Last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic caused perhaps the worst job losses since the Great Depression. The decline in the labor force participation rate – from 63.3% to 61.3% – was greater than that observed during the Great Recession and is among the largest 12-month declines after World War II, according to the Pew Research Center. and federal labor data.
But despite all the pain, this terrifying year could herald potentially positive changes in the workplace. Pandemics change economies, a truth that dates back centuries. The post-COVID-19 period may well have a transformative and lasting effect on employers.
The shifting balance between employers and workers was evident before the pandemic, with wages rising for the first time in decades for low-income workers. While the unemployment rate is above 6% and the country had 8 million fewer jobs in March than before the pandemic, there is still a growing shortage of workers and 7.4 million unfilled jobs.
This is in part due to demographic changes caused by lower birth rates; U.S. population growth for ages 16 to 64 has fallen from 20% in the 1980s to less than 5% in the past decade. Some Conservatives blame the stimulus package and prolonged worker unemployment for the current labor shortage. Others, like former Obama chief economist Jason Furman, also blame mistrust related to the virus.
But whatever the causes, the tighter labor market gives workers more leverage with employers, allowing even lower-end service workers to demand signing bonuses, higher wages and more. more humane working conditions.
White collar workers are also facing a new reality. Once dragged into offices often far from affordable housing, they have adapted to new hybrid models, with remote work done from home, scattered offices and coffee shops.
Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom suggests that 20% of work will be done from home even after the pandemic is over, up from 5% in 2019. Various studies also show that remote workers have been more productive – a result that business leaders are welcome with lower office space costs. .
However, others – people at the top of the corporate ladder, rental agents, owners of commercial office space – are already pushing people back to the cabin. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon believes workers should return to the office, but that may not be so appealing to workers who have finally given up on long commutes.
Some human resources officials fear widespread resistance to attempts to force workers back to the office full time. When the CEO of Washingtonian magazine suggested that those working from home would be “less valuable” and easier to “let go”, the workers went on a one-day strike. No surprise there; a recent survey of 5,000 employed adults found that 4 in 10 expected some flexibility from remote working after the pandemic.
For many millennials, the hybrid and dispersed work model, including suburban satellite offices, addresses issues such as ‘work-life balance’, something important to millennials and especially women with children trying to return to the workforce once schools reopen.
The pandemic has also changed the geography of jobs. A recent report from Upwork suggests that between 14 and 23 million Americans are looking to relocate to a place that is cheaper and less crowded.
Between September 2019 and September 2020, the largest job losses – nearly 10% – were recorded in major cities, followed by their nearby suburbs, according to the American Communities Project and based on federal data. Job losses in rural areas and suburbs were much less severe.
Many leading tech companies now expect a large chunk of their workforce to work remotely after the pandemic. About three-quarters of venture capitalists and tech company founders, a recent survey notes, predict their businesses will operate entirely, or primarily, online. Since the start of the pandemic, according to a Big Technology study, technological growth has been most evident in Madison, Wisconsin, Cleveland and Sacramento, while New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago have been affected.
In terms of industries, the skilled trades can offer the greatest opportunities for middle and working class people. Today, manufacturing employment is growing faster than in nearly four decades; Jobs in the industrial sector have increased by more than 50% since February 2020. Companies like John Deere are struggling to keep pace with new orders due to a persistent labor shortage.
Overall, an estimated 500,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled at this time. The same can be said of logistics and shipping, which have kept the country running during pandemic closures. A shortage of tanker drivers could restrict gas deliveries this summer. The shortfall is now so severe that Amazon has set up its own incubator for new trucking companies.
The pandemic has also triggered an entrepreneurial revival. In the United States, about 4.4 million business start-up applications were filed last year, up from about 3.5 million in 2019. We may be seeing a whole new set of startups that remain dispersed in their operations, saving money on rent and location. in more affordable places.
This is not to minimize the devastating impact the pandemic has on countless workers and businesses.
Overall, however, the post-pandemic economy could produce useful changes for workers. The resurgence of the economy can increase the wages of skilled workers – not just for programmers, but also for cooks, machinists, truck drivers, electricians and carpenters.
The labor shortage also offers a chance to improve working structures, especially for people of color, who by 2032 will constitute half of the American working class, and for the class as a whole. mean besieged. After the pain and dislocation of 2020, we must focus on ways to improve employment conditions and the economy for all Americans.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director of the Urban Reform Institute.
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