Skills & Human Capital

HKS faculty reimagine the world of work

January 28, 2021

Ljubica Nedelkoska in HKS Magazine

THIS PAST YEAR HAS ILLUMINATED the fragility and failures of work in new ways. The coronavirus pandemic resulted in layoffs and furloughs for millions around the world. Some have lost their jobs in struggling or shifting industries and don’t have the skills to explore other fields. Many essential workers—from health aides to grocery clerks—have been forced to make grim trade-offs between personal health and financial security. Unpredictable and stressful schedules, discriminatory and unfair organizational practices and procedures,...

Read more about HKS faculty reimagine the world of work
Schetter, U. & Tejada, O., 2020. On Globalization and the Concentration of Talent: A General Result on Superstar Effects and Matching.Abstract
We analyze how globalization affects the allocation of talent across competing teams in large matching markets. Focusing on amplified superstar effects, we show that a convex transformation of payoffs promotes positive assortative matching. This result holds under minimal assumptions on how skills translate into competition outcomes and how competition outcomes translate into payoffs. Our analysis covers many interesting special cases, including simple extensions of Rosen (1981) and Melitz (2003) with competing teams. It also provides new insights on the distributional consequences of globalization, and on the role of technological change, urban agglomeration, and taxation for the composition of teams.
revised October 2020
Knowledge Diffusion in the Network of International Business Travel
Coscia, M., Neffke, F. & Hausmann, R., 2020. Knowledge Diffusion in the Network of International Business Travel. Nature Human Behaviour , 4 (10). Publisher's VersionAbstract

We use aggregated and anonymized information based on international expenditures through corporate payment cards to map the network of global business travel. We combine this network with information on the industrial composition and export baskets of national economies. The business travel network helps to predict which economic activities will grow in a country, which new activities will develop and which old activities will be abandoned. In statistical terms, business travel has the most substantial impact among a range of bilateral relationships between countries, such as trade, foreign direct investments and migration. Moreover, our analysis suggests that this impact is causal: business travel from countries specializing in a specific industry causes growth in that economic activity in the destination country. Our interpretation of this is that business travel helps to diffuse knowledge, and we use our estimates to assess which countries contribute or benefit the most from the diffusion of knowledge through global business travel.

Additional content:

Levy-Yeyati, E. & Montane, M., 2020. Specificity of Human Capital: An Occupation Space Based on Job-to-Job Transitions.Abstract
Using job transition data from Argentina’s Household Survey, we document the extent to which human capital is specific to occupations and activities. Based on workers’ propensity to move between occupations/industries, we build Occupation and Industry Spaces to illustrate job similarities, and we compute an occupation and industry similarity measures that, in turn, we use to explain wage transition dynamics. We show that our similarity measures influence positively post-transition wages. Inasmuch as wages capture a worker´s marginal productivity and this productivity reflects the degree to which a worker matches the job’s skill demand, our results indicate that a worker´s human capital is specific to both occupation and activity: closer occupations share similar skill demands and task composition (in other words, demand similar workers) and imply a smaller human capital loss in the event of a transition.
Revised May 2020.
Ganguli, I., Hausmann, R. & Viarengo, M., 2020. Gender Differences in Professional Career Dynamics: New Evidence from a Global Law Firm.Abstract

We examine gender gaps in career dynamics in the legal sector using rich panel data from one of the largest global law firms in the world. The law firm studied is representative of multinational law firms and operates in 23 countries. The sample includes countries at different stages of development. We document the cross-country variation in gender gaps and how these gaps have changed over time. We show that while there is gender parity at the entry level in most countries by the end of the period examined, there are persistent raw gender gaps at the top of the organization across all countries. We observe significant heterogeneity among countries in terms of gender gaps in promotions and wages, but the gaps that exist appear to be declining over the period studied. We also observe that women are more likely to report exiting the firm for family and work-life balance reasons, while men report leaving for career advancement. Finally, we show that various measures of national institutions and culture appear to play a role in the differential labor-market outcomes of men and women.

Bahar, D., Choudhury, P. & Rapoport, H., 2020. Migrant Inventors and the Technological Advantage of Nations.Abstract

We investigate the relationship between the presence of migrant inventors and the dynamics of innovation in the migrants’ receiving countries. We find that countries are 25 to 60 percent more likely to gain advantage in patenting in certain technologies given a twofold increase in the number of foreign inventors from other nations that specialize in those same technologies. For the average country in our sample, this number corresponds to only 25 inventors and a standard deviation of 135. We deal with endogeneity concerns by using historical migration networks to instrument for stocks of migrant inventors. Our results generalize the evidence of previous studies that show how migrant inventors "import" knowledge from their home countries, which translates into higher patenting in the receiving countries. We interpret these results as tangible evidence of migrants facilitating the technology-specific diffusion of knowledge across nations.

