Employer confidence in Massachusetts remained essentially unchanged during November as companies apparently began to bump up against a persistent shortage of qualified workers.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) lost 0.1 points off its 2017 high, to 62.6, still 4.5 points better than in November 2016. The slight decline reflected a drop in confidence among non-manufacturing companies and a year-over-year decline in the index that measures employer hiring plans.
Analysts on the AIM Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) believe that Massachusetts may be suffering from too much of a good thing – a 3.7 percent unemployment rate that threatens to derail the ability of employers to find the workers they need to grow at a time when large number of baby boomers prepare to leave the work force.
“The concern is that Massachusetts could become a victim of its own success,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
“Employers feel optimistic about the state economy, the national economy and their own growth prospects, but they worry where the computer programmers, machinists and accountants needed to fuel that growth are going to come from – and where they are going to live.”
Wage growth, however, remains muted. The AIM HR Practices Survey released yesterday shows that Massachusetts employers project average wage increases of 2.66 percent for 2018, down from 2.75 percent this year.
The AIM Business Confidence Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009.
The Index has remained above 50 since October 2013.
The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index were mixed during November.
The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the commonwealth, gained 0.1 points to 65.2, leaving it 5.4 points better than a year earlier.
The U.S. Index of national business conditions lost 0.3 points to 62.2, pausing after a yearlong rally. October marked the 92nd consecutive month in which employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than the national economy.
The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, decreased 0.2 points to 63.4 while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, edged down 0.1 points. The Current Index has risen 6.5 points and the Future Index 2.6 points during the past year.
The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, rose 0.3 points to 62.3.
The most significant operational result, however, came in the Employment Index, which lost 1.2 points and ended the month 0.8 points below its level of a year ago. Another unusual result was that manufacturing companies were more optimistic than non-manufacturing companies.
“The movement of the overall Business Confidence Index was small as the economy continued to grow and add jobs at a healthy pace. But the weakness in the Employment Index suggests that the expansion may finally be bumping into a pervasive shortage of skilled workers across multiple industries,” said Katherine A. Kiel, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, College of the Holy Cross, and a BEA member.
AIM President and CEO Richard C. Lord, also BEA member, said employers remain upbeat despite uncertainty surrounding the federal and state political landscape.
“The tax bill passed last week by the US Senate contains a significant reduction in both corporate rates and rates for pass-through businesses, two provisions that are widely popular among employers. At the same time, employers are concerned about provisions that could become problematic for Massachusetts, including limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes, and loss of the federal research-and-development credit,” Lord said.
“All this is taking place as activists continue to work to place three questions on the 2018 Massachusetts election ballot that would together impede economic growth for a generation: a surtax on incomes of more than $1 million, an expansive and bureaucratic paid family leave program and an increase in the minimum wage.”
The monthly Business Confidence Index, initiated by AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors in July 1991, is based on a survey of AIM member companies across Massachusetts, asking questions about current and prospective business conditions in the state and nation, as well as for respondents’ own operations. On the Index’s 100-point scale, a reading above 50 indicates that the state’s employer community is predominantly optimistic, while a reading below 50 points to a negative assessment of business conditions. A number of component sub-indices are derived by analyzing responses to selected questions or those of particular groups of respondents.