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The Wage Level and Its Determinants

CHAPTER 7: THE WAGE LEVEL AND ITS DETERMINANTS

Overview: This chapter describes the idea of a wage level for the organization and its parts. It shows the importance of the wage level and what determines the level.

Corresponding course:

04 Organization Wage Determinations

The wage level is the average wage paid to employees. This may mean all employees, some particular group of employees or a single employee of the organization. This has two implications. The first is external: how does the organization compare with other organizations? This question is a strategic one of how the organization wishes to position itself in the marketplace. The second implication is internal. The average wage is a reflection of the total wage bill of the organization. Labor is one of the claimants on organizational resources. The size of the wage bill is a reflection of monies paid to entry level workers on up to the top executive.

The decision on compensation levels (how much will the organization pay?) may be the most important pay decision the organization makes: a potential employee's acceptance usually turns on this decision, and a large segment of the employer's costs are determined by it.

Organizations have a wide range of discretion in setting wage levels. Although organizations seek out and use information on what other employers pay, this information is only one of the determinants of wage levels. This chapter attempts to set out some of these wage determinants and the manner in which they may be used. Although no claim is made that all wage-level determinants have been identified, it is hoped that enough are presented here to illustrate the process used and the factors considered when an organization decides how much to pay.

THE VARIETY OF WAGE DETERMINANTS

Numerous forces operate as wage determinants. These might be roughly classified as economic, institutional, behavioral, and equity considerations. Wage decisions appear to be made by comparison to labor markets, so many of the determinants appear to be economic. Both the meaning and force of economic variables are interpreted by organization decision makers, and these determinants are tempered by institutional, behavioral, and ethical variables.

There is no doubt that wage determinants operate through labor markets and that they include economic forces.1 More profitable organizations tend to pay higher wages for the same occupations than less profitable organizations. Capital-intensive organizations tend to be more profitable because additional capital usually increases productivity. Small organizations tend to pay lower wages often because those wages are all they can afford. Service industries that tend to be labor-intensive, low-profit, and low-wage are often composed of small organizations.

Local labor markets vary in wage levels, depending on industrial composition. Communities in which a large proportion of organizations are in high-profit industries tend to be high-wage communities and often have a higher cost of living. Communities with a high proportion of organizations in low-profit industries tend to be low-wage. Sometimes communities experience short-run increases in wage levels because labor demand increases compared to labor supply; or there is a decrease in wage levels because of an increase in labor supply without a proportional increase in demand.

Differentials among local labor markets are limited by a tendency for workers to leave low-wage communities and for organizations to locate new plants in low-wage areas. Unions sometimes attempt to eliminate differentials by making a concession in work rules affecting productivity.

Wage levels tend to increase faster in good times: profits increase and this encourages workers to become more demanding and mobile. Unions reinforce this tendency by insisting on using gains made elsewhere to make their comparisons. Some less efficient organizations survive by paying less and lowering standards of employability even in good times. High profits, good times and increasing productivity tend to increase an organization's wage-paying ability, but organizations may or may not be willing to pay higher wages. Some of them do so to simplify recruiting problems and to forestall turnover. Others do so because above-average profits whet the appetites of workers and their unions. Most organizations tend to adopt a position in the wage structure of the community and attempt to maintain that position.

Thus economic forces operate on wage decisions through the actions of decision makers. If decision makers believe that adjustments in wages are necessary or desirable on economic or other grounds, they make them. If they believe that the organization's present wage-paying position is prudent and acceptable, they do not.

In the remainder of this chapter we classify wage level determinants on the basis of (1) employer ability to pay, (2) employer willingness to pay, and (3) employee (or potential employee) acceptance. Although some of these considerations have been used by arbitrators and wage boards, little is known about how they are used by wage-paying organizations or unions. We therefore emphasize how and when these determinants could be used by organizations.

EMPLOYER ABILITY TO PAY

When asked most organizations would say that the major determinant of their wage level is what the market is paying. However, there is usually a caveat to this and that is their statement "if we can afford it." So it would seem that the wage level of the organization is determined by external forces of the market but that the reality of the organizations financial position may modify or overrule carrying out this desire. This is expressed in surveys that ask about what determines the organization's wage level.2 When these organizations say "if they can afford it" they are invoking the ability to pay. However, there is little that explains exactly what the ability to pay is.

