The American Employment Conundrum

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

January 6, 2022

Following the pandemic’s onset, job roles that could not transition to remote working saw large scale layoffs. Organizations furloughed millions of workers across the world, with unemployment levels at historic highs.

When pandemic-led restrictions were eased, it seemed that workers would throng potential workplaces. Several months or even a year of being unemployed would have them more than eager to resume working, or so it would have seemed. But in a most unusual trend, and especially in the US, it has become difficult to fill vacant positions across industries.

As the US is reviving, many unemployed seem reluctant to return to work. What is causing this? Aren’t employers creating attractive jobs with good pay? As technology is increasing, have potential job candidates become unskilled through lack of reskilling and upskilling? What structural shifts are in the offing?

Horasis is organizing the Horasis USA Meeting on 04 March 2022 to examine and evaluate such issues. The one-day virtual event will see participation from a diverse range of people, spanning members of governments, businesses, academia, and the media. The goal is to deliberate on pressing issues and arrive at actionable solutions that can ensure shared prosperity.

The “Great Resignation”

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 11 million job vacancies at the end of October 2021. The largest job vacancies were registered in hospitality and food, followed by manufacturing in non-durable products and education. In geographical terms, job openings were highest in the southern region.

Interestingly, the job opening figures have witnessed a steady increase since April 2021. This was when a record number of US workers quit their jobs, prompting economists and analysts to term this event the “Great Resignation”. There was a further increase in people leaving their jobs in July and August, with the highest incidence being recorded in October 2021.

This anomaly was, in large part, an outcome of the US government’s pandemic relief measures such as relief checks, waiver of student loans and moratoriums on rent payments. Thanks to these measures, many were able to walk away from employment they were unsatisfied with and take time off to plan the course of their careers. It also leads one to question whether a large share of US employers was falling short of fulfilling employee expectations.

What Do Employees Seek?

A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) release suggests workers—across white- and blue-collar jobs—desire four key elements, apart from remuneration. These include “value, purpose, certainty, and belonging”. And their findings were based on 800,000 data points that had been collated over two decades.

With employee quit rates at their highest levels, there is an immediate need to recognize and offer perks to loyal workers. Loyalty can also be fostered by assisting fresh graduates in repaying their student loans sooner. Student debt levels in the US have grown six times faster than its economy. Averaging US$39,351 per student, this predicament has grabbed the spotlight often. Additionally, one-time bonuses could be offered to employees who have served the organization for long durations. 

A second measure, that US employers can adopt, is to offer further career growth and advancement opportunities. With the increasing role of technology across industries, certain job roles already have, or will quickly become, redundant. It is, therefore, necessary to offer reskilling or upskilling options, where workers can grow. In fact, according to HBR’s data, 68% of the world’s white- and blue-collar workforce are willing to “retrain and learn new skills”.

A sense of purpose is one of the core tenets that keep workers motivated at their jobs. In keeping with this sentiment, a third key step for employers could be to unravel ways for their workers to find a sense of purpose. It could also help reduce attrition rates substantially.

Humans revel in social connections and relationships. While family and friends are important pillars of support, employers must make their presence felt in this sphere. Amid the pandemic, the social aspect was deeply impacted, leading to a surge in mental health conditions worldwide. Isolation also negatively impacted productivity at work. As a fourth key step, and especially in the pandemic’s aftermath, employers with adequate resources must consider offering mental well-being workshops or counselling services. A positive organizational culture, and an enterprise’s long-term growth, are complementary facets.

An Uncertain Time

The current employment scenario in the US is abstract to say the least. While suggestions have been outlined for possible workarounds, there is possibly no one all-encompassing solution. Technology led innovations will offer solutions but what is starkly clear is that more basic human elements—such as interpersonal relationships—can play a pivotal role.

The US is staring at serious labor shortages. And with economic revival being a pressing issue, there is need to attract and retain workers to ensure pandemic-led losses can be alleviated.   

Photo Caption: A view of Manhattan. Photo by Aaron Burson on Unsplash.