One of my geeky interests is following the monthly labor market reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most prominent of these is the Employment Situation Report, better known as the Jobs report. This is where we learn about job gains and losses for the prior month, the overall unemployment rate, the labor force participation rate and more. The second is the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, better known as the “JOLTS” report. This research shows total job openings, total hires and separations, the “quits” rate (how many people voluntarily left their jobs) and more. Together, these reports provide a baseline for assessing: the health of the U.S. labor market, hiring trends and how macro labor market conditions will impact regional, local and even company-specific employment (or, the “micro” labor market). As I have said before, every organization operates inside a distinct labor market and only by understanding the overall economy and relevant labor markets, both macro and micro, can one make informed decisions and plan a smart talent strategy.
The most recent release of each report stood out for different reasons. The April Jobs report stunned most economists with a lackluster gain of only 266,000 jobs for the month when over 1 million jobs had been expected to be added in April. And the JOLTS report surprisingly showed that total job openings had climbed to 8.1 million at the end of March, an all-time high since 2000. Both reports set off a frenzy of analyses and speculation about the health of the labor market, whether the extended and enhanced unemployment benefits were keeping workers out of the job market, and what employers struggling to hire can do. After all, with so many unemployed people in the labor market, how can employers be struggling to fill their open roles?
Importantly, the pandemic’s impact on the labor market has not been equal across the labor force or across various sizes and types of employers. Job losses starting in spring 2020 were concentrated among the lowest earners. According to a February 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute, 80% of the 9.6 million net jobs lost in 2020 were held by workers in the bottom 25% of the wage distribution. And the industries suffering the most profound job losses since February 2020 are traditionally on the lower ends of the wage scale: leisure and hospitality, education, health and retail. Even in these hard-hit industries, firms of different sizes experienced the downs and ups of the labor market differently. Amazon, for example, hired approximately 500,000 new employees in 2020, while local restaurants or shops across the country are struggling to hire for their open roles.
While the reasons for the imbalance between labor demand (open jobs) and labor supply (people willing to take those open jobs) are many and complex, I’m curious about the role HR technologies could play in helping balance supply and demand, and consequently, place more people in open roles. Given that job losses have been felt most acutely by low-wage earners and low-wage payers, let’s focus on how HR technology can help get more people back into these roles. Here are three examples, each addressing a theoretical reason smaller, lower-wage-paying employers are having difficulty filling roles.
There is anecdotal evidence that many small business owners, particularly in leisure and hospitality, feel that their compensation and benefits can’t compete with federal and state unemployment benefits. If this is true, there are some things that small businesses and HR departments can do. (And we’ll know more about how much these anecdotes are indicative of broader labor market trends in September when most of the extended unemployment benefits programs are slated to expire.)
See also: What COVID means to compensation
First, they must understand how their comp packages stand up in the market. Several resources, including those from Salary.com, Payscale and Glassdoor, can help even the smallest organization get a feel for market rates for certain roles in specific areas. This data can reveal obvious outliers in your offers and help you to better craft competitive salary/wage and benefits packages. Small organizations also can use simple survey tools like Survey Monkey or Qualtrics to quickly survey candidates who turned down offers about compensation and evaluate how the organization could have created a more compelling offer package. I think most small organizations are simply throwing things at the wall, in terms of raising starting salaries/wages and other benefits in order to attempt to increase candidate flow. Having more concrete data is bound to help.
COVID-19 Health and Safety Concerns
Part of the reason many unemployed workers are staying on the sidelines of the job market is a fear that, because the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, returning to work would put them at increased risk for illness.
We are all familiar with the standard health and safety protocols that have been established in most workplaces and businesses: masking, social distancing, more physical barriers between employees and the public. But there are also workplace technology solutions that can help employers convince employees to come back, including tools from technology providers like Salesforce.com–with its Work.com solutions–PwC, Oracle, Paychex and more.
These kinds of solutions allow organizations to monitor the health and safety of employees, perform contact-tracing in the event of an illness or positive COVID-19 test in the workplace, and maintain overall company compliance toward their own policies–like only having 50% occupancy in a given work location at any given time. Organizations can also show their commitment to a safe work environment by staggering the return to offices and workplaces to ensure that no employees feel rushed or pressured to return to work. After over a year of working from home, or perhaps not working at all, heading back into a workplace is going to be a difficult transition.
The ongoing challenge of caring for children or other loved ones also is a factor. While many schools across the country have reopened, some only offer partial in-school instruction, leaving parents to manage a hybrid schedule. Additionally, numerous childcare centers have either closed permanently or re-opened since 2020 to find surging demand and long waiting lists for parents now trying to get back to work and manage their parental responsibilities.
Over the last few years, several new HR and workplace technologies have emerged that employers can make available to their caregiving employees, including Care.com and Torchlight. Organizations that don’t have the resources to offer enhanced benefits for direct caregiver support can ensure as much stability as possible by leveraging scheduling tools like When I Work. The more certainty and advance notice employees have about when they will be on the worksite, the better they will be able to manage their caregiving responsibilities.
It is curious that, prior to the pandemic, in what was an extremely tight labor market with 3.5% unemployment and over 7 million job openings, the most common explanation for the difficulty in filling open jobs was the “skills mismatch”–or, as an employer would say, a lack of skilled or qualified candidates. Although this problem remains in some areas, we are not framing most of the current situation as a “skills mismatch.” I do think that skills need to be addressed, but for now, I think most employers should focus on the basics–compensation, safety, caregiving and scheduling challenges–and the associated HR technologies that can help get workplaces back up and running and help get more people back to work.