As reported, more profitable firms tend to pay higher wages, whether their profitability is based on the product market, technical efficiency, management ability, size, or some other factor. The situation with the automobile industry is an example of what can happen when an industry that is highly profitable falls on bad times and its wage level must fall in order to survive. This has been particularly hard since the industry is highly unionized.3

In a very real sense, wage determination by the organization is an assessment of its ability to pay. The weight attached to other wage determinants may be determined by this estimate. Wages are labor costs to employers, and these costs are high or low depending on what the employer gets for the wage — the results of effort.

What the employer actually pays is labor cost per unit of output; this is the wage costs divided by these results — termed productivity. A prospective wage increase may or may not increase labor cost per unit, depending on anticipated changes in productivity. A wage increase that would be offset by increases in productivity does not increase labor costs and meets the requirement of ability to pay. A wage increase that increases labor costs, however, requires determining whether the increase can be passed on to customers or offset by a reduction in other costs. Success in either effort again meets the requirements of ability to pay.

Similarly, a union presumably attempts to estimate an organization's ability to pay before making its demands. High current profits or favorable future prospects signal ability to pay and strengthen the union's bargaining power. Unions have a very long history and some early union contracts tied wages to ability to pay. For example, a 1919 printing agreement tied wages to economic conditions in the industry. Contracts covering motion picture operators have based wages on the seating capacity of theaters. Coal industry agreements have tied wages to the productivity of coal fields. Sliding-scale agreements have geared wages to selling prices.4 Both the United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers attempted (unsuccessfully) to secure agreements tying prospective wage increases in their industries to company profits.5 It is not likely today that this would be seen by the workers as a good bargain.

Although employers profess to use ability to pay (or inability to pay) as a wage determinant, little is known about how they measure it. An early study found a number of organizations that estimated ability to pay by inserting a projected wage increase into the latest income statement.6 This definition accords closely with the definition contained in a glossary of compensation terms published by World at Work that states: "The ability of a firm to pay a given level of wages or to fund a wage increase while remaining profitable."7

Organizations probably react to the ability to pay when they perceive their ability is in danger. Executives are more likely to bring the ability to pay up in wage discussions than are compensation experts. Further, lowering wages and othe methods of reducing costs are more likely to be perceived as fair in bad economic times.

Exactly how organizations measure their ability to pay is something of a mystery. However, the way in which organizations use wage surveys suggests that they do so in a variety of ways. Organizations often say they use wage surveys to evaluate their ability to pay. If by evaluate they mean determine, this would be somewhat surprising, because surveys would logically reflect willingness to pay. This suggests that willingness to pay is a more important determinant for organizations.

Actually, ability to pay is a composite of the economic forces facing a firm. As such, it involves decisions on how profits should be measured, against what standard (net worth or sales), and over what period. It also involves determining an appropriate rate of return and resolving the issues, such as product development, product mix, and pricing policy, that most affect profits.

These considerations illustrate that although employing organizations and unions may cite ability to pay or inability to pay as a primary reason for wage decisions, no one suggests that it be used as the sole determinant. Such a strict application of ability to pay could lead to very undesirable results. It would, for example, completely disorganize wage relationships. Wage levels would bear no relationship to the going rate in the labor market. Organizations in the same industry could have vastly different wage levels. Wages would fluctuate widely along with profits. Any semblance of industry wage uniformity (usually strongly desired by unions) would disappear. Low-profit firms employing a high proportion of highly skilled people could have lower wage levels than high-profit firms employing only unskilled labor. In this way, unskilled labor could receive higher wages than highly skilled labor.

Strong limits, moreover, would be placed on economic efficiency. Under a system wherein increases in profits are absorbed by wages, an efficient management would have nothing to gain from increased effort and inefficient management would be subsidized by low wages. In addition, employees could not leave inefficient organizations for more efficient ones, because expansion of output and employment in efficient firms would be forestalled by the paying out of increased profits in wages to present employees. Incentives for management to improve efficiency would be seriously impaired. Possibilities of expansion would be limited.

For these reasons strict application of ability to pay is likely to hold little attraction for the parties. On the other hand, the general economic environment of the economy, the industry, and the firm is important in wage determination. When the demand for the product or service of an organization is strong, when potential employees are relatively scarce, and when prices can be increased without reduction in sales, unions are likely to point to ability to pay, placing management in a poor position to plead inability to pay. When economic conditions facing the industry, or especially the organization, are unfavorable, management estimates of inability to pay may set a low limit to wage increases.

