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Where Are the Job-Seekers?

I’ve read dozens of short items online recently saying how desperate employers are to fill a record number of vacant positions. The explanations offered for this are all over the map. (I’ll list some I’ve seen a little later.) The end of the unemployment extensions and the eviction moratorium didn’t seem to push people into the labor force. The number of job openings and the number of people no longer looking for work are both at record highs. So how are all those unemployed people who aren’t looking for jobs paying their rent? What the hell is going on here? I have a little list, based on a broad skim of articles asking the question:

  1. Wages. People are standing back from the job market until pay levels improve. Pay at many low-level jobs in restaurants and hospitality has already gone up. It does not appeared to have helped. And the question of how the stand-backers are paying their bills remains unanswered.
  2. Covidphobia. Young people are too scared of COVID to get back out into the world. The ones who still have parents may be moving back in with parents to dodge the virus. There may be a little of this going on, but from a height it doesn’t ring true. And it certainly doesn’t account for the numbers.
  3. Schools. With schools closed, women have left the job market for lack of daytime childcare. I haven’t found good numbers so far on how many schools are still closed, but I doubt it’s enough to account for the gap between jobs and job seekers. Most of the closings I’ve seen mentioned were for the 2020/2021 school year. We’re now well into 2021/2022.
  4. Stupid HR tricks. This is not a new problem. Most people in tech know about the screwy online hoops you have to jump through to even get a return email. Keywords, sheesh. And things like “Must have twenty years’ experience in Kubernetes,” when Kubernetes didn’t even exist until 2014. I don’t know who said it, but it’s truer in HR circles than most others: “An inability to find a 5-pound butterfly does not indicate a butterfly shortage.” Again, none of this is new, and I doubt it has much impact on the current labor shortage.

From ten steps back, I’m tempted to say, “All of the above,” and I might be right. There is, however, something more. This quote, from the website of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) may point to the heart of the problem:

SHRM also polled 1,000 unemployed Americans who were laid off or left their jobs during the pandemic-the majority of whom worked hourly jobs in industries heavily impacted by the health crisis, such as food service and retail. The top reason for remaining unemployed, cited by 42 percent of respondents, was not having received any responses to jobs for which they’ve applied.”

Skills mismatch and berserk credentialism will probably take the blame. But we’re not talking about software engineers here. These are low-level service jobs, most of which probably don’t require any college at all. Earlier today, a post on Nextdoor in my area repeated a suspicion I’ve had for awhile now:

Lots of companies – of course not all, but many – say they are hiring and can’t find people, but are not really hiring. By staying understaffed, their payroll expenses are way down, they can blame ‘lazy workers’ for the poor customer experience, and most of all if they ‘can’t fill’ key positions they dont have to pay back those pandemic bridge loans from the federal government. This is a real issue facing many people – some companies claim to be hiring but really don’t want to fill the positions.”

In other words, companies that lost their cash cushion due to COVID lockdowns and are now in debt to the Feds want to run lean for awhile to get back on their feet. Making noise about not being able to find workers is cover. The intent is to get by with as few employees as possible–temporarily if not permanently.

I see this playing out in supermarkets: At the Fry’s where we shop, I don’t remember when I last saw two or more “people” lanes open. Nearly all the goods are going through the self-checkout kiosks. Now, automation eliminating jobs is not a new problem. Self-checkout kiosks have been with us for years. The COVID disruptions may have pushed some firms to try automation solutions those firms hadn’t before considered.

Not even that is a complete explanation. What we’re seeing may simply be a perfect storm of a lot of smaller things acting together that keeps a worker surplus from becoming employed during record-high demand for workers. I’m still puzzled how people pay their bills while staying out of the job market. I’m watching the topic, and if anything crisp turns up I’ll mention it here.


  1. Donald R Doerres says:

    Several of my protégé engineering friend (backgrounds in electrical, mechanical, software) are finding the new-graduate engineering outlook glum. Companies want advanced degrees and minimum three years experience. On the other hand, with nearly 50years experience I found it easy to get contract work.

