they would all concentrate into one field and saturate the market for people with training in that field? If that were true, shouldn’t we tear down the existing higher-ed system? If all of the students see that the best-paying jobs (including pension and other benefits) are with the police and prisons, everyone will major in criminology and we’ll have millions more criminology graduates than employers demand.

    Circling back to my original posting, my point was to ask whether we’d be better off as a society and as an economy with working-age folks who’d had a mid-career year or two of extra education rather than a year or two of staying home. It seems obvious to me that a better-educated society is a wealthier society, but I’m not sure if there are good data to prove it. Certainly there are Arab countries that are very wealthy and yet have among the world’s lowest literacy rates, but we can explain that by pointing to the oil wells (located and drilled by foreign experts). On the other hand, we have Japan where there are no natural resources, but they are very highly skilled and wealth (see , however, for how the Japanese government’s 15-year stimulus spending spree may yet prove to be a problem).

  62. philg: I’m not arguing that it would saturate the market for those already in the field, I’m saying even those that you would be sending to the field to get educated would not be able to find work — in which case you’ve wasted a year of their time and put them further in debt with still no employment.

    I actually have a friend who has been unemployed for over a year now. He went back to school to finish his Bachelor’s, thinking, like you’re implying, that better education would mean work. Guess what, finished the degree several months ago and still hasn’t been able to find employment, and he’s in a state with an average or below average unemployment rate. More education doesn’t always matter in a society and job market already saturated with educated people who can’t find work.

    I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t get educated, I’m arguing that sending them all into a handful of currently in-demand degree programs is short-sighted and may end up doing more harm than good.

    As for tearing down the existing higher education system, I think we should. I think our entire educational system needs to be reformed, actually. But just looking at higher education, students are paying ever-increasing tuition costs, going into ever-increasing debt, to graduate and find less jobs than ever before. And the jobs they do find are paying less than ever before because there is such a large pool of people with college degrees to pull from. The 4 year degree has less and less value now, they’re too commonplace. As you stated, look at Japan for an example of a country that has a ton of educated people who can’t find steady work; over 40% of their college graduates are graduating without jobs to go into. Obviously, JUST education isn’t a solution.

  63. Russell: Thanks for the clarification that “JUST education isn’t a solution.” Looking back at (from November 2008), I had improved education as one of 8 main points (and to those 8 points I probably should have added something about , since the fact that U.S. health care costs for a small family are now higher than the median worker’s after-tax income is almost certainly an obstacle).

    The U.S. is apparently not the first choice when business people look for places to invest and hire and we need to change a bunch of things. My point was that 99-weeks-of-Xbox does not move us in the right direction.

  64. @philg,

    your explanation just proves my point. You can’t count a pilot project that a few people do on nights and weekend as a scalable model. If an activity doesn’t pay a competitive or at the very least a living wage, the people involved are going to burn out.

    Note that “television” isn’t the only thing people do on nights and weekends; for one thing, some of us need a little physical activity so we can spend 50+ hours a week as keyboard athletes. Some us also invest our time so that there’s going to be a future generation. (Note that Silicon Valley and New York City can only exist because people are raising children in other places)

    As for moving, you’re right to qualify that this is a strategy that has “worked in the past.” On a global scale we’ve seen that emigration is a strategy for managing the demographic transition: places where people are having “too many” children export to places where people are having “too few”. You might think of it as an example of comparative advantage.

    Half of my wife’s extended family immigrated in masse from Italy to escape WWII and the collectivization of agriculture to the area around Binghamton, NY and quite interestingly, none of them have left… The men either work in well-paying construction (often unionized) or in family owned restaurants. The women are schoolteachers (unionized) or own hairdressing businesses. They’ve created their own ethnic blue-collar heaven which is reasonable prosperous and that has a number of non-monetary benefits (you don’t have to pay so much for day care when your grandparents can watch your kids.)

