Worker Shortage Emerges as Top Issue as Pandemic Eases
As Washington emerges from the pandemic, one of the biggest challenges facing many employers is finding enough qualified workers.
It’s a dramatic shift from a year ago, when businesses were forced to close their doors to slow the spread of the virus, leading to an unprecedented surge in unemployment.
Today, many Covid-related business restrictions are either gone or going away soon, and unless something is done to address the escalating workforce crisis, it will be a drag on long-term economic recovery.
“A lack of skilled and qualified workers was a big issue for many employers prior to the pandemic,” Association of Washington Business President Kris Johnson said. “The pandemic has exposed and magnified the issue, as it has so many others.”
The numbers tell the story. The state Department of Commerce recovery dashboard shows weekly job postings increased sharply in Washington after the first of the year, reversing the steep declines that began in March 2020. Restaurants, hotels, trucking companies and other employers report they can’t find enough people to fill all the openings.
Observers point to multiple factors at play, including enhanced unemployment, lack of child care and health concerns. But with so many jobs available now, it’s time to end the suspension of the job search requirement for those receiving unemployment insurance benefits.
An important long-term solution is to connect young people with real-world, work-based learning opportunities that will prepare them for high-growth careers. The Washington Workforce Portal, a project of the AWB Institute, is doing just that in two pilot efforts underway in Spokane and the Tri-Cities.
AWB’s upcoming Workforce Summit will explore these issues and more, as well as potential solutions, during a hybrid in-person and online event July 21 at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center.
The workforce shortage isn’t just an issue in Washington. This week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a nationwide initiative called America Works that’s aimed at mobilizing industry and government to address the growing worker shortage crisis throughout the country.
New surveys and data show there are now half as many available workers for every open job across the country (1.4 available workers per opening) as the historical average over the last 20 years (2.8). In some industries, there are more open jobs than job seekers.
The issue has gained urgency in the last month as vaccine distribution increased, but an AWB survey showed it was already emerging as an issue in April. Nearly 42% of respondents identified a lack of qualified workers as one of the most important issues facing their business.
The America Works agenda identifies several solutions, including immigration reform, expanding employer-led education and training programs and expanding access to child care for working parents.
Since the start of the pandemic, employers have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and innovate. It’s clear the need for those skills isn’t going away even after it fades away.
As the economy continues to recover, it’s also clear that we’re in a race for talent. The states and regions with the strongest economies will be the ones with the most skilled and educated workers.