  2. Jason Kaczor says:

    Some additional “anecdata” from Canada.

    I know of at least 3 people in my social network feeds that took their pandemic Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and went back to school (online/remote-learning) to get better jobs and out of the retail/restaurant minimum-wage workforce. (And I know of a few more on a paid-membership-based forum site that I frequent on a regular basis)

    Two nights ago, my wife and I went to our local drugstore – we browsed around happily, then turned to leave – she said to me; “do you want to use the self-checkout?” (normally, I only use it when I am by myself – and have less than 5 or so items)

    We turned, and… there was no other option – everything had been converted to self-checkout, except for a single employee working at a “Customer Service” desk. They had done this full conversion sometime within the last week.

  3. Jim Tubman says:

    Interesting to see this, an hour before I start a brand new job as a software developer specializing in Elixir.

    Another Canadian perspective here; I have two adult children who have been in the restaurant industry for years and are middle managers. When the first lockdowns were lifted, CREB was indeed one factor making it difficult finding staff. Another was a situation that was unprecedented, at least in peace-time: every business in the sector had to staff up at the same time. Then lockdowns happened again. My restaurant kids tell me that when the next lockdowns eased up, the people who might have chosen the restaurant sector before were now avoiding it. They did not want to have jobs that could be snatched away with little or no notice by our public health lords and masters.

  4. Rich Rostrom says:

    Re automation at supermarkets: I was at Food 4 Less (Kroger) a few weeks back. Only the self-checkout was open. There was no one at at the “front desk” (a kiosk which supports the self-checkout lanes, and is the nearest approach to a customer service desk).

    In fact there were no employees visible anywhere in the front part of the store, nor any security guard at the the entrance. It occurred to me that it speaks well for Americans that all the customers lined up and paid, when they could have just walked out with their groceries.

  5. TRX says:

    > everything had been converted to self-checkout, except for a single employee working at a “Customer Service” desk.

    I always use cash, and most local self-checkouts only take credit cards. The local Wal-Mart’s original machines didn’t take cash. Somewhere along the way they had new ones that did, but the newest ones are back to card-only.

    A couple of years ago I went in for a shopping run, went up front to check out, and there was a knot of checkers standing off to the side chatting, their stations saying “OPEN”, but nobody there. They just stared at me as I waited for one of them to go to a register. After a while I walked away from the cart and out the door.

    Sam Walton was probably spinning in his grave, but what his business became doesn’t care.

    Something similar happened at the Home Depot in the next town; they only had self-checkout lines open, no cashiers. I pushed my cart up to one. Credit card only. I left the cart and headed to the door, to be intercepted by an “associate” who offered to help me out. It turned out store employees have a magic code to get the checkout terminals to accept cash, but it’s not available to customers.

    I’ve give the employee credit; she completed the sale rather than just watching me walk out the door like they did at Wal-Mart. But I’m starting to get pissy about the “wait until you’re done shopping and then try to force you to use a credit card” thing.

  6. Lee Hart says:

    I suspect the reasons are complicated, and not easy to categorize. I’ve heard a dozen reasons just within my own circle of friends and family, and they are all different.

    Reasons have included the ones you mentioned above. But also lousy wages, oppressive work environment, long hours with forced overtime, can’t find work in their chosen field, fear of catching Covid-19, etc. I.e. the jobs stink.

    Then there are alternatives to employment. Unemployment benefits, early retirement, working for yourself, gig work, joining the military, moving back in with your parents, got rich enough in the stock market, etc.

    There are also attitude changes. Several people in my family just don’t feel the “need” to work. They work as much as they have to — and no more.

    I think all these problems have existed for years. It just took the pandemic to make them much worse and push them into the open. The solution is going to require both “carrots” (better jobs) and “sticks” (more consequences for not working).

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