    Of course, this isn’t a model for everybody; it’s the case of an ethnic group that is looking out for it’s own. On the other hand, the children of traditionally catholic European ethnic groups tend to discover that academia is place where certain [other] ethnic groups are looking out for themselves too and could find themselves quite mystified why certain doors are closed if they drink the ‘meritocracy’ cool aid.

    The world’s demographic transition is gradually coming to an end, and the western frontier in the U.S. ceased to be a frontier sometime in the 20th century. Despite bidding war between Facebook and Google and what people think is a “bubble economy”, unemployment in the Bay Area is worse than average. At some point people are going to run out of places to run to, and balanced development in space is going to get on the agenda.

  65. “Poor ME” suggests doing what I think is the most sensible thing to do: Use your unemployed time to start your own business.

    Unfortunately, that’s not legal. The purpose of unemployment compensation in Massachusetts is to provide funding while you search for a job. You are required to do three job-seeking activities each week. You are forbidden from self-employment. J. K. Rowling wrote the first “Harry Potter” book while on the dole in Britain; in Massachusetts that would be illegal (fraud).

    There’s a rule-of-thumb: you can’t spend more than 20 hours a week on any kind of activity that would be construed as starting your own business.

    You are also not allowed to do anything that would preclude your taking a job immediately. Full-time training? Would it keep you from accepting a 9-to-5 job starting tomorrow? OK, you can suspend your benefits while you complete the training.

    Oh, did you set up a corporation for yourself to handle the income from ad clicks on your web site? Sorry, unemployment compensation is not for business owners and corporation presidents like you.

  66. By the way, are the University of Phoenix and ITT Tech any good?

    I’m sure you can get just as good an education at either one as you can by setting up and following your own self-education program, but is the degree any more valuable than the one you would write for yourself?

    They are for-profit institutions and have something they proudly call “National Accreditation”, disparaging the “Regional Accreditation” that inferior schools like Harvard and M.I.T. have.

    Here’s what I find in complaints online:

    –They cost just as much per course as Harvard or M.I.T.

    –The programs you want have lots of prerequisite courses.

    –They use high-pressure sales tactics, committing you to a long-term program.

    –Most students can get financial aid from the government, thanks to “National Accreditation”.

    –The teaching methods are oriented toward shoving people through the courses giving them passing grades, without a lot of regard to mastery of material.

    –They are not “diploma mills”. A diploma mill basically takes your money and gives you a diploma in “Life Experience.” Here you do have to take courses, such as they are.

    –The course material is pretty good and you can actually learn as much as you would at a typical college, if motivated.

    — Hiring managers are not impressed by a University of Phoenix or I.T.T. Tech diploma.


  67. Mark: I don’t think you have to wonder about how much University of Phoenix charges. They list their prices online. For an education bachelor’s, one of the most common, it is 385+90 per online credit hour. says that 120 credits are required. So that’s $57,000. Is it a bad value? Including the value of pension and other benefits, an elementary school teacher could be earning $57,000 every three months.

    “The teaching methods are oriented toward shoving people through the courses giving them passing grades, without a lot of regard to mastery of material.” — University of Phoenix cannot be considered an innovator in this area.

    The original sales pitch for University of Phoenix, either online or face-to-face, was not that tuition would be less than at a state college. The big improvement was that students could take classes at night and on weekends, thereby retaining their 9-5 jobs. A University of Phoenix bachelor’s degree therefore comes at the cost of a lot of missed TV programs and social events, not at the cost of four years of foregone income.

  68. As a recently-graduated member of the unwashed and unemployed masses, I can add some back-and-forth from a discussion with a department of labor staffer (relevant at least insofar as Washington State unemployment goes):

    “So can I take part-time classes at the university?”

    “You can, but students are not eligible for unemployment benefits.”

    … and there you have it. Want state unemployment benefits? Don’t go to school.

