Where have all the workers gone?

From doctors to pilots to grocery clerks, where are they?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

The latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics should be seen as good news – thousands of people are entering the workforce. But, to use a common phrase, the math just doesn’t add up.

If the percentage of people participating in the labor force was the same as in February 2020, we would have more than three million more people in the workforce today. That’s about half of the population of Washington state.

Where did the workers go?

I don’t know about anyone else, but everywhere I go, every medical or dental office, every grocery store, every school and every vendor has a staff shortage. A large part of this staffing shortage has been in motion for a long time. Anyone paying attention to our economy should have seen this coming.

You can see some of our previous articles on this topic here, here, or here.

Two major causes are particularly unsettling – and long term; early retirements and less immigration has left the nation in a semipermanent worker deficit.

This shortage is impacting all industries. And here’s a fact that should unnerve economists of every school of thought; if every unemployed worker took an open job in their industry, there would still be open jobs.

The job that used to be good enough

Thanks to the pandemic we have seen a major disruption in America’s labor force – pundits have called it The Great Resignation. Just in 2021 for example, more than 47 million workers quit their jobs, many of went in search of an improved work-life balance and flexibility, increased compensation, and a more appealing company culture.

If you’ve travelled in the past year or so, you’ve seen The Great Resignation in action; food service and hospitality workers have become their own version of an economic endangered species.

Those jobs that require in-person attendance and traditionally offer lower wages have been the most dramatically impacted.

The leisure and hospitality and retail industries have had the highest quit rates since November 2020; consistently above 4.5 percent. Oddly enough, in those same industries, the hiring rate has been higher than average. Leisure and hospitality lost 1 million workers in November 2021, but 1.2 million people were hired by that industry the same month.

In fact, leisure and hospitality has maintained the highest hiring rate of all industries since November 2020 at 8.1 percent. This is compared to the national hiring rate across all industries of 4.4 percent.

Around the country, the transportation, health care and social assistance, and accommodation and food sectors have had the highest numbers of job openings.

Fortunately, for those of us who use their services, the transportation and health care and social assistance sectors have maintained relatively low quit rates. Every aspect of the food sector, on the other hand, struggles to retain workers and has experienced consistently high quit rates.

Manufacturing is not so different

Durable goods manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and education and health services have a labor shortage—these industries have more unfilled job openings than unemployed workers with experience in their respective industry.

And consider this; even if every unemployed person with experience in the durable goods manufacturing industry were employed, the industry would only fill 65% of the vacant jobs.

Where do we work?

Who we work for may have little to nothing to do with where we work.

Gallop recently found that 91% of U.S. workers hoped they could continue working at least some of their hours from home. 91%! That’s not even 10% less than all of us.

And three in 10 workers emphasized that they would seek new employment if they were recalled to the office.

I know several people who have worked full time for years and have never set foot in their employer’s building.

And I know others who will only work remotely.

Not every career track offers that option of course, and not everyone want to do it.

But however remote work takes shape, to some degree it is here to stay.

What’s next?

In short, the economy has changed and will continue to change and adapt to economic, demographic, technological and legal pressures. What was once a fairly predictable work/career landscape has morphed into an experience where “work” is not tied to a place, or schedule – or even a recognizable description.

A career “path” turns out to be what many of us thought it was a long time ago – not a well-worn path, but a way each one of us makes for ourselves.

If you are looking for an in-depth overview of where we have been and a sense of where we are going as a national and global, maybe even local economy, take a look at what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce projects here.

There are some, of course who saw this day coming years, if not decades ago.

More and more of us seem to be responding to what Buckminster Fuller wrote many years ago;

The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.