Job Search and the Laws of Wing-Walking
By Bryan Caplan
When people examine the job market, they usually see vast inequality of bargaining power. The job-seeker needs money to live; the employer, in contrast, faces only a minor inconvenience if a position remains vacant.
On reflection, this is oversimplified. Some applicants – spouses of full-time workers, children of comfortable parents, older workers with comfortable nest-eggs – are quite secure even if they remain unemployed. Some employers – small business owners, marginal managers, anyone with tight deadlines for major contracts – are sweating bullets. But it’s hard to entirely dismiss the normal view. If workers in search of a job really feel like, “I can take it or leave it,” why do so many applicants rush to accept their first offer?
Career counselors often criticize such workers for their lack of nerve: You should have bargained harder! But this seems foolhardy to me. Instead, I’d advise nervous workers to heed the First Law of Wing-Walking: Never let hold of what you’ve got until you’ve got hold of something else.
In practical terms: Happily settle for your first tolerable job offer… but only temporarily. Once you’re secure in your new position, at least keep your eyes open for a better opportunity. Something’s bound to come along eventually – and when it does, you can bargain with confidence.
Better yet, virtually any job yields valuable experience and career connections. As a result, you have more than happenstance on your side. Month after month, year after year, the odds tilt more and more in your favor – especially if you strive to impress your whole social network with your professionalism.
In theory, admittedly, employers could solve this problem by offering binding long-run employment contracts: “You’re desperate? Great; sign this forty-year contract.” But few employers try, and even fewer succeed. Long-term labor contracts are too damn hard to enforce.
If the First Law of Wing-Walking works so well, why do so many employees feel trapped in dead-end jobs? The most obvious explanation, of course, is that they’re not under-paid; their low productivity justifies their low wages.
This story is greatly under-rated, but I doubt it’s the full explanation. There are plenty of good workers who toil in obscurity. Could they refrain from job search for fear that their current employer will find out and retaliate? It’s logically possible, but I’ve never heard of such a thing actually happening. Monitoring is too hard, and firing seasoned workers to deter others from leaving is very costly.
Why then do some good workers have such bad jobs? Probably because they ignore the Second Law of Wing-Walking*: Once you’ve got something better within your grasp, grab it and move forward. Good workers get stuck in bad jobs because they’re too complacent to search for a better job, or even keep their eyes open for greener pastures. The job market is a cornucopia of opportunity. But like God, it helps those who help themselves.
* Since nothing currently googles for “Second Law of Wing-Walking,” I call dibs.