There seems to be one thing workforce experts, business analysts and economists can agree on: When it comes to the state of the workforce they have as many questions as the rest of us.
For instance, where have all the workers gone, and when will those who worked in offices ever physically go back?
The remarkable thing about this economy is we didn’t enter this new world of not physically going to work deliberately or piecemeal. Thanks to COVID, we had no choice but to do it wholesale. You name the job, and it went from an office environment to being at home and online overnight.
After that, the culture changed fast. There are now new and old employees who have made it a condition of employment that they work from home all the time.
Employers have accommodated the idea. They’ve done this for a couple of reasons. One, they need to get the work done, and for many jobs, this arrangement, despite early doubts, has tended to increase productivity. For other employers, it has lowered overhead costs.
However, there is another side to this: We are facing a serious worker shortage.
Whether it’s home improvement companies, independent plumbers, the bank or my chain drug store, they all say they can’t find anyone to hire. My pharmacy closed for the day Thursday because they didn’t have enough staff available.
Employers are offering significant pay increases, signing bonuses and new benefits packages, but no luck. It’s at the point that $15 an hour or more, with even part-time jobs offering benefits, is not enough to lure new hires. By the way, my first job paid $2.10 an hour.
Hotel and restaurant workers, grocery store cashiers, stock clerks and truck drivers just can’t be found.
However, one thing that’s important is that police officers, nurses, doctors, fireman and rescue personnel have stayed on the job, no matter what. That’s the way they are. However, some, particularly in health care, but police officers, too, who are getting sick of being maligned, are now so physically and mentally worn out from the demands of their work that they are reconsidering their careers. This could be bad news for all of us.
Some of this is a worker’s revolt, or what the media has dubbed the “great resignation.”
Thanks to COVID, whether they liked it or not, workers had a breather and decided they didn’t like their old jobs and didn’t want to go back. Extra unemployment benefits, rental assistance, landlord assistance and eviction freezes, all arguably going way too far and lasting too long, pulled a lot of people out of the labor force.
However, something else was going on. During the forced hiatus, some workers said to themselves, “I want a better job, and to do that I need better skills and more education.” Bravo. You understand the American dream. Our community colleges have full student bodies. In the long run this may be a tonic for our local economy.
One telling impact of both the worker shortage and the shift to “work at home” is the way we go to work – or don’t. Virginia Railway Express is carrying about 10% of the riders it did in 2019. Metro ridership is at about 18% of its 2019 levels. The question is, will the commuters ever come back?
Then there is traffic. This is Northern Virginia. Naturally we still have traffic jams. One evening, the traffic report “check-in” said it all – they had big checks, meaning traffic was running well, alongside graphic images for interstates 95 and 66. It felt like an alternate reality. Of course, the day before hadn’t been so rosy. So, don’t worry, you’re still living in Northern Virginia.
I am “an in the office, in the classroom” kind of person. I want to see students and meet my fellow employees, make friends and get to know the boss. That person-to-person connection is valuable to me. It’s also helpful in keeping a job. As Boris Johnson, the prime minister of Great Britain and a former newspaper columnist – and for all his foibles, a rather gifted observer of human nature – said, “It’s a lot easier to fire an employee you’ve never met than to let someone go you see everyday.”
I wish I could say there is no one cohesive explanation for what’s happening to the workforce. But there isn’t. There are a lot of things happening all at once and each at a different pace, and it may take years to sort it all out.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.