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Survey Shows Wage Growth Slowing in 2018

Posted by Russ Sullivan on Dec 4, 2017 8:00:00 AM

It seems that Massachusetts employers embody all the ambivalence and contradictions that have marked the longest economic recovery since the Second World War.

Image.jpgOn the one hand, the 205 employers who participated in the 2018 AIM HR Practices Survey predict lower salary increases, less hiring, and higher health-care costs for 2018 than this year.

On the other hand, employer confidence in the state economy stands at a 13-year high, the state economy grew at a brisk 5.9 percent pace in the third quarter and unemployment throughout the commonwealth has dropped to 3.7 percent.

The year 2018 promises to be an interesting one.

Participants in the AIM survey project a 2.66 percent increase in salaries in 2018, down from a 2.75 percent increase in 2017. Non-manufacturing companies are fueling the overall decrease, with an expected increase of just 2.43 percent. Manufacturing companies held steady at 2.70 percent, slightly down from the 2.71percent increase within this sector in 2017.

Survey participants also project a decrease in recruitment activity in 2018. Last year, 44 percent of participants projected that recruitment activity would increase over the previous year. This year, only 33 percent of participants project an increase in recruitment activity.

These lower projections for salary budgets and recruitment activity come at a time of increased confidence in the economy, as measured by AIM’s Business Confidence Index. In October 2017, the index reached 62.7, its highest level in 2017 and an increase of 6.5 points since the October 2016 recording of 56.2.

“The acceleration of the Massachusetts economy in the third quarter provided additional fuel to an already solid sense of confidence among employers as we head for 2018,” said Raymond G. Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors and a lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Health-care costs continue to rise for Massachusetts employers. Survey participants report increases in the annual renewal rates for health plans. The average annual premium increase is 7.84 percent, with higher percentage increases reported for HMOs and consumer-driven health plans. Average premium increases in 2016 were 6.1 percent.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services indicate that Massachusetts, at 30 percent above the national average, is the second highest spending state for health care. Per-capita personal health-care spending in Massachusetts increased more than 12 percent in five years—from $9,417 in 2009 to $10,559 in 2014.

In response to the escalation of health-care costs, more employers (42 percent) are limiting the number of health-plan options available to employees to just one.

In addition, more employers are offering high-deductible health plans. For the second year in a row, there has been a 33 percent increase in the number of companies that provide high-deductible health plans as the only health plan option for employees. Although only 16 percent of all survey participants offer a high-deductible health plan as the only plan option, these employers represent 38 percent of participants that offer only one plan.

Massachusetts employers will have an additional health-care cost come 2018. Companies will pay an additional $180 million over two years as part of an assessment designed to close a budget deficit with the state Masshealth program for low-income people. Companies with employees currently using MassHealth will shoulder the bulk of the new assessment.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts legislature is currently developing legislation that Beacon Hill leaders say will address the overall cost of health care.

Survey participants also commented on their preparations for compliance with the Massachusetts Pay Equity Act. This law, which takes effect on July 1, 2018, creates a potential liability for employers who pay different rates to men and women who perform comparable work. Employers who perform a self-evaluation to identify and remove gender-based pay inequities can maintain an affirmative defense to employee claims under the act. However, successfully performing a self-evaluation requires an investment in time and resources to build a compliant compensation process.

Despite the impending July 1, 2018 deadline for completing a self-evaluation and implementing remedial actions to secure the affirmative defense, only 19 percent of survey respondents state that they have completed the self-evaluation. Even fewer participants (12 percent) state that they have taken remedial actions.

Completing self-evaluations may be further complicated by a lack of pay-equity-compliant job descriptions. Fifty-seven percent of participants state that their job descriptions are either out of date or nonexistent. An additional 8 percent state that while they have updated their job descriptions for pay equity compliance, they do not have job descriptions for all positions.

The act also affects employee recruitment through its prohibition on asking applicants to disclose their current salary or their salary history. While employers acknowledge that this fundamentally changes the recruitment process, 17 percent of participants state that they do not currently have a plan to comply with this requirement, and another 38 percent plan to wait until July to remove requests for salary information from their applications.

Survey participants see a strong 2018 for their companies, with 82 percent rating their business conditions as either excellent or good. Addressing pay equity, employee recruitment, limited salary budgets, and increased health-care costs will stretch the capacity of most HR departments as they try to stay ahead of the economic recovery. Employers are encouraged to integrate their compensation, benefits, and recruitment strategies into a pay-equity-compliant value proposition that establishes them as an employer of choice in 2018 and beyond.

Topics: Compensation, Human Resources, wages

Employers Plan Modest Wage Growth, Despite Pressures

Posted by Russ Sullivan on Jun 20, 2016 7:34:03 AM

An acute shortage of skilled workers, a state economy near full employment and an increase in the minimum wage all spell accelerating wage increases for 2016, right?

