From my colleague Mike Caputo:
Numbers this month show that the U.S. economy is more productive. But what's the toll of that productivity?
Stephanie Massey of Mound has some idea. Her husband, who works for a large financial institution, came back from vacation earlier this year to find about half of the employees in his unit had been let go. For those who remain, the mounting stress has triggered a certain survival instinct.
"He says they are all working scared," says Massey. "They are hyper-focused but there are still mistakes being made. No one is watching anyone else's back."
A nurse in our Public Insight Network tells a similar story. She works at a large county hospital where all of the LPNs in her unit, several social workers and other ancillary hospital staffers have been laid off. The higher nurse-to-patient ratios combined with the overnight hours is taking such a toll on her personal and family life that she's looking for other work.
"Even though this is a difficult time to be looking for a job and there's every reason for those with a job to stay put, I just don't believe I can tolerate my current work schedule for much longer," she says.
Such burnout is becoming common. A recent study of 4,400 U.S. workers found nearly half of them are absorbing more responsibility and stress after a company layoff. Thirty-seven percent said they are handling the work of two people. Thirty percent feel burned out.
Now for the upside: the cost-cutting that is causing workers so much anxiety has made economists more optimistic about a recovery.
This month a measure of worker productivity by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics - one that looks at worker output versus cost - rose at a larger-than-expected rate. The reason: Companies moved fast to cut jobs and their expenses. Essentially they are getting more with less.
There are no state-by-state breakdowns of the productivity measurement. But using indirect measures, such a rising per capita income, points to Minnesota making similar productivity gains, says Toby Madden, economist with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve.
Madden explains that economists view productivity as a key to economic performance. He says that during this downturn, companies are learning to work smarter, incorporating technology. And when businesses must cut back on jobs, they are improving productivity through subtraction.
"If you lose the more marginally productive people in a workforce, that alone can improve productivity," Madden says. That, of course, assumes that companies cut on the basis of productivity, which is not always the case.
While the news might be good on a macro level, Madden says that labor cuts create upheaval for some in the short term. And for people caught in the middle of that, like Stephanie's husband, they can be stuck having to do more without getting more income in return.
"There's lots of turmoil out there," Madden said. "On the average you will see a little bit of growth, but that doesn't mean everybody is better off."
Check that. Massey says her husband's Minnesota office will close soon and his job will be moved to Chicago at the end of the year. He could go, but there are no company benefits to absorb the probable loss of selling their home in Mound.
He job hunts online after midnight, after working 12 to 16 hours a day in an increasingly difficult work environment.
"It's the workload. It's the hostility of the workers who are scared," Massey says. "I just hope (the economy) starts cooking before we are cooked."
Public Insight Editor Andrew Haeg files a post on the trip that has been this summer vacation season.
Just like everyone, we here at MinnEcon are loathe to admit that the summer's coming to a close. But, when State Fair chatter ramps up you can no longer deny it.
So we thought it a good time to see how the state's vacation economy has been faring over the summer. The prediction back in April from Explore Minnesota Tourism and from MinnEcon's (now vacationing) Paul Tosto was that area businesses could benefit as more Minnesotans stuck around and took resort or canoe trips in their home state.
We just got a note from Public Insight Network member Belle Scott of Minneapolis telling us business is booming at her daughter's resort on the Canadian border, and that she'd just returned from Door County where things were likewise bustling.
Scott's anecdotal take is rosier than the emerging picture of the state's summer tourism economy, which is mixed at best. "You show me one area of the state that's doing well and I'll show you one that's not," says John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism.
Results of their formal member survey are due out mid-next week. Edman says he's hearing that campsites, festivals and county fairs are doing well this year. "You're seeing a lot of people discover things in their own backyards and neighborhoods," he says. What's not doing well are big resorts, Twin Cities hotels and facilities that depend on conventions or big groups. He's heard many reports of families making rare last-minute resort reservations, and even talk of widespread haggling (e.g. "Come on, you can do better than that!"), which he says almost never happens.
In general, Edman says cheap, simple and close-to-home are the themes of this summer. One of the beneficiaries of this confluence of trends is Public Insight Network source Sue Ahrendt, who (along with her husband) runs Tuscarora Canoe, a Boundary Waters-area outfitter based in Grand Marais. She's also behind a new project called Becoming a Boundary Waters Family, which is designed to bring more young families to the Boundary Waters. She's not sure whether to credit the strong summer to that initiative, to the recession encouraging more families to take cheaper, simpler vacations, or to the increasing awareness of "nature-deficit disorder" as highlighted in the popular book "Last Child in the Woods." All Ahrendt knows is that she's never seen so many young families paddling into the wilderness.
Ahrendt charges a family of four anywhere from $300 to $800 for a three-day canoe trip (depending on how much gear they need). It's easier and cheaper than heading to Lake Wallenpaupack or enduring 1,500 miles of squabbling, DVDs and road games to get to Disney World.
That, at least, is the notion that gets families excited when Ahrendt pitches at sports shows. But, Ahrendt says, something even better happens in the woods. One family of four emerged after a rain-soaked, buggy weekend spent mainly in their tent. Ahrendt feared they'd had a rough time of it. The kids went off and got some ice cream and, when they came back, looked up at their father and said, "Daddy, we never knew you could laugh so hard."
We'd love to hear your stories about how the summer vacation went. Did you haggle? Were crowds bigger or smaller than normal? Did you discover something new in your own backyard?