Returns to Pencil Use Revisited
Many researchers believe that the observed positive association between computer use and wages simply reflects unobserved heterogeneity: like pencils and other “whitecollar” tools, computers are assigned to employees who possess productive attributes that would attract higher wages in any event. This study evaluates that claim by identifying the mechanisms through which computers changed the wage structure in West Germany in the late 1990s. The author finds that the spread of computers—but not of pencils—shifted the task composition of occupations toward analytical and interactive tasks that are complementary to computers’ capabilities, and away from routine cognitive and manual tasks for which computers tend to substitute. Employees possessing computer-complementary skills enjoyed wage increases because computers both raised the demand for their skills and increased their marginal product.