Union reactions to situations in which a company faces financial hardship are pragmatic: although they are strongly opposed to subsidizing inefficient organizations. While organizations report using ability to pay as a wage determinant in collective bargaining, such use is subject to strongly held opinions. Most union leaders consider ability to pay as irrelevant unless high profits are apparent. Most employers consider it no business of the union. The force of ability to pay is probably best seen at the extremes, in judging whether a wage adjustment, apparently justifiable on other grounds, can or cannot be met. Strong evidence of favorable prospects causes employers to have less resistance to prospective increases in wage levels. Similarly, strong evidence of unfavorable prospects reduces pressure for a wage increase, especially if it is feared that such a wage adjustment might cause loss of jobs, and greatly increases employer resistance.

Ability to pay is an expression of the economic forces that bear on wage determination. Although it is a determinant beset by measurement and forecasting problems, search theory suggests that organizations are able to estimate it when a decision calls for it.

Productivity

Productivity was used earlier in this section as a shorthand term for what the employer gets in return for the wage. Thus wage level determination is often referred to as the effort bargain.

Actually, as will be seen, productivity is a result of the application of human and other resources. As such, it is a prime determinant of ability to pay. If production increases in the same proportion as wage costs, labor cost per unit remains unchanged. If, however, an increase in the wage level is not matched with a proportional increase in productivity, labor costs per unit rise. At some point this mismatch runs the risk of exceeding the employer's ability to pay. Although productivity is not widely used as an explicit wage level determinant, it is always present in the form of the effort bargain. If the employer gets more output for each unit of input, the organization's ability to pay is increased. For this reason, productivity deserves some discussion as part of the concept of ability to pay.

What is productivity? How is it measured? Productivity refers to a comparison between the quantity of goods or services produced and the quantity of resources employed in turning out these goods or services. It is the ratio of output to input. But output can be compared with various kinds of inputs: hours worked, the total of labor and capital inputs, or something in between. The results of these different comparisons are different, as are their meanings; different comparisons are appropriate to different questions. Two main concepts and measurements of productivity are used, but for different purposes. The first, output per hours worked or labor productivity, answers questions concerning the effectiveness of human labor under the varying circumstances of labor quality, amount of equipment, sale of output, methods of production, and so on. The second, output per unit of capital and labor (total factor productivity), measures the efficiency of labor and capital combined. This second measure gauges whether efficiency in the conversion of labor and capital into output is rising or falling as a result of changes in technology, size, character of economic organization, management skills, and many other determinants. It is more complex and more limited in use.8

The first measure, output per hours worked, is the appropriate measure to employ in wage questions. It reflects the combined effect of changes (1) in the efficiency with which labor and capital are used, (2) in the amount of tangible capital employed with each hour of labor, and (3) the average quality of labor. It is these three factors that have been found to best explain the long-term trend in the general level of real wages.

It should be emphasized that labor productivity measures the contributions not just of labor alone, but of all the input factors. In fact, the potential for estimating the contribution of various factors makes measures of labor productivity at various levels appropriate, or inappropriate, for use as wage standards.9

Output per hours worked. Output per hours worked can be measured at the job, plant, industry, or economy level.

At the job level, it is possible to measure worker application and effort separately from other inputs as the basis for incentive plans.

At the plant level, estimates of the source of productivity increases can be used as the basis of gainsharing plans. At the industry level, productivity improvements cannot be traced separately to the behavior of workers, managers, or investors in the industry. The contributions of one industry to another industry's productivity cannot be separated. Therefore the use of industry productivity as a wage determinant would have adverse economic consequences. For these reasons, industry productivity is seldom suggested as a wage determinant.

Historically, at the level of the economy, changes in labor productivity have been used as appropriate for wage determination. In fact, the improvement factor in labor contracts employed in the automobile industry from 1948 until the early 1980s is an example of such a use. Then in the 1960’s wage-price guideposts were based on the argument that wage increases in organizations should be determined by economy-wide advances in productivity. However, this formula use of productivity for wage determination has advocates and opponents. Advocates point out that increasing wage levels in specific organizations, in accordance with annual increases in productivity in the economy, insures that productivity gains get distributed. They also argue that distributing these gains through price reductions may contribute to economic instability.