Well, not exactly.

Wages2016.jpgThe persistent and curious disconnect between the tight labor market and wage increases will continue this year, according to the results of the 2016 Associated Industries of Massachusetts General Wage Survey. The study indicates that employers plan to increase wages by a modest 2.78 percent, more than last year’s 2.69 percent, but still less than the 2.9 percent budgeted by employers before the financial crisis of 2008.

The AIM results mirror national and global projections that wages will increase an average of 3 percent this year. The slow pace of wage increases appears to defy conventional economic theory that wages rise as the number of people looking for work falls – a process called the erosion of “spare capacity,” which ensures that all those who want to work do so, and leaving as few resources unemployed as possible.

Baffled economists have attributed the wage-recovery disconnect to everything from the rapid growth of low-wage positions to outsourcing to historically low rates of labor-force participation. But few of those factors pertain to the AIM survey results, which are heavily tilted toward higher-wage manufacturing companies that are particularly challenged by the shortage of qualified production workers.

Current economic conditions only deepen the mystery.

Massachusetts approached full-employment levels this spring as the state jobless rate dropped to 4.2 percent. The AIM Business Confidence Index rose to a 10-month high during May and has remained in positive territory since October 2013.

“The good news is that the Massachusetts and US economies have proven remarkably resilient in the face of weak growth globally that unsettled financial markets at the beginning of the year,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

So, how to explain a projected 2.78 percent average wage increase?

Start with the fact that many employers remain cautious about increasing wages or expanding amid what has become a wildly inconsistent economy. Just when the nation appears to be building momentum in terms of output and financial performance, the pace of job growth dropped to its lowest level in May since 2010.

Inconsistencies also infuse the Massachusetts growth picture. The shortage of software professionals, scientists and engineers that has prompted some companies to pay five-figure referral bonuses in the white-hot Greater Boston region becomes far less acute in Gateway Cities and in other regions outside the Route 128 technology belt.

Consider as well the relentless development of technology that allows companies to automate products, operations and services. Massachusetts manufacturers now turn out far more product with far fewer people than they did 25 years ago, changing the demand equation from finding large numbers of people to finding smaller numbers of more qualified people.

The lingering question is whether employers will be able to hold to their modest wage-increase budgets in the face of all the upward pressure on compensation. The employers who participate in the AIM General Wage Survey are generally cold-eyed and realistic about their wage plans, but experts believe the tight labor market may force them to raise their projections to attract and retain key performers.

In the meantime, employers are considering multiple strategies to manage compensation costs:

  • Target variable and incentive pay to reward top performers so the company provides incentive without incurring pyramiding year-over-year increases to base wages.
  • Differentiate between top and low performers with a broader range of merit increases, enabling employers to spread their merit dollars further, though at the risk of turnover in a tight market.
  • Budget for adjustment, promotional or emergency wage increases in addition to the planned merit budget, allowing the flexibility to respond to compliance and market pressures, but at the expense of operating costs.

Here are details about some of the factors influencing wages in Massachusetts:

Massachusetts Minimum Wage

The minimum wage increased from $9 to $10 per hour, effective January 1, 2016.  It will increase again on January 1, 2017 to $11.  These increases will strain the year-over-year salary budgets of many employers in two ways.  First, employers with employees at the minimum wage will experience a 22 percent increase to labor costs in those positions. Second, as wages for minimum-wage earners increase, employees in positions currently compensated in the $11-$15 range will be seeking above- average increases to maintain their differential to minimum wage.  Employers will be hard pressed to meet these needs within a 3 percent increase budget.

“Tough to Fill” Positions

Many Massachusetts employers have expressed concern about the shortage of potential employees possessing the necessary skills needed in an increasingly complex economy.  Filling these positions will result in newer employees entering the work force at wages equal to, or higher than, existing employees with more years of experience.  Employers will thus face internal pressure to dedicate additional dollars to experienced employees to maintain internal equity.  A detailed discussion of “tough to fill” positions is included in the AIM 2016 General Wage Survey summary, including listings of positions experiencing the largest annual increase from 2015 to 2016.

Managing Poor Performers

For the fourth year in a row, participants in the annual AIM General Wage Survey have identified managing low performers as their compensation priority.  The strategic handling of poor performers may provide additional budget strain as low performers exit the work force and employers seek to replace them in a tight employment market.  Strategies for effectively managing performance are discussed in more detail within the AIM 2016 General Wage Survey summary.

Employers will need to choose wisely and set priorities for targeted employee groups.  Treating 3 percent as a hard cap on wage escalation might not be the best option for 2016.

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Topics: AIM General Wage Survey, Compensation, wages

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