Yuki Noguci

National Public Radio economics correspondent Yuki Noguci speaks with WKMS Station Manager Chad Lampe during a discussion at Murray State University's Wrather Auditorium Thursday evening. Noguci discussed a wide range of issues, including tarrifs and how the nation's opioid crisis had affected employment.

MURRAY – For someone who didn’t come into journalism caring much about business, National Public Radio Business Desk correspondent Yuki Noguci has made a career out of bringing a human interest angle to the economic issues she covers every day.

Noguci was invited to speak at Murray State University’s Wrather Auditorium Thursday night for a public lecture hosted by NPR affiliate WKMS and the university’s Town & Gown Partnership. It was the third year in a row WKMS had hosted an NPR correspondent on campus, and the station has also used the events as an opportunity to encourage donations to support its student journalists.

Station Manager Chad Lampe sat with Noguci onstage and asked a combination of questions composed by himself and submitted ahead of the event by WKMS listeners. According to her bio on NPR’s website, Noguci started her career as a reporter, then an editor, for The Washington Post, reporting on stories mostly about business and technology.

“I’m the mother of two boys, 8 and 9, and I’ve been living in D.C. for about 20 years covering business, actually my entire career. That surprises me a lot, actually, because I’m not that interested in business,” she said, eliciting gales of laughter from the audience. “But here I am and it’s great to be here.”

Asked to describe a typical day at NPR, Noguci said she didn’t know if there was such a thing. She said Twitter has changed the rhythm of the newsroom, especially during the first few months of the Trump Administration when every reporter seemed to constantly be on alert for who would have to cover the president’s tweets each day. 

“I think now, it’s sort of settling back to what it was before, which is that we try to figure out what has happened overnight in other countries that might be relevant that we’re going to cover,” she said. “A lot of the morning is about reading and trying to figure out how we’re going to cover what’s going on. What’s of interest and what’s our approach? 

“For me personally, I usually have a stable of stories I’m working on – long-term projects, medium-term projects and shorter-term, what we call ‘dailys,’ that might be just on deadline. So the day can vary. Sometimes I’ve gotten stories at at 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon for air at 4.”

“That’s not a good day,” she added wryly.

Noguci talked about covering the current job market, including a story she did in 2016 about the longterm trend of men leaving the workforce. She said that although the rate seems to be on an upward trajectory right now, the rate has been steadily dropping over time from a peak of about 98% to around 90%. As with many economic trends, economists can study the numbers but are hard-pressed to definitely say why this is happening, she said.

Noguci said that although the U.S. economy has been adding jobs for years since the end of the Great Recession, wage growth has only really picked up in roughly the last year. She said that even when the economy is doing very well, most employers are loathe to increase salaries and try to entice prospective employees with benefits and flexibility instead.

“What’s also interesting is that it doesn’t feel like (the economic boom of around) 2000,” she said. “There is a lot of worker discontent; in this country, we have a binary system where you’re an employee or you’re a contractor, and there are a lot of people who would like to have the rights and benefits of an employee but who have to work in contracting because that’s the best job they can get.

“It’s an interesting economy because I think the labor market is very tight and wages are increasing, but at the same time, you have workers who don’t feel particularly enfranchised in the process. So that disconnect is what I think is interesting about full employment today.”

Noguci said some economists believe that more than half of U.S. workers will be contract workers 10 years from now, which is huge change compared to what we’ve been traditionally used to. She said some large cities have begun to look at what to do about portable benefits because U.S. workers have mostly relied on their employers since at least the 1950s for things like health insurance and disability insurance.

“If that’s not the underlying economic system anymore, what’s going to replace it?” she asked. “The Affordable Care Act is a significant portable benefit for a lot of contractors, but it’s not necessarily affordable. So these are the kinds of questions that I try to focus on because these are tectonic shifts that are happening in our economy that are really affecting a lot of people, but it’s not necessarily something that everyone is talking about as news. But it’s something that’s under the surface really affecting a lot of things.”

Of course, the Trump Administration’s tariffs on multiple foreign imports is a topic Noguci has covered a great deal lately, and she talked about a Detroit bicycle maker she interviewed for a personal angle on one story. She said tariffs are hard to understand for most people, so she thought the entrepreneur’s story was a good illustration of how they can affect businesses. Since he builds his bikes with parts from China, he would be forced to pay more for materials, but he also stood to potentially gain from an increased demand for American-made bikes, she said.

The thing about the current tariffs that businesses are nervous about is the lack of certainty, Noguci said.

“It’s kind of a game that I think businesses have to play of how long do they think these tariffs are going to be in effect,” she said. “Does it make more sense to buy at current prices and then hold that inventory, which is also an expense? So it’s just a very complicated thing for a business to manage, and there are lots of moving parts.

“Usually, tariffs are a thing you can plan for months in advance. Our current trade policy is one that is changing daily. So the thing that I hear the most from businesses – whether it’s a pipe manufacturer or a clothing maker – every single business just wants certainty. They just want to be able to plan. Even if it’s not a policy they want, the thing that they most want is to be able to plan because they need to know, ‘How much should I order, when should I order and what makes sense? Do I change my supply chain to work around these tariffs?’ They can’t do any of that.”

Noguci also discussed how the #MeToo movement is playing out in workplaces, as well as how the opioid epidemic has hurt businesses and families of addicts. 

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