Opponents point out that although there is a long-term relationship between productivity and wages, the short-term relationship is highly variable, which suggests that other wage-determining forces are more pertinent. They also argue that tying wages to productivity yields stable prices only when productivity increases are accepted as a limit to wage increases. Obviously, when the cost of living is increasing, limiting wage increases to productivity increases would be unpalatable to employees. Even more unacceptable would be wage cuts when economy-wide productivity declines, as has sometimes occurred.

In auto contracts, the improvement factor was accompanied by a cost-of-living escalator clause and other wage increases. The guideposts broke down when price increases made the limiting of wage increases to economy-wide productivity increases impractical. The effect, of course, was to build higher prices into the cost structure that over time made for the demise of the U.S. automobile industry.

The inflationary potential of productivity formulas that are not accepted as limits is enhanced by a tendency to seek a productivity measure that makes larger wage increases feasible. Increases in industry productivity, for example, may be higher, but industry indexes are less reliable and more variable. Such indexes may also conceal the contribution of one industry to another's productivity. Even indexes of national productivity may overstate non-inflationary wage-increase possibilities, by failing to measure the effects of transfers of workers from lower- to higher-productivity industries and other sources of increase in labor quality.

Perhaps enough problems have been cited to argue against raising wages in strict accordance with productivity increases. The difficulty of securing acceptance of wage increases, based on national productivity as a limit, argues against the use of such a formula. Different industries and organizations have such varying rates of change in productivity as to throw wages based solely on productivity completely out of line with other wage considerations. Higher-productivity industries would be penalized for their higher productivity, and this would harm the economy.

Productivity, however, may be interpreted to mean that increases in labor productivity at constant wages lower labor cost per unit. This operates through ability to pay. Productivity may also be employed in the narrower sense — that a productivity increase attributed to increased performance by employees calls for an equivalent increase in pay (as with merit increases or variable pay plans). Although productivity increases are often mentioned in wage level determination, especially in labor negotiations, their effect as a separate consideration is probably minimal.

The 1970's and 80's showed a decline in productivity growth in the U.S. In fact, some of that time period shows a decline in productivity. The 1990's showed a resurgence in productivity growth with very high levels from 1995 onward. This has been attributed to technological change and is credited to the robust economy of those years. This productivity growth rate continued into the early 2000's despite a downturn in the economy.10 Interest in productivity as a wage determinant seems to ebb and flow with these changes. A major variable is the cost of living which tends to run counter to productivity gains. This will be covered later in this chapter.

EMPLOYER WILLINGNESS TO PAY

Employer willingness to pay may be a more powerful wage determinant than employer ability to pay. Organizations frequently obtain and use information on what other employers pay. Such information is undoubtedly the most used wage level consideration, sometimes considered along with the cost of living. Another determinant of employer willingness to pay consists of the state of supply of particular skills and the presence of tight or loose labor markets. This section devotes some attention to each of these wage determinants.

Comparable Wages

Comparable wages constitute, without a doubt, the most widely used wage determinant. They represent the way in which organizations achieve the compensation goal of being competitive. Not only are the wages and salaries of federal employees keyed directly to comparable wages in labor markets, but also those of most public employees in other jurisdictions. Also, unions emphasize "coercive comparisons," and private organizations consciously try to keep up with changes in going wages. Perhaps the major reason for this widespread use of the concept of comparable wages is its apparent fairness. In this view, comparable wages help in the attraction and retention goals of compensation. To most people, an acceptable definition of fair wages is the wages paid by other employers for the same type of work. Employers find this definition reasonable because it implies that their competitors are paying the same wages. In essence then, labor costs become even across the industry. Another reason for the popularity of the concept is its apparent simplicity. At first glance, it appears quite simple to "pay the market."

However, this illusion of simplicity vanishes once we try to "determine the market rate." Precise techniques, carefully employed, are required to find comparable jobs and comparable wage or salary rates. Numerous decisions must be made on which organizations and which jobs should be compared, and how best to compare them. Equally important are decisions concerning how to analyze the data and use them. Wage comparisons may involve other organizations in the area or in the industry, wherever located. These decisions will be examined in more detail in the next chapter on Wage Surveys. An important question to consider is whether differences in competitive conditions in the product market are significant enough to warrant a different wage level, regardless of labor-market influences.

