Parnes, Herbert

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Parnes, Herbert 1919-2006


Herbert Saul Parnes was a consummate social scientist, though his official title was professor of economics. Educated at the University of Pittsburgh (BA and MA) and Ohio State University (PhD), he spent most of his distinguished career as a labor and human resources economist at Ohio State, studying and teaching others about the experiences of people in American labor markets. His career also involved visiting professorships at Princeton and the University of Minnesota, a stint as an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) consultant in Paris, and three years at Rutgers following his retirement from Ohio State. Later, he returned to Ohio State as a National Institute on Aging grantee to continue his study of the labor market experiences of the elderly. His legacy as recounted below relates only to his substantive research, his pathbreaking contributions to the field of empirical labor market analysis, and his emphasis on a multidisciplinary focus. However, it must be noted that there are scores of economists and other social scientists to whom he was a teacher and mentor and whose own work bears witness to the significance of his scholarly contributions.

Parnes began his academic life as a political science major, and he never strayed from the idea that understanding human experiences in labor markets was valuable not only for its own sake but also for what it could contribute to the sensible formation of public policy. He was never a devotee of pure theory and recounts in his memoir, A Profs Life (2001), several instances when he undertook jobs and occupations to acquire a solid understanding of how workers really interacted with their jobs, coworkers, and employers. Although he acknowledged in the preface to PEOPLEPower: Elements of Human Resource Policy (1984) that his appreciation for the value of microeconomic theory grew during his career, he always believed that only the collection and analysis of data could provide the understanding needed to undergird policy recommendations.

The signal accomplishment of his career was initiating and overseeing the single largest labor market research project ever funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Longitudinal Surveys of Work Experience (NLS). It began in 1966 and has continued in modified forms into the twenty-first century. Literally thousands of scholarly articles, monographs, theses, and dissertations have been completed using what in the earliest years were known as the Parnes data. Parnes authored or coauthored more than fifty of those during his prolific career. Before that, he had published several significant works. In Research on Labor Mobility: An Appraisal of Research Findings in the United States, he synthesized everything known empirically to that point (1954) about worker mobility in American labor markets. He updated that synthesis a decade and half later in A Review of Industrial Relations Research (1970). His collaboration with other social scientists began early in exploring the economic, psychological, and sociological elements of a critical aspect of human decision-making in Occupational Choice: A Conceptual Framework (1956). This belief in the importance of multidisciplinary approaches carried over into the research team that he assembled at Ohio States Center for Human Resource Research to design and analyze the NLS data, which dismayed critics who believed it resulted in an underemphasis on economic theory.

Attesting to the policy importance of the NLS-based research are many studies of race and sex discrimination in labor markets, the salient factors related to the changing labor force participation of adult women, the impacts of schooling and training on the labor market success of various age-sex groups, and the correlates of changing retirement behavior among adult American men. Critical to the ability to offer policy recommendations on these and related issues is the longitudinal and detailed microeconomic character of the data that comprise the NLS. Furthermore, the collection of data on attitudes and a variety of schooling and training experiences enable testing of hypotheses about which only speculations were possible before the NLS existed. Among the attitude measures in which Parnes had profound scholarly interest were questions designed to tap into mobility as a propensity to move (by changing employers or occupations or geographic locations) as a predictor of later actual movement. This was, in part, born of his skepticism of the standard theoretical assumption that all workers are always seeking to improve their position in the marketplace and are always searching for information to enable such improvement. Though he coauthored several published studies using the data from these questions, many opportunities to exploit them exist for newer generations of social scientists, thus adding to Parness contribution to our understanding how people really behave in labor markets and what social policies might be invoked to improve their well-being and the effectiveness of the economy in allocating and utilizing scarce human resources.

SEE ALSO Economics; Economics, Labor; National Longitudinal Survey of Youth; Occupational Status; Social Science; Work


Blau, Peter, John Gustad, Richard Jessor, Herbert Parnes, and Richard Wilcock. 1956. Occupational Choice: A Conceptual Framework. Industrial and Labor Relations Review 9 (4): 531543.

Parnes, Herbert S. 1954. Research on Labor Mobility: An Appraisal of Research Findings in the United States. New York: Social Science Research Council.

Parnes, Herbert S. 1970. Labor Force Participation and Labor Mobility. In A Review of Industrial Relations Research, vol. 1, 170. Madison, WI: Industrial Relations Research Association.

Parnes, Herbert S. 1975. The National Longitudinal Surveys: New Vistas for Labor Market Research. American Economic Review 65 (2): 244249.

Parnes, Herbert S., ed. 1981. Work and Retirement: A Longitudinal Study of Men. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Parnes, Herbert S. 1984. PEOPLEPower: Elements of Human Resource Policy. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Parnes, Herbert S. 2001. A Profs Life: Its More than Teaching. San Jose, CA: Writers Showcase.

Andrew I. Kohen