Op-ed Why is there a worker shortage?

By Jack Hoffman

The Washington Post recently tackled the question a lot of people have been talking about. The headline read: “Why America has 8.4 million unemployed when there are 10 million job openings.”

Jack Hoffman

What was refreshing about the Post story was that it didn’t offer the usual explanation about the mismatch between jobs and job skills, which seems to lay the blame for worker shortages on the workers. Instead, according to the Post, the mismatch is between the jobs on offer and jobs workers want.

Maybe the tide is turning. Maybe the demand for employees is reaching the point where they not only can ask for better pay, but also for meaningful work.

Almost since the start of the pandemic, we’ve heard and read anecdotes about people rethinking work after Covis-19 upended their lives:

  • Frontline workers — people in close, daily contact with the general public — questioned whether they were being paid enough, not only for the risks they took, but given the real value of the services they were providing, like making sure there was safe food on grocery shelves.
  • People with the good fortune to be able to work from home started re-evaluating “the workplace.” The ride or drive to work was so routine that many of us didn’t think about how much time was getting eaten up going back and forth. Stay-at-home orders broke that habit, and it turned out travel time could be put to better use — at least a few days a week.
  • Then there were people who lost lousy jobs — jobs that neither paid an adequate wage nor offered any personal fulfillment. Unemployment benefits — both state and federal — gave them a break from the drudgery, at least for a little while, and perhaps the opportunity to find something better.

The Washington Post backed up some of these stories with numbers that suggest workers have simply left jobs in certain fields. The Post compared job openings in various industries with the number of unemployed people who used to work in those industries. Professional and business services, for example, had 1.8 million jobs openings. Presumably, before the pandemic, all or most of those jobs were filled. But the Post found that only 921,000 people who were unemployed reported that their most recent job had been in professional and business services.

It would appear, therefore, that almost half of the people who used to do that kind of work either found jobs in other fields or left the labor force. Professional and business services had the biggest gap between available jobs and people with experience seeking those jobs, but the Post showed that other industries were suffering from worker shortages, too.

Employers have had the upper hand for a long, long, time. But that may be changing as employers want to get their businesses going again, and they simply have to pay more and offer better working conditions to get the help they need.

It’s also possible, thanks to the federal supplemental unemployment benefits, federal stimulus payments and tax credits, and help from state government, we rediscovered how much stronger the economy can be when people have enough money in their pockets to support themselves and their families. It’s better for all of us when everyone is better off.

The child tax credits and public support for child care will need to continue after the pandemic fades. But the role filled temporarily by the massive surge in unemployment benefits can be replaced with jobs that pay a livable wage and provide working conditions that respect employees. That would go a long way to repairing what the Post called “the mismatch between the jobs available and what workers want.”

Jack Hoffman is Senior Analyst at Public Assets Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Montpelier.

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  1. Barre Pinske says:

    There problem with the logic in the article is if the government is giving people money so people don’t have to work that money should be coming from surplus tax revenue it’s not it’s coming from government debt. I’m in that arts I do things I like doing it’s still work work is not intended to be fun it’s intended to be self sustaining. Providing jobs is a good thing and wages have to be based on profitability not on a cost of living just because you live in America should not mean you get to own home and a car as an adult with out working. I just sold a twig chair I made in 2008 it’s beautiful and unique I sold it for $2500. People may think I’m lucky selling art but the hours of labor and need to fix it up for the sale has put my wage $10 an hour! My work is often incredibly labor intensive. I know I can grow with profitable products I have the experience but many people I try to work with don’t have a good enough work ethic or skills for me to afford to employ them. In today’s world employees bring ideas about politics and right and wrong to the work place plus their ADD, ADHD, depression, addiction, personality disorders, problems with authority, lack of boundaries, no basic tool use skills so they need training I can’t afford to give them and or they are just plain lazy and irresponsible! I’m sounding like an old guy but I think people use to separate their work life from all the problems of the human condition which was good for people and productivity. Leave your ideas and problems at home do your job with pride. What we are experiencing should not be seen as a positive for workers unless in some way they are happier and more productive and we are becoming better as a nation we are not. Ask people running business in this area about the work force you will get head shaking. I’m afraid we are going to have a huge bill to pay very soon it’s not going to be good. Governments can’t print money the same way we can’t just use credit cards it has to be paid back. I know we are trying to maintain some level of stability through a pandemic and I’m sure some good cultural changes are happening but people need purpose in life and pride in themselves that comes though using our talents for a good and some success in life not getting by easy like a bear eating out of a dumpster. If Bear Cubs grow up that way they will not know how to care for themselves that’s what we have going on with people right now.