The going wage is an abstraction, the result of numerous decisions on what jobs and organizations to include, what wage information is appropriate, and what statistical methods to employ. Some employers decide to pay on the high side of the market, others on the low side as indicated in the previous chapter. The result is a range of rates to which various statistical measures may be applied. Various interpretations of the going rate may be made and justified.

To rely on comparable wages as a wage determinant is to rely on wages as income rather than as costs. Comparable wage rates may represent entirely different levels of labor costs in two different organizations. Setting wage levels strictly on the basis of going wages could impose severe hardships on one organization but a much lower labor cost on another. These difficulties are not insurmountable: many employers lean heavily on wage and salary surveys. Employer choices on what surveys to acquire and use, what benchmark jobs to attend to, and how to analyze, interpret, and use the data suggest that reasonable accommodations to "the market" are usually possible. The next chapter on Wage Surveys will go into depth on this.

In addition to offering a certain measurability, following comparable wages contains a good deal of economic wisdom. Wages are prices. One function of price in a competitive economy is the allocation of resources. Use of comparable-wage data operates roughly to allocate human resources among employers.

Furthermore, comparisons simplify the task of decision makers and negotiators. Once appropriate comparisons are decided upon, difficulties are minimized. A wage level can be set where the wage becomes satisfactory as income and operates reasonably well in its allocation function. Wages as costs are also satisfied because unit labor costs can differ widely between two organizations having identical wage rates; also unit labor costs can be identical in two organizations having widely different wage rates.

Comparable wages also operate as a force for generalizing changes in wage levels, regardless of the source of change. Unfortunately, however, although changes in going wages tell what occurred, they don't tell why it occurred. The changes may represent institutional, behavioral, or ethical considerations more than economic ones.

On balance, however, comparable wages probably operate as a conservative force. Because wage decisions involve future costs, employers are understandably unwilling to outdistance competitors. In a tight labor market, changes in going wages may compel an organization to pay more to get and keep a labor force, especially of critical skills. But in more normal periods, where unemployment exceeds job vacancies, employers will more likely focus on equalizing their labor costs with those of product-market competitors. In other words, comparable wages are followed as long as other considerations are not more compelling.

Cost of Living

Cost of living is emphasized by workers and their unions as a wage level consideration when it is rising rapidly. In such times, they pressure employers to adjust wages to offset the rise. In part, these demands represent a plea for increases to offset reductions in real wages (wages divided by the cost of living). Wage pressures resulting from changes in the cost of living fluctuate with the rapidity with which living costs rise; however, price rises in most years have produced employee expectations of at least annual pay increases. To employees a satisfactory pay plan must reflect the effect of inflation on financial needs. This can come into conflict with the current emphasis on variable pay.

Employers understandably resist, or should, increasing pay levels on the basis of increases in the cost of living unless changes in competitive wages and/or productivity fully reflect these changes, which they seldom do. Increases in the cost of living are partially translated into wage increases by most employers through payment of comparable wages, and long-term contracts with unions have fostered other methods of incorporating cost-of- living changes. One such method is the reopening clause, which permits wages to be renegotiated during a long-term contract. Another is the deferred wage increase: an attempt to anticipate economic changes at the time the contract is signed. A third is the escalator clause by which wages are adjusted during the contract period in accordance with changes in the cost of living. In this third method, living-cost changes are measured by changes in the Consumer Price Index.

Escalator clauses vary in popularity from year to year in accordance with the rapidity of cost-of-living changes during the period immediately preceding the signing of the contract and with anticipation of subsequent rises. In the past, as much as 60 percent of workers under large union contracts have been covered by escalator clauses. Periods of reduced inflation tend to reduce their popularity.

Nonunion employers are much less likely to adjust wage levels in accord with changes in the cost of living or at least to admit that they do. Most organizations would claim that they grant merit pay increases each year. However, when all or almost all employees get the same increase it looks more like a cost-of-living adjustment. In extreme conditions, such as the late 1970s double-digit inflation, organizations were prompted to make significant cost-of-living adjustments.

Employing the cost of living as a wage-level determinant is somewhat controversial. Wage rates do tend to follow changes in the cost of living in the short run. Tying wages to changes in the cost of living provides a measure of fairness to employees by assuring them that their real wages are not devalued. But using the cost of living as a determinant also implies a constant standard of living. Historically, unions have opposed the principle for this reason. Methods that provide the same absolute cost-of-living adjustment for all employees may actually impair fairness to employees. Such flat adjustments imply that everyone's cost of living is the same and has changed by the same amount. Unfortunately, technical problems in measuring changes in the cost of living may make such effects inequitable.

