Turn the Tables on the Pandemic Paradox - Strategies for the Labor Crisis

The economy continues to crawl out of the economic impact of the pandemic.  As millions of vaccines are administered daily, more consumers will return to former activities, boosting the demand for goods and services.  Are we ready?

The March unemployment numbers were released on April 2 reflecting steady improvement in the official unemployment number, now 6.0 (seasonally adjusted) compared to its most recent high of 14.4% in April 2020.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics also measures underemployment, which adds those working part-time because they can’t find full-time employment and those that have looked for work in the last 12 months but, for whatever reason, aren’t now.  This metric also peaked in April 2020 at 22.4 and is not 10.7 (seasonally adjusted).

Economy wise, this is good news.  Right?  Maybe.

According to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), 42% of small business owners (seasonally adjusted) report having job openings that they were unable to fill with a qualified candidate, an all-time high and 20 points over NFIB’s reported historical average of 22%.  Job openings skew towards the recruitment of skilled labor over unskilled labor with 34% of owners looking for skilled and 19% seeking unskilled labor talent.  Most concerning, 91% of the owners that reported trying to hire reported have few to “no qualified applicants for the positions.”  Of those, 23% reported that they had no applicants whatsoever for the job opening.

In short, we now face what I call a “Pandemic Paradox.”  Small businesses and employees may be replacing one crisis with another.  When the demand owners have been desperately waiting to return arrives, companies may not have capacity to fill it.  While there are many job opportunities and people wanting work, they may not have the desired qualifications to fill them. 

Both have a desire to contribute and succeed.  The challenge is meeting in the middle and finding one another.  To this end, here are ideas on potential ways to solve the paradox:

Certification Programs:  The skills needed in today’s range from artificial intelligence and cloud computing to collaboration, time management and creativity.  A degree from a technical or four-year program provides a leg up.  However, certification programs may offer a shorter and less expensive bridge for both recruiters and job seekers.  I heard one story lately of a woman who decided to complete a 12-week digital marketing certificate program.  It resulted in her getting a new job that increased her pay by 160%.  Seek out those programs and develop relationships with the host organization for recruiting leads.

Apprenticeships:  Programs that offer individuals entering a new trade, industry or profession provide employers with a grow-your-own approach for developing staff.  Apprenticeships or internships are a wonderful way to test drive the working relationship before making a full commitment to one another.   Once the program is completed, the employer and employee may elect to continue to work together, or not. 

Temp-to-Hire:  Similar to apprenticeships and internships, a temp-to-hire approach provides an opportunity to test-drive the nature of the work, competencies, and compatibilities without a long-term commitment.  For people looking to learn more about a potential new career path, this can be an excellent way to explore potential new areas for growth.

Career Centers:  Whether through the trade school or other campus programs, career centers are essentially match-making centers of influence.  Get to know the folks running the centers and tap into their best practices for finding a match for what you are looking for.

Urban Leagues, Young Professional & Other Community Based Organizations:  Many community-based organizations have developed programs to connect area employers with potential community members.  Similar to the school-based career centers, these organizations have developed excellent partnerships within the community to connect candidates and employers to one another.

Old Fashioned Networking:  Everybody knows someone.  That someone may know someone.  Cast a wide net, connect, and ask:  “Do you know anyone looking for this skill/job?” “Can you help me get an introduction?”  and “Can you help me brainstorm ideas as to who else I should talk to?”  At worst, you’ll get crickets or a “no.”  More likely, you’ll get a lead.  Employers - ask your employees and alumni as well.  Make use of recruiting bonuses, gift cards and other tools to show your appreciation.)

Resist "Isms:"  Of course.  Discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender, orientation, national origin, religion and genetic information is illegal.  But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen, consciously or subconsciously.  Challenge yourself and your team to confront and remove your biases and take a risk.

For example, consider ageism.  There are many experienced, mature candidates that would make  solid coworkers, with good work ethics and willingness to do the job.  While they may not want to be working for you in five years, there's no guarantee that younger worker will be either.  In fact, the median job tenure across all ages was just over four years according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' January 2020 report.  For Millennials, the median tenure was 2.8 years whereas the median tenure of workers ages 55 to 64  was more than three times that at 9.9 years.  While older candidates may or may not have the energy of a 30 year old, there's much to gain in shedding this and the  other "isms."

Automation & Robotics:  Many companies have already started down this road with many more to follow.  Depending on the nature of the task at hand, automation may be the best investment in the long run, particularly if the company resides in less populated cities.  It only makes sense to research the options and analyze the return on investment for repetitive, mechanical and/or necessary tasks that demand hard-to-find workers.

Re-recruitment:  The Pandemic Paradox is placing pressure on pricing.  Owners are bracing for an increase in their labor costs due to competing offers of compensation.  It only makes sense that we will see wage inflation. 

Compensation is merely a starting point and, if you’re in the ballpark, may not be the most important factor to an employee or new recruit.  Keep in mind that benefits, culture, life-work balance, accountability, and coworker relationships matter.   Unlike their paycheck that they never see due to direct deposit, coworkers experience these other factors every single day.  They go home and talk about it and in the morning decide whether they are looking forward to or dreading the day.  In this regard, candidates and employees have the advantage.  Employers will need to be simultaneously disciplined and creative in how they compete.

Time is of the essence for both sides of the Pandemic Paradox.  While the workplace and market needs continue to change, we still need each other.  The sooner companies tap into the resources, deepen their relationships, and actively promote their places as great places to work, the better the chances are that they improve their success in the competition for talent.  As for those looking for a new gig, invest in yourself and your skills as much as possible, hone your people, communication, and time/project management skills, tap into, and expand your network and think creatively.


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