Hausmann, R., Nedelkoska, L. & Noor, S., 2020. You Get What You Pay for: Sources and Consequences of the Public Sector Premium in Albania and Sri Lanka.Abstract

We study the factors behind the public sector premium in Albania and Sri Lanka, the group heterogeneity in the premium, the sources of public sector wage compression, and the impact of this compression on the way individuals self-select between the public and the private sector. Similar to other countries, the public sectors in Albania and Sri Lanka pay higher wages than the private sector, for all but the most valued employees. While half of the premium of Sri Lanka and two-thirds of it in Albania are explained by differences in the occupation-education-experience mix between the sectors, and the level of private sector informality, the unexplained part of the premium is significant enough to affect the preferences of working in the public sector for different groups. We show that the compressed distributions of public sector wages and benefits create incentives for positive sorting into the public sector among most employees, and negative sorting among the most productive ones.

Listen to a podcast with author Ljubica Nedelkoska as she discusses the factors behind public sector wage premiums. 

Nedelkoska, L., Neffke, F. & Wiederhold, S., 2015. Skill Mismatch and the Costs of Job Displacement.Abstract
An increasing number of studies evidence large and persistent earning losses by displaced workers. We study whether these losses can partly be attributed to the skill mismatch that arises when workers’ human capital is underutilized at the new job. We develop a new method of measuring skill mismatch that accounts for asymmetries in the transferability of human capital between occupations, and link these measures to exceptionally rich German administrative data on individuals’ work histories. We find that displacement increases the probability of occupational switching and skill mismatch, primarily because displaced workers often move to less skill-demanding occupations. Event-study analyses show that these downskilled switchers suffer substantially larger displacement costs than occupational stayers. Workers moving to more skill-demanding occupations have similar earning losses as stayers, and do not experience any displacement costs conditional on being employed
The Value of Complementary Coworkers
Neffke, F., 2019. The Value of Complementary Coworkers. Science Advances , 5 (12). Publisher's VersionAbstract

As individuals specialize in specific knowledge areas, a society’s know-how becomes distributed across different workers. To use this distributed know-how, workers must be coordinated into teams that, collectively, can cover a wide range of expertise. This paper studies the interdependencies among co-workers that result from this process in a population-wide dataset covering educational specializations of millions of workers and their co-workers in Sweden over a 10-year period. The analysis shows that the value of what a person knows depends on whom that person works with. Whereas having co-workers with qualifications similar to one’s own is costly, having co-workers with complementary qualifications is beneficial. This co-worker complementarity increases over a worker’s career and offers a unifying framework to explain seemingly disparate observations, answering questions such as “Why do returns to education differ so widely?” “Why do workers earn higher wages in large establishments?” “Why are wages so high in large cities?”

Additional resources: WebsitePodcast | Video | Media Release

Nedelkoska, L. & Neffke, F., 2019. Skill Mismatch and Skill Transferability: Review of Concepts and Measurements. Papers in Evolutionary Economic Geography , 19 (21). Publisher's VersionAbstract
The notion of skills plays an increasingly important role in a variety of research fields. Since the foundational work on human capital theory, economists have approached skills through the lens of education, training and work experience, whereas early work in evolutionary economics and management stressed the analogy between skills of individuals and the organizational routines of firms. We survey how the concept of skills has evolved into notions such as skills mismatch, skill transferability and skill distance or skill relatedness in labor economics, management, and evolutionary approaches to economics and economic geography. We find that these disciplines converged in embracing increasingly sophisticated approaches to measuring skills. Economists have expanded their approach from quantifying skills in terms of years of education to measuring them more directly, using skill tests, self-reported skills and job tasks, or skills and job tasks reported by occupational experts. Others have turned to administrative and other large-scale data sets to infer skill similarities and complementarities from the careers of sometimes millions of workers. Finally, a growing literature on team human capital and skill complementarities has started thinking of skills as features of collectives, instead of only of individuals. At the same time, scholars in corporate strategy have studied the micro-determinants of team formation. Combined, the developments in both strands of research may pave the way to an understanding of how individual-level skills connect to firm-level routines.
Kasoolu, S., et al., 2019. Female Labor in Jordan: A Systematic Approach to the Exclusion Puzzle.Abstract

Women in Jordan are excluded from labor market opportunities at among the highest rates in the world. Previous efforts to explain this outcome have focused on specific, isolated aspects of the problem and have not exploited available datasets to test across causal explanations. We develop a comprehensive framework to analyze the drivers of low female employment rates in Jordan and systematically test their validity, using micro-level data from Employment and Unemployment Surveys (2008-2018) and the Jordanian Labor Market Panel Survey (2010-2016). We find that the nature of low female inclusion in Jordan’s labor market varies significantly with educational attainment, and identify evidence for different factors affecting different educational groups. Among women with high school education or less, we observe extremely low participation levels and find the strongest evidence for this phenomenon tracing to traditional social norms and poor public transportation. On the higher end of the education spectrum – university graduates and above – we find that the problem is not one of participation, but rather of unemployment, which we attribute to a small and undiversified private sector that is unable to accommodate women’s needs for work and work-family balance.