  69. A good friend of mine is an executive at an elite finance firm. He has a bachelors degree in English from Harvard. He spends his day sitting in a quite office calling up firms and renting assets from them and then loaning them to other firms. Most Fridays he’s out by 3:30. In anything near an efficient world his job wouldn’t exist. The guy at the small firm would just directly call the guy at the big firm. By his own admission little of what he *learned* at Harvard has been useful to his career. Say there is a market upset, his firm/department loses a bunch of money and he gets laid off is his time best spent (1) learning SQL (2) setting out the storm — possibly for a long while — looking for another firm to hire him once the markets stabilize? This probably wasn’t the kind of person who you had in mind with your remarks, however, and that comment is meant as proof that your remarks are not generically true (obviously we could find more modest instances of this same point).

    Conversely, though, take an unemployed 45 year old who meets my friend. It would be crazy for him to say “I’m going to go get a bachelors in English so I can have a a nice beach house like that other guy”. There are some jobs that require technical knowledge, but for the most part they quickly become commoditized. Mediocre SQL programming is very cheaply outsourced to India. And mediocre SQL programming is what someone who can’t find a job at 40 learns at his community college. I have several friends who are highly paid programmers — but they are mostly paid for their design/management/quality control skills and not for commodity level basic programming abilities.

    With nearly negligible exception today’s economy only values common sense, management, and sales. Even at a place like Apple, I’d wager that the vast majority of expenses are in these areas. Yes, their 10-k may say X amount to engineering, but 80% of that is probably to the engineering management that oversee a bunch of 22 year olds who do very well by absolute standards, but only see a tiny fraction of the pie.

    My point is that the skills our economy values are seldom taught in schools, and rarely at nights in community colleges. On the whole, most people who try and can’t find employment in society are stupid and/or stubborn. The fact that all of those unemployed 45 year olds in Boston aren’t showing up for your course is proof that they don’t have the drive and enterprise that our economy values (much more than low-level technical skills). Joe Smith, probably 45, at Small Financial Firm X has probably made a decent career at his firm because he was lucky enough to pick up the phone the day my friend called with the seemingly great idea to rent out some of their assets that were just sitting at his firm. He could start calling around looking for a better price, but his too old or lazy. He like most other, 45 year olds, is stupid or lazy (just somewhat less-so than those unemployed). Even my friend is old and lazy. He could stick around to 5 on Fridays and probably save up enough get a second beach house.

    Basing our social programs on the idea that 45 year olds should stop being stupid and stubborn is pure fantasy. The basic fact is that the human biology seems to dictate that there will be intellectual losers (that is 45 year olds who refuse to do simple things that could get them a job). I personally believe that we are a wealthy enough society to take care of them, at least for a while. I also think that those who are critical of the programs that do take care of them underestimate the costs of not taking care of them.

    If you think I’m wrong, what’s your plan to start to make all of these people spend their days learning SQL? It’s only a viable plan if it can be implemented. It’s not like these people sit around collect their benefits for 90 weeks and then spend the last 9 weeks learning SQL (if this was the case, I’d agree that cutting the duration would be a good idea). My experience has been that employers are very forgiving and that the people who get laid off (at least in the first few rounds) are people that should have been laid off years earlier. If your point is that people who are unemployed because of their own stupidity or lack of motivation shouldn’t be supported by society, then there are a lot of people who should get zero weeks of benefits.

  70. Phil, I think problem unfortunately runs deeper. I overheard a CEO of an industrial company in middle America on CNBC today complain that their major problem right now is that they can’t find enough blue collar workers with basic math skills (i.e. addition and subtraction). If people can’t do arithmetic, it’s hard to teach them SQL. Fundamentally, I think U.S. needs more tiger moms and a significantly more rigorous elementary and high school education system.

    Having said that, I think it would be a really good idea to condition extended unemployment benefits with mandatory and paid hands-on job training. I do not think one is a substitute for other.