Wage Rates and the Cost of Living. The argument can be made that there is no particular correlation between changes in labor market rates and the cost of living as the two are based upon very different measures. Market wages and their changes are based upon the supply and demand for labor which often changes without any consideration of the cost of living. The cost of living is a measure based upon the area’s cost of goods and services as surveyed by the federal government as will be discussed below.11 It is interesting to note, however, that the correlation between these two measures has been changing recently. ERI has been reporting on salaries and cost of living since 1986. They report these findings in two reports, the Geographic and Relocation Assessors. Thirty years ago the relationship between the salary and cost-of-living variances were explained by correlations of .30. Recently, that correlation has risen to .74 as illustrated in the figure 7-1.

salary and cost of living variances
Figure 7-1. Cost of Living and Average Wage

Cost-of-living index. A cost-of-living index measures changes over time in the prices of a constant bundle of goods and services. The bundle of goods and services (called a market basket) is obtained by asking a group, whose cost of living is to be measured, to keep a record of the price of their purchases. These data are then used to create the index.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been publishing such an index since 1921, called the Consumer Price Index.12 The CPI was developed to measure the cost of living for families of urban wage earners. As such, it became the basis of escalator clauses in union contracts.

Like any general index, the CPI is an abstraction that rarely corresponds with the actual living-cost changes for any given family. Family consumption patterns differ due to age, income, composition, tastes, and other characteristics. These differences mean that the CPI varies greatly in its ability to measure cost-of-living changes for various groups. Moreover, consumption patterns change over time, as does the quality of products.

At present, two indexes are published: the CPI-U and the CPI-W. The CPI-U represents all urban households including urban workers in all occupations, the unemployed, and retired persons. The CPI-W represents urban wage and clerical workers employed in blue-collar occupations. Both CPI measures exclude rural households, military personnel, and persons in institutionalized housing such as prisons, old age homes, and long-term hospital care.

The BLS has made changes to improve the index over time and to meet specific problems. The latest change to both indexes involved substituting a rent equivalent for home ownership. Until the early 1980s, the CPI used what is called the asset price method to measure the change in the costs of owner-occupied housing. The asset price method treats the purchase of an asset, such as a house, as it does the purchase of any consumer good. Because the asset price method can lead to inappropriate results for goods that are purchased largely for investment reasons, the CPI implemented the rental equivalence approach to measuring price change for owner-occupied housing.

Obviously, such technical problems mean that tying wage levels to the CPI varies in fairness to different groups. Moreover, at least in unions and perhaps in most organizations, fairness seems to suggest the same cost-of-living adjustment for everyone. A compressed wage structure resulting from flat cost-of-living increases may produce difficulties in recruiting and keeping higher-level employees. It seems that changes in the cost of living do not closely parallel changes in the supply-demand situation of any specific employee group. Also, particular organizations and industries may face competitive situations in product markets that run counter to changes in living costs.

It also seems that wage increases that fully reflect living-cost increases build inflation into the economy. Fortunately, although escalator clauses narrow the time gap between price and wage changes in an inflationary period, they have been found to yield only about 57 percent of a year's inflation, and they apply to only about ten percent of nonagricultural civilian employment. Although labor contracts containing wage re-openers, deferred increases, or escalators are prevalent in the United States, most wage level decisions are widely decentralized and give heavy weight to comparable wages. This may provide enough lag between price and wage changes to prevent more inflationary effects.

In summary, the cost of living as a wage level determinant usually operates indirectly. Although attractive to employees, unions, and some employing organizations in periods of rapidly rising prices, it should never be used as the sole standard of wage adjustment. When influences in the labor market are stronger than those in the product market, cost-of-living considerations may increase an employer's willingness to pay. But when an employer is faced with strong competition in the product market, employees may have to choose between maintaining their real wages and maintaining their jobs. In inflationary periods, the cost of living reinforces going wages through employer willingness to pay.

