May 2013

International Labor Comparisons: BLS Spotlight on Statistics

Audio Script

With international trade at an all-time high, global markets are the new normal for U.S. companies and residents. In 2012, total volume of imports and exports in the United States was nearly $5 trillion—the largest in the world. U.S. international competitiveness can be assessed by comparing key economic measures across countries. These measures include gross domestic product, unemployment rates, compensation costs, labor productivity rates, and consumer prices. In this Spotlight on Statistics, we compare these and other measures across countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia and the South Pacific to get a glimpse of how individual economies have performed in recent years and historically.

Here are some facts about international comparisons:

  • Generally since 1970, overall productivity and wealth have tended to grow together for all countries studied.
  • Although unemployment rates in the countries compared generally remained higher in 2011 than they were in 2008, most countries experienced some recovery in unemployment in 2011. Unemployment rates fell or stayed the same from 2010 to 2011 in all countries compared except Spain and the United Kingdom.
  • The percentage of the working age population employed has remained between 50 and 65 percent in most countries covered over the past 40 years, but the share of the working age population employed in each sector has shifted over time. The share employed in agriculture dropped by more than half in all countries studied except the Netherlands. The share employed in manufacturing, mining, and construction fell in all countries studied except the Republic of Korea. In contrast, the share of the working age population employed in services increased in all countries studied, and by 2011, the share was nearly 40 percent or above in all countries except Italy.
  • Labor force participation rates are higher for men than women in all countries compared, but relatively fewer women are working or actively seeking work in Turkey and Mexico. On the other end of the spectrum, men and women are much more evenly engaged in the labor force in Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.
  • Compared to the United States, countries with higher average hourly compensation costs in manufacturing were primarily in northern and western Europe. Countries with lower average hourly compensation costs were primarily in southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
  • Increases in labor productivity are approximately equal to the difference between the growth of output and the growth of hours worked. From 2000 to 2011, manufacturing output has outpaced hours in all countries compared, resulting in increasing productivity. The largest productivity gains were in the Czech Republic, Taiwan, and the Republic of Korea. Manufacturing productivity also increased in the United Kingdom, Spain, and Denmark despite declining output because hours worked declined even more.
  • Since 1970, manufacturing labor productivity has outpaced real hourly compensation in the United States. Although the productivity-compensation gap in the U.S. is the largest among the countries compared, all other countries studied except Norway also show a gap.
  • From 2007 to 2011, inflation averaged between 1.5 and 2.5 percent in all but four countries compared. Consumer prices increased at a somewhat faster rate in the United Kingdom and Belgium and slower in Switzerland. Japan was the only country where consumer prices declined since 2007.

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