  71. Nemanja: Thanks, but I don’t think that a prevalent lack of basic math skills makes my idea a bad one. It just means that one of the educational offerings should be “basic math”. Nobody was born knowing how to do arithmetic, so we should have confidence that it can be taught (though I guess we have proven that it cannot be taught consistently by unionized teachers giving lectures!).

    Adults learn many skills faster than kids, contrary to popular belief, so the fact that an American missed out on math during K-12 does not mean that he or she is doomed forever to be mystified by numbers.

  72. “U.S. employers truly are somewhat starved for people with required/relevant skills” — Is this true?

    If there is a skills shortage, wages rise for that occupation, as employers compete for limited labor supply.

    But it was my understanding that there are no occupations in the US economy where wages are rising, and the high unemployment rate is due to depressed aggregate demand throughout the economy.

    Is that not true? If it is not true, it is easy to prove — all you have to do is specify the occupation with rising wages.

  73. Wayne: I think your point is generally valid, i.e., that if something is truly scarce its price should go up. In the case of these manufacturing businesses, though, I guess the market solution to scarcity at the current price is that the company moves to China or Mexico. shows that employers on average were paying about 2.1 percent more for workers in December 2010 compared to a year earlier. There seem to be variations from 0.9 percent up to about 7.5 percent, depending on industry, but it isn’t broken down by skill. doesn’t show the change from 2009 to 2010, sadly. shows the overall trend by metro area and industry, but again not by skill.

    [Moderator: Probably you should delete this and the comment above, because neither relates to the question of whether it makes sense to pay people to sit at home rather than do something that builds their skills.]

  74. Actually Wayne is right on and your reply helps solidify the point,
    assuming the above two comments don’t disappear, they actually do relate to why it makes sense to pay people for 99weeks rather than do something that builds their skills.

    The comment and your reply show that there is not really much demand for anybody right now, so retraining people will just move them from one area they are not needed to another. Our recession here is mostly lack of demand (and you could best read through Krugman’s stuff for an explanation). My simplified understanding is it is something like this. The housing bubble bursts and leaves lots of people with large debts. They want to get out of debt, so they spend less. This leads to loss of jobs, placing even more in people in debt and they all spend less. To get out of debt, they need to spend less then they earn, but every dollar earned is someone else’s dollar spent. So someone needs to spend money (step in the government and continuuing unemployment is spending of money). We won’t get out of the problem till enough money is spent. A little inflation would help.

  75. I thoroughly disagree with you. I’ve been unemployed since Jan 2009. I’ve had unemployment for about 3 months, then it ran out. I cannot seem to re-apply.

    Personally, people cannot always pick up and move to wherever there are jobs. I have 3 kids in middle/high school, and uprooting them after just moving in 2008 is not going to happen. The job market sucks most everywhere too, so no guarentee that there are jobs anywhere else too.

  76. Stephenl: Let’s suppose Krugman is right and the reason the U.S. economy is anemic (while China, India, and Brazil boom) is that we don’t have large enough deficits ($1.5 trillion this year and nearly as much in 2009; has the chart (we have a government that is sized for a substantially more successful and accomplished group of taxpayers; our politicians are doing their share by spending, but we citizens aren’t doing our share by working hard enough to measure up to their hopes and dreams for us)).

    I don’t think “we need to take more than $1.5 trillion from our children and grandchildren every year” is an argument against spending money on skill-building rather than Xbox-playing. My original post did not advocate a reduction in government spending, merely that it be redirected to training. I don’t see how we could be worse off. Suppose that all of the unemployed folks went to cooking school for two years rather than staying home. They wouldn’t be any more employable (though I guess some could become personal chefs for neighbors), but they and their families would eat better for the rest of their lives.

    Rick: I’m sorry to hear that the bureaucracy has kept you from getting the 99 weeks to which you are entitled. Sadly it does seem that government programs primarily benefit those who are experts with paperwork. You can’t “move to wherever there are jobs” because your kids would have to move also? My next-door neighbor here in Boston was in the same situation. He could not find a job in Massachusetts, so he moved to San Francisco where he lives in a tiny apartment. His wife and kids have stayed behind, partly in order to finish school and partly because, as with your kids, they moved here in 2008. The family would prefer to be together all the time, but work and income are a priority for the husband, so he is doing whatever it takes.

