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Employer Learning, Productivity and the Earnings Distribution: Evidence from Performance Measures

Author

Listed:
  • Kahn, Lisa B.

    () (Yale University)

  • Lange, Fabian

    () (McGill University)

Abstract

Two ubiquitous empirical regularities in pay distributions are that the variance of wages increases with experience, and innovations in wage residuals have a large, unpredictable component. The leading explanations for these patterns are that over time, either firms learn about worker productivity but productivity remains fixed or workers' productivities themselves evolve heterogeneously. In this paper, we seek to disentangle these two models and place magnitudes on their relative importance. We derive a dynamic model of learning and productivity that nests both models and allows them to coexist. We estimate our model on a 20-year panel of pay and performance measures from a single, large firm (the Baker-Gibbs-Holmstrom data). Incorporating performance measures yields two key innovations. First, the panel structure implies that we have repeat measures of correlates of productivity, as opposed to the empirical evidence on employer learning which uses one fixed measure. Second, we can separate productivity from pay, whereas the previous literature on productivity evolution could not. We find that both models are important in explaining the data. However, the predominant effect is that worker productivity evolves idiosyncratically over time, implying firms must continuously learn about a moving target. Therefore, while the majority of pay dispersion is driven by variation in individual productivity, wages differ significantly from individual productivity at all experience levels due to imperfect information. We believe this represents a significant reinterpretation of the empirical literature on employer learning.

Suggested Citation

  • Kahn, Lisa B. & Lange, Fabian, 2010. "Employer Learning, Productivity and the Earnings Distribution: Evidence from Performance Measures," IZA Discussion Papers 5054, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
  • Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp5054
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Kahn, Lisa B., 2010. "The long-term labor market consequences of graduating from college in a bad economy," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(2), pages 303-316, April.
    2. James L. Medoff & Katharine G. Abraham, 1981. "Are Those Paid More Really More Productive? The Case of Experience," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 16(2), pages 186-216.
    3. Robert Gibbons & Michael Waldman, 2006. "Enriching a Theory of Wage and Promotion Dynamics inside Firms," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(1), pages 59-108, January.
    4. Peter Arcidiacono & Patrick Bayer & Aurel Hizmo, 2010. "Beyond Signaling and Human Capital: Education and the Revelation of Ability," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 2(4), pages 76-104, October.
    5. MaCurdy, Thomas E., 1982. "The use of time series processes to model the error structure of earnings in a longitudinal data analysis," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 18(1), pages 83-114, January.
    6. Lisa B. Kahn, 2013. "Asymmetric Information between Employers," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 5(4), pages 165-205, October.
    7. Baker, Michael, 1997. "Growth-Rate Heterogeneity and the Covariance Structure of Life-Cycle Earnings," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 15(2), pages 338-375, April.
    8. Jed DeVaro & Michael Waldman, 2012. "The Signaling Role of Promotions: Further Theory and Empirical Evidence," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 30(1), pages 91-147.
    9. James L. Medoff & Katharine G. Abraham, 1980. "Experience, Performance, and Earnings," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 95(4), pages 703-736.
    10. Fabian Lange, 2007. "The Speed of Employer Learning," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 25, pages 1-35.
    11. Robert Gibbons & Michael Waldman, 1999. "A Theory of Wage and Promotion Dynamics Inside Firms," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 114(4), pages 1321-1358.
    12. Brian A. Jacob & Lars Lefgren, 2008. "Can Principals Identify Effective Teachers? Evidence on Subjective Performance Evaluation in Education," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 26, pages 101-136.
    13. Beaudry, Paul & DiNardo, John, 1991. "The Effect of Implicit Contracts on the Movement of Wages over the Business Cycle: Evidence from Micro Data," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 99(4), pages 665-688, August.
    14. George Baker & Michael Gibbs & Bengt Holmstrom, 1994. "The Internal Economics of the Firm: Evidence from Personnel Data," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 109(4), pages 881-919.
    15. Michael Gibbs & Wallace Hendricks, 2004. "Do Formal Salary Systems Really Matter?," ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 58(1), pages 71-93, October.
    16. Abowd, John M & Card, David, 1989. "On the Covariance Structure of Earnings and Hours Changes," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 57(2), pages 411-445, March.
    17. Gibbs, Michael, 1995. "Incentive compensation in a corporate hierarchy," Journal of Accounting and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 19(2-3), pages 247-277, April.
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    More about this item

    Keywords

    performance evaluations; productivity; employer learning; personnel;

    JEL classification:

    • D21 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Firm Behavior: Theory
    • D83 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Search; Learning; Information and Knowledge; Communication; Belief; Unawareness
    • J24 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Human Capital; Skills; Occupational Choice; Labor Productivity
    • J33 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Compensation Packages; Payment Methods

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