Where’s the workforce? It’s complicated.

RBC I Spend any time discussing the topic of employment, hiring or labor in general and you’re likely to hear the following: “people just don’t wanna work.” 

For many employers seeking help, the sentiment rings true. After 18 months of forced shutdowns, quarantines, social unrest and general economic uncertainty, the last thing any business needs is a shortage of reliable staff to keep the doors open. But given the current labor market, that’s exactly what many business owners, managers and overworked employees alike now face.

“We’ve been advertising on Facebook, message boards, the sign, word of mouth and nothing,” said Mike Sexton, sales manager at Samuelson’s True Value Hardware in Meeker, alluding to a sense of mounting pressure to keep the business operational with a shortage of at least two staff members, and one set to leave work within the next several weeks. “If I don’t find them a replacement, I’m gonna be hosed,” he said.

Help wanted signs aren’t hard to find elsewhere around Meeker, Rangely or any other town in the region. Businesses that might typically expect at least a few applications report seeing very few, if any interest in open positions.

“We’re lucky if we get two applications in a month,” said Sherri Branham, Client Services Administrator for RifleWorks, a private firm based in Garfield County that helps connect businesses of all stripes to qualified job-seekers. Branham noted that the office, normally swamped from February to October, has seen a sharp and sustained decrease in applications. 

Branham described some of her own observations on the phenomenon, noting that those who do inquire about work often fail to follow through, citing a variety of reasons as to why. “One of the most legitimate reasons I get is transportation,” she said, adding “they either don’t have a license or they don’t have a car, or both.” Other oft-cited reasons to withhold a job application or even accept job offers range from expectations of flexibility provided by remote work (an impossibility for many traditional brick-and-mortar businesses), to concerns about safety, and everything in between. As far as wages go, even higher-paying jobs have become difficult to fill according to Branham, with lowest paying jobs posted by RifleWorks starting at $15/hour.

She also believes expanded federal unemployment benefits, stimulus payments and other government programs are a large factor in the shortage of willing job applicants. “People have found a way to stay at home and make it work,” she said, noting that even with extended federal benefits ending a few weeks ago, applications were still coming in at a trickle. Still, she expressed hope that with time, things might return to normal, “because we desperately need people in every industry, desperately.”

Could it be true that Americans, known for their hard-working, industrious nature, churning out more hours and productivity than citizens of other industrialized countries, have collectively grown lazy as a result of government assistance programs? Is it possible that stimulus payments, and unemployment expansions from the federal government have turned the American populace into one that wants to lay around at home on the taxpayer’s dime?

Though simple and presumably reasonable to consider, this prevailing explanation for the lack of workers might not take into consideration a few key factors. In other words, as with many economic issues, “it’s complicated.” At least, that’s according to Christina Oxley, Business Services Coordinator for the Colorado Workforce Centers located in Rio Blanco, Moffat, Routt, Grand and Jackson counties.

Oxley, who does wage and labor market analysis for employers in the region, said the labor shortage is influenced by a number of factors — some pandemic related, others a result of long-term trends, all coalescing into one bottom line: “We just don’t have enough bodies, period. We don’t have enough people to fill the types of jobs that we’re looking to fill right now,” said Oxley.

Not having “enough people” doesn’t necessarily mean there are unemployed workers sitting around who just won’t fill available positions, it means that even among the unemployed, there simply isn’t enough labor supply to meet current demand. 

As one example, Oxley noted, “for July in Rio Blanco County, we had about 546 jobs open, or at least advertisements for jobs, and 167 people unemployed.” This means that even if every unemployed person in RBC had gone to work simultaneously, there would still be hundreds of jobs available, and no one to fill them. A similar imbalance exists in neighboring Garfield and Routt counties, both of which have advertised significantly more open positions than there are unemployed residents. Moffat County, in contrast, has around the same number of available jobs as there are unemployed people. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean Moffat businesses aren’t completely unaffected by the labor shortage, as available unemployed workers may not possess the necessary experience or education to fill posted jobs, a problem Oxley describes as a “skills-mismatch.” The issue, she noted, is especially prevalent in the healthcare industry, and it has been that way for a while.

She also stressed that even two years ago, Colorado businesses were already struggling to attract workers, though the tumultuous events of 2020 certainly made things worse.

For example, experts have long been anticipating a reduction in the labor pool as the Baby Boomer generation ages out of the workforce. Oxley said the pandemic accelerated this mass exodus. “So a lot of people in that age range might’ve been in a high-risk group. They may have not had remote work skills or the type of job that allows for remote work. And they were near enough to retirement to where they were able to say, we’ll just do it now,” she said.

Additional reductions in the labor pool touch on other socioeconomic trends, like childcare, transportation, remote work, and housing availability. As a result of school closures for instance, many parents, particularly women, left the labor force entirely in order to care for kids who were home from school. Even now, many of those parents have not returned to the labor force. 

In another prominent example, a real-estate boom has turned what was already an affordability issue into an issue of availability. “Since the great recession we have not been adding new houses at near the rate we did prior to that. I want to say in 2008 the United States added about two million new homes a year and now it’s about a quarter of that,” Oxley said. The housing shortage contributes to the shortage of workers in the area, since there is nowhere to live, even in places that have not previously experienced major housing shortages, like Moffat and Rio Blanco counties. 

Worker shortages aside, for those positions that need to be filled, what will motivate the currently unemployed residents, few as there may be, to apply? Have the extended federal unemployment benefits turned them all lazy? Oxley doesn’t think so, and here’s why. According to a study by the University of Toronto, U.S. states that ended federal unemployment benefits early saw a 25.9% return to work factor, whereas states that kept the extended $300/wk benefits through August saw a 21.5% return to work factor, a difference Oxley described as “negligible.” She pointed to another example as well, noting that when restaurants closed down, continuing unemployment claims skyrocketed, yet by the time those same restaurants opened back up at restricted capacity, a majority of those workers got off unemployment to return to work. “It really demonstrated that people, I mean not 100% obviously, but people just want to work,” Oxley said.

Whether or not people want to work, one thing seems to be fairly straightforward: in any market, reduced supply and increased demand puts those with products, services, or in this case, labor, in a strong negotiating position. That basic economic fact means workers now have more bargaining power, and businesses struggling to find help could be forced to adjust.

Making those adjustments is easier said than done, however. As Oxley noted to the HT, attracting help isn’t solely a matter of higher wages, and for the people already employed, wages aren’t the only thing that keep them coming back to work every day. “Employers get to look at what their wages are like, what their work environment is like, what their culture is like, what employees really want and what helps retention,” said Oxley, who also shared more general advice for any business currently hiring, which basically amounts to talking to your employees about what is and isn’t working for them. 

“The best employee is the one that you already have, and the cost of turnover is astronomical, and so you want to prevent that at all costs,” she said, adding “most jobs are filled word of mouth by one of your employees telling their friends this is a great place to work, and if your employees aren’t telling their friends and everybody they interact with that it’s a great place to work, then you’re automatically at a disadvantage.”

By LUCAS TURNER | lucas@ht1885.com

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