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A slew of reports finds a fresh reason for the chronic inability of American companies to fill skilled jobs: not a lack of skills, and hence a training-and-education crisis, but a surfeit of drug abuse, per the NYT's Nelson Schwartz. Simply put, prime-working age Americans without a college diploma are often too drugged-out to get the best jobs. Opioids remain at high levels, but the surge in drug use is now heroin and the powerful contaminant fentanyl.

The reports suggest a circularity to the crisis in America's rust and manufacturing belts: the loss of jobs and wage stagnation has led to widespread disaffection, alienation and drug abuse; and drug abuse has led to joblessness, hopelessness and disaffection.

Expand chart
Data: Jed Kolko / Indeed, CPS data; Chart: Chris Canipe / Axios

But the numbers are all over the map. Some employers and economists say up to half of job applicants do not clear drug tests; others say it is 25%. In the chart above, Indeed economist Jed Kolko, using data from the U.S. Current Population Survey, found that 5.6% to 5.7% of working-age adults didn't work last year because of illness or disability, an unknown percentage of which were because of drug use.

What was evident, Kolko told Axios: A "clear, steady upward trend in illness/disability as reason for not working among prime-age adults. And even more striking, the level and trend are very similar for men and women, even though most of the attention on this issue is going to men."

But the anecdotal and economic evidence is compelling.

  • LinkedIn's Chip Cutter found a West Virginia company where "up to half of applicants either fail or refuse to take mandatory pre-employment drug screens." The executive of another company called the drugs epidemic "probably the biggest threat in manufacturing, period."
  • "In Congressional testimony earlier this month," Cutter writes, "Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen related opioid use to a decline in the labor participation rate. The past three Fed surveys on the economy, known as the Beige Book, explicitly mentioned employers' struggles in finding applicants to pass drug tests as a barrier to hiring."

One hopeful note: In a note to clients on July 5, Goldman Sachs's Jan Hatzius said a hard look does not show that the current unemployed are in fact permanently unemployed. "We see little basis for writing off the remaining pool of unemployed, whose rate of drug use has not risen nearly as much as one might think from the surge in drug deaths," the note said.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus cases rose 10% in the week before Thanksgiving.
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions.
  3. World: Expert says COVID vaccine likely won't be available in Africa until Q2 of 2021 — Europeans extend lockdowns.
  4. Economy: The winners and losers of the COVID holiday season.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.
4 hours ago - Health

Standardized testing becomes another pandemic victim

Photo: Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post via Getty

National standardized reading and math tests have been pushed from next year to 2022, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) announced Wednesday.

Why it matters: There’s mounting national evidence that students are suffering major setbacks this year, with a surge in the number of failing grades.

4 hours ago - World

European countries extend lockdowns

A medical worker takes a COVID-19 throat swab sample at the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport. Photo by Maja Hitij via Getty

Recent spikes in COVID-19 infections across Europe have led authorities to extend restrictions ahead of the holiday season.

Why it matters: "Relaxing too fast and too much is a risk for a third wave after Christmas," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

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