In the first three installments of this series (July 12, Sept 12, and Oct 25), we tried to shine some light on the headscratcher of the year, “Where did everyone go?”, as the labor market certainly feels tighter than ever before, both to employers and consumers. And numbers don’t lie. We still have too many open jobs chasing too few available, qualified workers. To recap, the explanations include:
- The labor market was tight even before the events of the last couple of years.
- An avalanche of people were laid off in the early months of COVID, and after things improved, they were reluctant to rejoin the company that let them go. Those employers have struggled to overcome this disruption in their labor supply.
- The retirement rate has tripled in the last couple of years.
- Immigration is down.
- Lots of people have been out with COVID.
- Many people are quitting and changing jobs, losing productivity in the gap.
Rounding out the list to ten, here are my last four reasons we’re seeing and feeling the workforce pinch:
Answer #7: Long COVID.
Look, I don’t like talking about this any more than you like reading about it. But we can’t deny the fact that about 3.3 million people of working age in the US are currently experiencing symptoms associated with long COVID. On this number, the CDC, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Brookings Institute all agree, which in and of itself is amazing.
Most of these fall into one of two categories: those who have curtailed their working hours and intensity, and those who are not working at all. That has a negative impact both on availability of labor, and productivity thereof.
I’m not an attorney, but the consensus of the lawyers who write on the subject seem to believe that long COVID qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires certain employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with a qualifying disability.
Whether you’re required to make accommodations or not, when employers and employees partner to make things like this work, the outcomes for both are usually better. And in a tight labor market, I’d be inclined to accommodate.
Answer #8: Lots of workers have…well… died.
This is the most tragic reason of all the additive explanations for the decrease in the number of people available to work in the US. But again, there’s simply no getting away from the numbers.
In 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the CDC, 1.26 million people of working age in the US died, of all causes. In 2020, that number was 1.52 million, and 2021, the deadliest year on record in the US, it was 1.66 million. We don’t know this year’s number yet. For the purpose of understanding the shrunken workforce, it doesn’t matter how these extra people died. They died. And they’re not coming back to work. Based on these figures, there were 654,955 fewer working age people alive in the US at the end of 2021 than there would have been if US deaths in 2020 and 2021 had remained at the 2019 level.
That’s about all there is to say on this one.
Answer #9: Lots of people can’t find affordable child care. I mean lots of them.
Of all the reasons contributing to the worker shortage, this could be the one that, if fixed, could really bring some relief. Not only to workers, but to employers, and customers.
Studies by economists at both Wells Fargo and the National Bureau of Economic Research estimate that more than one million more women (and presumably some much smaller number of men) would join the workforce if they had reliable, affordable child care.
The solution is not complex. But it is expensive. A large investment would be required by both the public and private sectors to make child care a national priority. Before the pandemic, the US ranked 32nd out of 40 industrialized nations for employment of mothers of young children. It’s doubtful that our ranking has improved in the last couple of years.
Child care subsidy legislation has been proposed at the national level, but it is unlikely to be enacted. And certainly not in time to mitigate the current crisis. This leaves individual employers to take on the task. Some have done so, and have seen a simultaneous improvement in recruiting and retention success.
Answer #10: The Great Reassessment
No doubt as a result of the upheaval visited upon our society by the COVID pandemic, a huge swath of the workforce are just fed up, burned out, and rethinking their relationship with this thing called work.
You’ve heard it called “The Great Reassessment”, and I think this describes a lot of what we’re seeing. Not everyone can afford this reassessment. But those who can are making a dent in the workforce.
In our writing, Bill Catlette and I have long talked about something we call “balanced worth-its”. Work can take a lot out of us, and unless it’s compensated for, both financially and otherwise, we begin to exercise our options. Chief among the “otherwise” category is a sense of meaning in the work we do.
Some will be going to go back to work after a while, either out of necessity, or in search of more meaning. Or both. Leaders play a big part in this when they illuminate the meaning behind people’s work.
That’s it for my 10 answers to the question, “Where did all the workers go?” None of the causes alone would put us where we are today, but a few hundred thousand people dropping out of the workforce here, a few million there, and pretty soon, you’ve got yourself a labor shortage.
Where Did All the Workers Go?