Listen to a podcast interview with author Semiray Kasoolu about her research on women and labor force exclusion in Jordan

Hausmann, R., et al., 2019. Jordan: The Elements of a Growth Strategy.Abstract

In the decade 1999-2009, Jordan experienced an impressive growth acceleration, tripling its exports and increasing income per capita by 38%. Since then, a number of external shocks that include the Global Financial Crisis (2008-2009), the Arab Spring (2011), the Syrian Civil War (2011), and the emergence of the Islamic State (2014) have affected Jordan in significant ways and thrown its economy out of balance. Jordan’s debt-to-GDP ratio has ballooned from 55% (2009) to 94% (2018). The economy has continued to grow amidst massive fiscal adjustment and balance of payments constraints, but the large increase in population – by 50% between 2008 and 2017 – driven by massive waves of refugees has resulted in a 12% cumulative loss in income per capita (2010-2017). Moving forward, debt sustainability will require not only continued fiscal consolidation but also faster growth and international support to keep interest payments on the debt contained. We have developed an innovative framework to align Jordan’s growth strategy with its changing factor endowments. The framework incorporates service industries into an Economic Complexity analysis, utilizing the Dun and Bradstreet database, together with an evaluation of the evolution of Jordan’s comparative advantages over time. Combining several tools to identify critical constraints faced by sectors with the greatest potential, we have produced a roadmap with key elements of a strategy for Jordan to return to faster, more sustainable and more inclusive growth that is consistent with its emerging comparative advantages.


The workforce of pioneer plants: The role of worker mobility in the diffusion of industries
Hausmann, R. & Neffke, F., 2018. The workforce of pioneer plants: The role of worker mobility in the diffusion of industries. Research Policy. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Does technology require labour mobility to diffuse? To explore this, we use German social-security data and ask how plants that pioneer an industry in a location – and for which the local labour market offers no experienced workers – assemble their workforces. These pioneers use different recruiting strategies than plants elsewhere: they hire more workers from outside their industry and from outside their region, especially when workers come from closely related industries or are highly skilled. The importance of access to experienced workers is highlighted in the diffusion of industries from western Germany to the post-reunification economy of eastern German. While manufacturing employment declined in most advanced economies, eastern German regions managed to reindustrialise. The pioneers involved in this process relied heavily on expertise from western Germany: while establishing new manufacturing industries in the East, they sourced half of their experienced workers from the West.

Originally published as CID Working Paper 310
Nedelkoska, L., Diodato, D. & Neffke, F., 2018. Is Our Human Capital General Enough to Withstand the Current Wave of Technological Change?.Abstract

The degree to which modern technologies are able to substitute for groups of job tasks has renewed fears of near-future technological unemployment. We argue that our knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) go beyond the specific tasks we do at the job, making us potentially more adaptable to technological change than feared. The disruptiveness of new technologies depends on the relationships between the job tasks susceptible to automation and our KSA. Here we first demonstrate that KSA are general human capital features while job tasks are not, suggesting that human capital is more transferrable across occupations than what job tasks would predict. In spite of this, we document a worrying pattern where automation is not randomly distributed across the KSA space – it is concentrated among occupations that share similar KSA. As a result, workers in these occupations are making longer skill transitions when changing occupations and have higher probability of unemployment.

Hausmann, R., 2018. Accessing Knowhow for Development.Abstract

Economies grow by adding new products and services to their production portfolio, not by producing more of the same kinds of products. The key to such diversification is access to know-how, but know-how often has to come from abroad. This is because it is often easier to move brains to new countries than to move new know-how into brains. In the experience of Singapore, India, Vietnam and most other dynamic economies, three channels of know-how transfer stand out: FDI, immigration and diaspora networks.

In this lecture, Professor Hausmann explores the relationship between economic development and the accumulation of know-how. In particular, he discusses how to tackle Sri Lanka’s limited export diversification.

Video - Acessing Know-how for Growth in Sri Lanka

Video - Full Q&A on Sri Lanka's export diversification