Labor Supplies

One consideration always present in wage level determination is the compensation goal of obtaining and retaining an adequate work force. The wage level must be sufficient to perform this function or the organization cannot operate. Effectiveness of recruitment efforts, refusal of offer rates, and labor turnover levels may each be considered in wage level decisions. The wage level itself is only one determinant that effects recruitment effectiveness and labor turnover. But it is an important one in that it is usually agreed to be the major element in job choice.

Changing economic conditions can have a rapid change in demand for certain skills. This creates a shortage of available workers with those skills, as supply does not change as rapidly. One such change occurred when interest rates fell and most home owners elected to re-finance their homes, on top of coinciding high sales of homes. This created an immediate high demand for Mortgage Loan Processors. Organizations were faced with raising wages for these workers far above equivalent jobs in their organizations. Further, organizations engaged in training people for these jobs. Then two things happened. First the supply began to catch up with the demand. Then the real estate market slumped and interest rates went up, meaning the demand for Mortgage Loan Processors fell, leaving organizations with a group of overpaid employees.

If, however, an organization experiences no recruitment or turnover problems, it may presume that the present wage level is adequate to permit securing and holding a labor force. But quality issues may still arise. Is the quality of the labor force being maintained, or have employees of lower efficiency been the only ones available at the present wages? Is the quality of the present labor force adequate? Is it more than adequate? Is a change in standards of employability a good idea? Can such a change be accomplished at present pay levels?

Such questions emphasize the point that it may be more important to maintain the quality of a labor force than the quantity. A labor force of low quality at a given wage level may be more costly to the organization than a labor force of higher quality obtained at a higher wage level but resulting in lower unit labor costs. If an employer can lower unit labor costs by raising the wage level and standards of employability, such a course would deserve careful consideration. This approach partially explains the existence of wage leaders. Organizations that pay "on the high side" may do so in the hope of attracting a higher-quality labor force. Wage leadership may not only permit "skimming the cream" off the present labor force, it may ensure a continuing supply of high-quality personnel from new entrants. Wage leadership companies often have a waiting list of applicants, whereas others must continually use an aggressive recruitment program.

Wage level decisions based on labor-supply considerations must be made in light of the prospects of the organization and the industry. Firms in declining industries may be forced to allow wage levels to drop with reduced productivity and to plan on less efficient and lower-paid work forces. An expanding organization, on the other hand, may want to upgrade the quality of its work force by paying above the market and raising standards of employability.

The extent to which labor-supply considerations affect wage levels varies greatly among organizations. Organizations in high-wage industries in low-wage areas experience few labor-supply problems; those in low-wage industries may face serious labor-supply problems. Although most organizations fill most of their jobs from within, it is doubtful that any organization is free from labor-supply problems for at least some skills. As emphasized in Chapter 3, most organizations operate in numerous labor markets. Not only does the extent of the market (local, regional, national, or international) vary for different skills, but the use of internal labor markets varies among organizations. Those with relatively open internal labor markets fill most jobs from outside. Those with relatively closed internal labor markets fill almost all jobs from within.

Obviously, labor-supply considerations affecting wage levels vary with labor markets. Jobs filled externally must meet or exceed the going rate. Jobs filled internally are constrained only by organization decisions. In both situations, the organization is able to vary its pay levels and hiring standards on the basis of its willingness to pay.

Skill and Education. Recent emphasis in compensation upon competency and skill based pay makes skill and education an important wage level determinant. At the level of the economy this focus has been playing out for some time in the problem of wage inequality in the U. S. Between 1979 and 1995 the ratio between workers in the 90 percentile and those in the 10th percentile increased from 3.7 to 4.8. Maybe even more important is that real wages for workers in the 10th percentile fell from 1970 to 1990 while those in the 90th percentile rose by 10% to 15 %.this increase for workers in the 90th percentile continued through the 1990's.13 One of the major forces behind this change has been the increasing need for educated workers and the response of many more people going on to college.

The result of this trend is creating an hour glass shaped work force in which the middle class is being squeezed out, leaving a large group of highly trained workers at the top of the labor market and another large group of unskilled workers at the bottom of the market.14 Movement up the scale is more and more on the basis of education, rather than experience. To the extent that this trend is replicated in the organization it would indicate that developing a wage level based upon the organization’s average wage would be unsatisfactory for the majority of employees. This situation would call for two clearly different wage levels, one for the top and one the bottom. This seems to be reflected in the move towards a "core" group of employees with good wages, benefits and a degree of security and a "peripheral" group of temporary and part time employees with low wages, little in the way of benefits and no job security.

