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Q & A with Paul Harrington, Director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy

February 20, 2012

Paul Harrington
These are extraordinary times to be a labor economist. That makes the Center for Labor Markets and Policy, where Dr. Paul E. Harrington is marking his first year as director, a good place to be.

Paul Harrington, who came to Drexel in early 2011 from Northeastern University, brings deep experience in human resource development economics and labor market analysis. His interest in the topic stretches back to an early work experience at age 15. “I was a member of the Teamsters Union working in a warehouse,” he says. “It was a really hard, physical job, let me tell you, but I got interested in labor issues and industrial relations issues.”

After studying economics in college, he went into labor market research at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, which he says was like “a labor-market analysis apprenticeship program.”

At Drexel, he and the Center for Labor Markets and Policy (CLMP) work in applied research, teaching and technical consulting with governments, workforce development organizations, business and labor, and nonprofits, as well as Drexel’s own Steinbright Career Development Center (SCDC), supporting SCDC staff in their mission to provide work experience and career transition services to Drexel’s undergraduate and graduate students.

True to his own background, one of Harrington's current topics of research is how early work experience shapes career prospects in later life.

How would you assess your first year at Drexel?

My colleague, Dr. Neeta Fogg, and I worked with Senior Vice Provost John DiNardo early on to develop a clear first year agenda to establish the new center. Two things were really important to us. The first thing we did was to bring in funding to give us a good, solid financial base. We were able to get substantial new contracts from a number of federal, state and other sources to support our research agenda.

The second thing was to establish a very aggressive public speaking schedule. We spent a lot of time around the country raising the visibility of the center, and we’ve been working with local media to increase our profile here.

Drexel holds traditional values of research, teaching and scholarship, but also we try to create opportunities in the job market and economy for our students. That makes Drexel unique compared to many other institutions of higher education — we have a desire to be connected as an institution grounded in the labor market.

This is a time of severe economic recession. What does that mean for your work?

We’re in a paradoxical world now. We haven’t seen a financial crisis like this for decades, and its uncharted territory.

What we try to do with our public speaking and research activities is figure out the consequences of this recession and how it affects different groups. What’s a sensible way to respond to some of these problems? There are unemployment insurance issues, long-term employment issues, post-secondary job access for students coming out of college, and institutions are thinking about structuring programs to improve outcomes for their students.

Our agenda is pretty extensive. It’s really an interesting place to be because there are always big labor market issues regardless of the macroeconomic conditions, and there’s a lot of interest in this sort of thing now. The average member of a household is very aware of today’s economic conditions because they are experiencing them firsthand.

You write a lot about “mal-employment.” Could you explain what that means?

When labor markets fall apart, the biggest effect is often among people under the age of 25. When companies are hiring, they tend to hire people under 25. When they start laying off, those are the people they lay off first. We find young college grads trading unemployment for “mal-employment.” Kids who don’t get jobs and aren’t going to graduate school say, “I’ll take a part-time job that’s not in the college labor market. At least I’ll be working instead of unemployed.”

So, college graduates take up non-college labor market jobs and then kids without a college degree get bumped out of jobs. Everyone moves down the queue.

So what should colleges be doing?

If you compare a college grad who gets a job in the college labor market and one who gets a job outside it, you find a gigantic earnings gap. Kids who graduate with a bachelor’s degree and get a college-labor market job have earnings 70 percent above a high school grad. A mal-employed college grad—employed in a job that’s not in the college labor market, like a civil engineer working as a bartender— will earn about 5 percent more than a high school grad. Almost all the value of a college degree is manifested when you get a college labor market job.

If you’re a civil engineer and you graduate from college with $50,000 debt, and you get access to a full-time job with benefits that pay you $50,000 a year and you’re on an upward mobility pathway with a good engineering firm, that debt doesn’t look daunting. If the same kid gets a job as a barista making $12 an hour, that $50,000 debt is very daunting and the chances of repayment are sharply diminished.

About three weeks ago, I was out in San Francisco giving a speech to an association of American land-grant universities. Part of the problem for institutions is figuring out how to respond to this problem. First of all, do they recognize that there’s a problem? Some don’t, but a lot of schools are under fire. State legislatures are looking at them and asking, “What are you educating these kids for? They can’t get jobs.”

One of the things I like about Drexel is that Drexel was always about access to the college labor market. When the institution was founded 120 years ago, there was never any question of providing opportunities for our students.

What other projects are you working on?

Right now I’m working with Dr. Fred Loomis in the School of Education on a study of employer views of teenagers. The fraction of teens who work has decreased by half in 10 years. We’re looking at how employers perceive kids relative to other sources of labor supplies.

Teens usually fill relatively unskilled jobs like fast food and grocery stores. Now they’re hiring older workers, and we’re trying to figure out how they perceive teens and how to increase employment access for kids, especially in low-income areas. Early work experience has powerful influence on long-term employment earnings. There are all these behavioral traits that you learn on the job, and if you don’t develop them through early work experience, you’re disadvantaged later.

What outside organizations are you working with?

A lot of our work is funded by external sources. We did work for the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation research related to post-secondary job access for those with disabilities. We’re working now on a project for the U.S. Department of Education to understand the labor market experiences of college graduate immigrants and what difference it makes if they graduate from an American university versus a foreign university.

We’ve been doing some work on older workers, producing a series of reports on the rise of employment of older workers and what it means for the economy. The argument is that employers have to start thinking about universal design. Older workers are likely to stay in the job market for considerable lengths of time, so firms have to figure out how to accommodate an aging workforce.

We’ve also been working with Mayor Michael Nutter’s education advisors on some post-secondary access issues, and we’ve just started working with the Philadelphia Youth Network and Philadelphia Academies on a study of youth employment access issues in the city.

What other departments and divisions at Drexel are you working with?

Two of the brightest students from the Department of Economics have begun to work with me and we’re trying to build out into other parts of the University. We have a great relationship with the SCDC, and we want to work more with them. At Drexel, we’ve figured out how to engage in research, scholarship and teaching and integrate it into the world of practice. It’s our mission. That’s why I wanted to be at Drexel.