Do NFL Teams Draft Players Randomly?

I don’t usually need to put a spoiler alert at the top of this column, but be warned: If you plan to see the film “Draft Day” and don’t want the ending ruined for you, skip down to paragraph five.

For the rest of you, “Draft Day,” which stars Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner, struck me as a better movie than its box office numbers might indicate. In the film, a quarterback who is surefire top pick in the NFL draft does not end up getting taken first. Or second. Or third, for that matter. Once the team with the first pick decides to use it on somebody else, other teams start thinking they might have overlooked something negative about the golden boy with the golden arm. Or they began to think that maybe they just didn’t need a rookie quarterback as much as they needed help at another position.

Was there really anything wrong with the no-longer-number-one quarterback, or was it all a matter of unfair and mistaken impression? You’ll have to see the film; my spoilers don’t extend as far as telling you the final score.

Of course I am talking about fiction, film and football. For most of us, real life bears little resemblance to any of these things. But being passed over by prospective employers who, you are certain, ought to desire your services is very real and can happen to anyone.

Nearly five years of economic expansion has still left millions of Americans among the long-term unemployed. Not all of them show up in the official statistics. Some have managed to qualify for disability benefits, even though they are in pretty much the same condition as when they were working. Others have gone back to school, or they have just dropped out of the labor market. But they are out there, and the economists who are studying the causes and consequences of long-term unemployment seem to suffer from a striking lack of familiarity with the way employers go about choosing which workers to hire, which ones to keep and which to lay off.

A case in point: research cited in a recent article in The Washington Post. (1) The article and the research upon which it was based treat employment as almost a statistically random event, like the probability of snow falling on the National Mall on Christmas Day. Someone who is out of work for an extended period of time faces daunting odds of getting a new job, as economists have long understood. The newly examined data shows, however, that a worker who actually gets a new job after a long period of drafting services unemployment has a significant likelihood of losing that new job as well, typically not too long after getting it.

Bad luck? Bad skills induced by the extended period of unemployment? Bad behavior on the part of employers?

It could be any of those things. In some cases, inevitably, it will be one of them. But the article in the Post, and the economists themselves, seem to give short shrift to the idea that employment decisions are typically not random events.

In the government and some unionized private sector workplaces – a tiny share of the private sector these day