    [This situation is not unique, by the way, even among my limited circle of acquaintances; one of my dog-walking companions is married to a management consultant. He has moved to South Africa for a multi-year posting that will give him a good income and good experience. The wife and school-age kids have stayed here. A close friend is a business consultant. He cannot find much in the way of local work, so he is away four days/week in order to generate income for his wife and three kids. My helicopter pilot friends generally go to the Gulf of Mexico for two-week shifts and then return home for some time with the family. My airline pilot friends are away as many as 25 days per month (22 days of work plus whatever time it takes to commute to their base, which may be on the other side of the country).]

  77. I own several businesses so I’m frequently contacted by folks
    on unemployment and the emplyment inquiry (from the vast majority) goes
    something like this:
    “Hello Mark, I’m drawing unemployment checks and I must seek out a job
    every so often per the terms of my unemployment plan.
    I’m making almost as much sitting at home as I did at my old job, so I’ve decided to take some time off (for as long as the unemployment insurance
    lasts). Are any of your businesses NOT hiring? And may I use that business as
    a job reference? If you have any businesses that ARE hiring, just say so now and I won’t go any further with this conversation…”
    It’s ridiculous for any soul to be allowed sit for two years and do
    nothing. Why not place these people into work programs wherein they actually have to perform a needed task in order to draw that check? There’s plenty
    of constructive things for these people to do.

  78. Mark: Your idea of a public works project would seem to make sense. Economists continue to debate the effectiveness of the 1935 program , but there are some differences in the surrounding circumstances. First, federal debt as a percentage of GDP was about 40 percent in 1935 (see ) compared to close to 100 percent now (see ). But that understates the difference, since Social Security and Medicare obligations did not add another 400 percent (see for how the U.S. owed about 500 percent of GDP in March of 2010). World War II was a peak in terms of straight bond obligations, but considering entitlement promises and state government worker pensions we’re vastly more indebted now than we have ever been as a nation and are entering uncharted waters.

    Second, our infrastructure was a lot more basic in 1935 than it is today. We shouldn’t need more dams and roads. Our schools may be a little shabby, but most are at least as functional as privately owned buildings.

    Third, the government is much bigger today than in 1935. shows that government spending was about 20 percent of GDP in 1935 (doubled from the 1930 share), so adding extra workers on the government payroll could have made a big difference in terms of capability. With government spending approaching 50 percent of GDP, though, it isn’t quite clear to me what extra government workers would do or how 1.5 years as a government worker would prepare someone to then get a job in private industry. The “quit rate” for federal workers is minimal (see ), in both boom and slack times, indicating that they aren’t being lured away by private employers. It may be the case that many government jobs are so slow-paced and lacking in mental challenge that the people who hold them are permanently damaged.

    So.. the idea of, once the 26 weeks of paid-for unemployment insurance are exhausted, hiring people to do some sort of work, may make more sense than paying people to stay home, I think that high-intensity training is more likely to result in sustained private employment for the current unemployed.

  79. Stephenl: The solution is govt spending? Fantastic! Let’s raise taxes to 100% and get the govt to spend all the money in the economy! Govt can buy all the cars, all the food, all the TVs, and then dole them out to the people! What could go wrong? We’d have the most fantastic economy in the world! Krugman says so!