EMPLOYEE ACCEPTANCE

The considerations employers use in determining wage levels must meet their test of employee, or potential-employee, acceptance. If employees are unwilling to accept the wages offered, the employment contract and the effort bargain are not completed. This statement suggests that all of the factors discussed in the introductory chapters, 2, 3 and 4, are potential wage level determinants. For example, employee expectations, employee definitions of equity, and employee satisfaction or dissatisfaction with pay, become pertinent considerations. So do the demands of unions and society (through laws and regulations). Ideally, these considerations find their way into employers' decisions regarding their ability and willingness to pay.

SUMMARY

Organizations must be both able and willing to pay wages at particular levels. The labor market tells the organization what others are doing, but the determination of what the organization itself will do, is based on these factors of ability and willingness. The ability to pay is a major influence on the wage-level decision and one that has come to have increasing importance in the past few years, due to changes in economic fortunes of organizations and the increasing competition from foreign firms. Since the early 1980s, organizations have focused on relating the organization's wage level to worker productivity.

Willingness is more a matter of equity and competition in the marketplace. Organizations wish to pay wage rates that are considered fair. Thus they pay particular attention to wage surveys in terms of identifying comparable wage rates for their jobs. A broader measure of fairness used in the late 1970s was the cost of living. This measure, while fraught with problems, is one that employees see and can make comparisons with readily. From an organizational standpoint the willingness to pay certain wage rates is most likely a calculation that these wage rates are required to attract and retain the desired quality of employees.


1 H. M. Douty, The Wage Bargain and the Labor Market (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1980).
2 World at Work, Fiscal Management of Compensation Programs: A Survey of Member of World at Work, Scottsdale, AZ. World at Work, August 2005 and World at Work and Hay Group, Rewards Next Practices Survey Scottsdale, AZ. World at Work, 2009.
3 Allegretto, S., The American industry in crisis: Threats to middle-class jobs, wages, health care and pensions, Testimony Presented During the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce E-Hearing on Janaury 3, 2006.
4 Z. Dickinson, Collective Wage Determination (New York: Ronald Press, 1941), pp. 189-210.
5 R. R. Nathan, 0. Gross, and G. G. Johnson, Economic Factors Relating to Wage Negotiations in the Steel Industry for 1947 (Pittsburgh: United Steelworkers of America, 1947); and W. P. Reuther, Purchasing Power for Prosperity: The Case of the General Motors Workers for Maintaining Take-Home Pay (Detroit: UAW-CIO, General Motors Department, 1945), pp. 55-76.
6 L. G. Reynolds, The Structure of Labor Markets (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), ch. 6.
7 Glossary of Compensation Terms (Scottsdale, Ariz.: American Compensation Association, 2007).
8 S. Nasar, "Productivity" The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, www.econlib.org/library/enc/productivity.html
9 For information about how to measure productivity at the organizational level see: www.upjohninstitute.org and www.bna.com
10 Congressional Budget Office, Labor Productivity Developments since 1995, www.cbo.gov/ftpdoc.cfm?index=7910&type=1
11 Thomsen, D. "Geographic Wage and Salary Differentials and Cost of Living Differentials" ERI Updates, Redmond, WA. Vol. 23, July 1994, p.1.
12 www.bls.gov/cpi/home.htm
13 Atchison, T., "Salary Trends in the United states and Europe" Compensation and Benefits Review, Vol. 39, #1, pp. 29-39.
14 Calbreath, D. "Job Creation in County Takes Shape of Hourglass" San Diego Union-Tribune, Sunday, September 2, 2007, F1.

The Wage Level and Its Determinants

Thomas J. Atchison
David W. Belcher
David J. Thomsen

ERI Economic Research Institute
Copyright © 2000 - 2013

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

HF5549.5.C67B45 1987 658.3'2 86-25494 ISBN 0-13-154790-9

Previously published under the title of Wage and Salary Administration.

The framework for this text was originally copyrighted in 1987, 1974, 1962, and 1955 by Prentice-Hall, Inc. All rights were acquired by ERI in 2000 via reverted rights from the Belcher Scholarship Foundation and Thomas Atchison.

All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced for sale, in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from ERI Economic Research Institute. Students may download and print chapters, graphs, and case studies from this text via an Internet browser for their personal use.

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