Where Are the Workers?


Photo by Israel Andrade | Unsplash

Photo by Israel Andrade | Unsplash

As we approach Labor Day, many companies and locally owned businesses are wondering why they cannot find people to hire. There are more jobs available currently in the U.S. than there are unemployed people to fill them. So, what gives?


Many blame our current lack of labor on government handouts. Unemployment, stimulus payments, eviction moratoriums, and welfare are all seen as giving the American workforce a big luxurious vacation. As with most table issues at the forefront of the news cycle, that is too simple an answer, and frankly, people have to get over the blame-thy-neighbor complex.


According to the Economic Policy Institute, in the states where unemployment benefits ended hiring did not pick up faster than the states that decided to maintain these payments. For starters, unemployment often does not cover basic needs such as rent, utilities, and groceries. It is a help, but not an answer.


So where are the workers and why is there this shortage? Some reasons below:

Time Poverty

There are only so many hours in the days, and the pandemic has forced many more obligations on the average American family. With daycare options closed, many parents need to care for their kids. In addition, some places can’t find school bus drivers, so parents must take their kids to school and pick them up. Furthermore, if there is a loved one at home with a health issue, they need to be taken care of. Home care is expensive and hard to find. It disrupts any possibility of doing retail or restaurant shifts.

The Gig Economy

As more people use delivery services for everything from groceries (Instacart) to booze (Drizzly), meal delivery (DoorDash, GrubHub, UberEats) to transportation (Uber and Lyft), folks have stepped in to take these roles. Easier than standing on your feet all day and you can make enough money to pay for your expenses. Just look at the numbers: many of the people in these jobs have college or post-graduate degrees. According to a 2020 study by Statista, 32 percent of freelance workers had a bachelor’s degree in the United States. Smart people, who are not cashing government checks and are doing what they can to make ends meet.


Zoom/Pandemic Disruption

What if companies have finally grown up? Maybe managers discovered that “while the cat’s away, the mice will play” isn’t true and that employees are just as effective working at home. While difficult to quantify in numbers, we all know more and more of us are working remotely. This is true for all sorts of positions.


The Death Toll

And let’s not forget the tragic elephant in the room: Over 635,000 of our fellow citizens have passed away due to the virus. Many more have lingering effects – otherwise known as “long-haulers.” Not all, but many of these victims of the disease were members of the workforce. They have not been replaced, and their jobs are open.


So here is the crux of this essay: What if a large number of the people who work in retail, restaurants and other labor-intensive trades found jobs they were actually trained to do?


Anyone who has had to take a job to bring in extra cash, for whatever reason, knows that working on your feet all day is tough. Some jobs sap you more than others, like working in a grocery store or warehouse with tons of movement and lifting. A restaurant is no easier. Working the floor, you are constantly moving while presenting a front that all is fine. It’s tough work.


At the end of these workdays, doing these jobs, it is tough to summon the energy to find the kind of work one was trained to do. As referenced above, a number of people in the gig economy are really well educated and really well trained. I am sure that is true for the workers who are in the service economy.


Using tools such as LinkedIn, Indeed, ZipRecruiter, and others, someone who is trained to be an accountant, marketing communications person, or other jobs now could make more money than they could in the retail environment. Even if that work was freelance or project work. This trend is compounded by the fact that many companies are allowing remote work indefinitely. Therefore, the bartender who knew how to write didn’t have the time or energy to look or was frustrated by the lack of opportunity, suddenly found a job where they could work out of their home.


Disruption has been the buzzword of our nation’s economy for some time. From the elements of the gig economy – including Airbnb and Vrbo – to media networks like Hulu and Netflix, we have celebrated that which has disrupted the norm. Perhaps, the pandemic has been the greatest economic disruptor of all and has led to many much-needed reforms to the way we work. Uber, for example, was founded following the 2008 financial crisis.


It’s worth noting that the pandemic has some positives for the service worker. Many have been saying that the minimum wage needs to be increased. A ton of employers, such as Walgreens, have announced that their hourly rate has increased to $15. In addition, big-box retailers, convenience stores, and restaurant chains have been offering signing bonuses to new workers.


As a country, we need to stop with the easy answers and glib logic. Working goes beyond the paycheck to a sense of self-worth and mental stimulation. There is more than one cause of the current labor shortage. At some point, the system will even out. Until then disparaging your fellow citizen or neighbor is not a solution.

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