The H. Gregg Lewis prize for the best paper published in the Journal of Labor Economics during 2008-2009 has been awarded to Maxim Poletaev and Chris Robinson for their article “Human Capital Specificity: Evidence from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and Displaced Worker Surveys, 1984-2000,” which appeared in the July 2008 issue of the Journal.

The Prize Committee consisted of Steven Haider (chair), Enrico Moretti, and Fabian Lange, the previous Lewis prize winner.  The committee selected Poletaev’s and Robinson’s article from an impressive group of articles that were published during this two-year period because of its important contribution to a key area of labor economics: human capital specificity.

Becker’s initial discussion of human capital emphasized the dichotomy between firm-specific and general human capital because each type has very different incentives for investment behavior.  Since Becker’s seminal work, a variety of studies have attempted to establish empirically the specificity of human capital, as well as have linked its specificity to changes in wages for workers who change jobs.  More recent empirical work has further examined whether human capital might be specific to industries and occupations.

Poletaev’s and Robinson’s article represents an important contribution to this literature by linking empirically the specificity of human capital to skill.  In particular, the article uses information on skill content from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles to construct a multi-dimensional skill portfolio for each job title.  Combining these skill measures with the Displaced Worker Survey, they then show that changes in skill portfolio are a better predictor of wage changes for displaced workers than is changes in occupation or industry.  Thus, their analysis provides a compelling empirical basis for considering intermediate cases of human capital specificity by linking specificity back to a fundamental determinant of wages—skill.  This insightful and careful article is likely to influence students and researchers for years to come.


Maxim Poletaev (seated, third from left) at a reception honoring his receipt of the award. Co-author Chris Robinson is behind him, standing sixth from the right.

Below: Maxim Poletaev and his father Vasily Poletaev.