  80. My first thought on what you are saying here about the wisdom/results of 99 weeks of unemployment is that the extension was a reaction to a specific set of social and economic circumstances. On the whole unemployment payments are not “solutions” per se, they are safety nets. Do safety nets have a place in our society? I think so. But I also think the core issue in play isn’t the amount of time given or the amount of money we pay out. The core issue is what people have come to expect. Both the employed and the unemployed. Our society has come to expect a certain immunity from circumstance for being specialized. Our schools are set up to turn out specialists and we funnel people down these narrow specialized paths from elementary education through graduate school. You I feel are a unique case where your knowledge is something you use to create solutions to a varying set of problems and opportunities. Most people are not seeing what they can do with their various skills or what could be achieved by adding new skills, they are seeing what they have lost and what no longer exists.

    While it is possible shortening the deadline might actually do more good overall, just as a looming midterm seems to always get done when a deadline is eminent, I think the larger social question is actually how do we change the system to produce more adaptable, creative, free thinking, life long learners.

  81. Phil,
    One question that I’ve never had answered is how any sane person, living in the
    U.S., cannot get a job in TWO YEARS. Please explain why Obama sees
    it necessary to allow this to go on…excluding the fact that he’s trying to get
    John Boy Walton was able to find work during the Depression in less

  82. Mark: I do think your line about John Boy Walton is likely to become a classic! Thanks. I don’t think it is fair to blame Obama for this, though. He didn’t hold a gun to Congress’s head.

    Another potential mitigating factor is that when this idea was put forward, back in 2009, intelligent people might have differed on the question of whether or not the entire world was going into a depression and there would simply be fewer jobs to go around for a few years.

    In 2011, however, we’ve seen that world economies are booming and even the U.S. economy is holding more or less steady. So it now makes a lot more sense to wonder “What is it about the 15-30 million Americans that makes them unattractive to the world’s employers?” (presumably a combination of poor skills, specific location, taxes, regulations, and health care costs) and try to address the specific factors that make these folks undesirable for employers.

    [I don’t think it is plausible to argue that businesses are behaving irrationally and that they could make a profit by hiring these folks. When the Chinese market opened up and good labor became available, businesses were very quick to rush in and hire folks. Separately, I just finished James Wolfensohn’s autobiography. What’s the former president of the World Bank been doing since 2007? Investing in Brazil, Russia, India, and China. The book is fresh off the press, but he doesn’t say anything about great investment opportunities being available in the U.S. due to highly skilled folks being out of work.]

  83. Perhaps the burden of payment for unemployment benefits should be shifted completely to American corporations. Their financial commitment could be based proportionately upon their number of employees.

    As I understand it, corporations are reaping the benefits of tax breaks and giving little to none back in return.

  84. Jim: Of course employers do already pay for unemployment insurance (the standard 26 weeks), though in fact it might be the case that this ends up coming mostly out of workers’ pockets in the form of lower wages. The employer cares about its total labor cost, including health care, unemployment insurance, payroll taxes, etc. It doesn’t care about the workers’ well-being, standard or living, or after-tax earnings (as long as they keep showing up to work). If everyone had employer-paid health insurance, you could argue that it wouldn’t matter how much health care cost in the U.S. It wouldn’t make us poor to spend more money than any nation on earth because employers were paying. So even if health care grew from 20 percent to 50 percent of GDP we would be just as well off. is a good overview of why the low-hanging fruit of company profits may not be as easy to harvest as it appears.

  85. Phil,

    I’ve enjoyed reading this blog for several years and I cannot recall
    any of your posts receiving as many responses as this one, yet I
    don’t see any reply that explains why a person in the U.S. should
    be able to sit home for two years (while drawing UE) and be able to
    honestly claim they cannot find a job (in said two years).
    Do you have a theory on why it would truly take anyone this long?
    Other than the assumption that they simply will take the free check
    for as long as it’s available?

  86. Mark: I think you’re asking a much bigger and deeper question than the original posting. I was asking about whether, given that the government was determined to confiscate money from the working and give it to the non-working, it wouldn’t make more sense to use that money in a different way.

