EVERYONE complains that corporate America is reluctant to hire additional workers. Far less attention has been paid to the flip side of the jobless recovery: the remarkable improvement in American productivity. How long can this continue? “I see no limit,” says William Hickey, the boss of Sealed Air, a packaging-maker. Is he right to be so optimistic?
American firms were slow to react to the downturn at the beginning of the century, and paid the price. They learned their lesson. When the economy slumped in 2008, they were much quicker to adjust. There was little of the fall in labour productivity that normally accompanies a recession, and this was not just a one-off “batting average” effect (in which average productivity rises because the worst performers are fired). Rather, it was a productivity boost that has continued in defiance of expert predictions that workers can only be squeezed so hard for a short while.
After falling in the first half of the year, American labour productivity (output per hour) was 2.3% higher in the third quarter of 2011 than in the same period a year earlier. This was the fastest quarterly rise in 18 months. Manufacturing productivity in that quarter rose by 2.9% compared with a year earlier. America’s productivity growth has been more robust than most other rich countries’—a feat many ascribe to its flexible labour market and a culture of enterprise.
Yet some analysts expect productivity growth to stall soon. Hard-pressed workers are feeling grouchy: workforce surveys report record levels of job dissatisfaction. Many firms have been “starving the organisation to see how it can do with a lower cost structure,” says Carsten Stendevad of Citigroup, a bank. Unless the economy picks up, he predicts that productivity growth will slow in 2012. (He admits, however, that he wrongly predicted the same thing would happen in 2011.)
Two things could keep productivity rising. First, workers are terrified of losing their jobs. This makes it easier to persuade them to put in extra hours or shoulder new tasks. Even in unionised firms, there have been reports of greater flexibility. Workers have been staying on the job longer rather than “featherbedding” their hours by, for example, queuing up early to clock off as soon as the shift ends.