    You’re asking whether it makes sense to confiscate money from the working and give it, with much paperwork but few questions asked, to Americans who recently lost jobs. That opens up a host of philosophical questions. Is it moral to take from the hard-working and give to the non-working? If we want a government that hands out our money, should it go to the recently unemployed, many of whom are not poor (e.g., because a spouse still works), or to the poorest and neediest Americans? If we’re handing out money to the poor because we’re so charitable and big-hearted, why give so much to poor Americans (who are actually pretty well off by world standards; see chart in ) and so little to much poorer people in other countries??

    My question had an efficiency-based answer. I don’t think there is an efficiency-based answer to the deeper questions that you’ve raised. The Supreme Court, in 1937, ruled that the government could run wealth redistribution schemes more or less without limit. The government has the power to favor particular groups, e.g., owners of farmland, individual corporations such as GM or AIG, or retired 48-year-old autoworkers, while sticking a 66-year-old working at Walmart with the bill.

    You could make an argument that the recently unemployed are less deserving than the executives who took home $400 million each for their work in bankrupting AIG or the executives who defrauded investors in Fannie Mae to pump up their bonuses and now are sticking taxpayers with their legal bills (see ), but you’re still left with the fact that voters and the Supreme Court have apparently decided that a principal government function is to rob Peter to pay Paul.

    People who voted for Obama and the Democrats in 2008 were promised that the government would substantially step up its wealth redistribution schemes. Obama essentially promised to steal from the rich and give to the poor. The Democrats delivered on the giving out money (though most has gone to public (mostly financial) company executives via bailouts and to public employee unions and government contractors via the stimulus) part of the pledge. The Democrats changed “rob from the rich” to “rob from the next generation of Americans”, but roughly 50 percent of the population voted for them again in 2010, so one can’t say this is against the will of the people.

    Therefore you’re left with the question of “Is it possible for a majority of Americans to vote for something that is actually immoral?”

  87. Well, here’s what I managed to do in 99 weeks while I sent out resumes and waited to be hired by someone “full-time” with “benefits”:

    – wrote a business plan to turn my side gig into a consultancy
    – moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles
    – started working my contacts in LA and expanding my network in the Bay Area
    – applied to graduate school (M.B.A.)
    – applied for grants and residencies for 2011
    – volunteered as a tutor to youth in my community
    – attended three births
    – saw family I ain’t seen in years
    – attended lots of gatherings among old friends
    – buried my grandfather
    – started planning my best friend’s wedding
    – designed and uploaded a website for my new business
    – designed and printed business cards for my new business
    – wrote another business plan for my wine business
    – read a lot
    – wrote a lot (I am an retired Journalist…)
    – prepared a blog to launch in the Spring
    – road tripped all over this wonderful state of California and Nevada too…seeing parts of my homeland I never knew existed
    – moved back to the Bay Area from Los Angeles (contacts expanded)
    – researched commercial space to move into
    – and just as my benefits (that I believe after 14 straight years of hard work I more than earned!!!) are about to disappear…

    I got 3 gigs as a consultant and more coming, I’m bout to go to MBA school, and I’m running the show now as a budding entrepreneur.

    So next time — Mr. Harvard — you start blabbing about all the things people can do in 99 weeks and whether or not hard working Americans deserve unemployment benefits in a fucked economy….Consider that most of us have been putting in the time, we aren’t on Xbox (don’t even own a TV), and instead of “waiting” for some lame employer to hire us, we took our destiny into our own hands and made something outta nothing…

    I think it’s called The American Way.

  88. Cicely: Thanks for the update. Your experience confirms the original post’s theory that two years is enough time to get a lot accomplished. I’m also happy for you that future U.S. taxpayers paid you to catch up with family, do some sightseeing, and start a new enterprise. If we expected our children and grandchildren to have infinite money, I’m sure that would be a wonderful thing for them to do for this generation.

    If it worked so well for you, and the benefits were, as you put it, “more than earned”, why limit it to the involuntarily unemployed? Our children and grandchildren could pay for everyone who has worked for “14 straight years” to enjoy a two-year sabbatical.

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