This is quickly transitioning from an employment problem to an employment emergency, and it is not unique to Saratoga County. This is a nationwide problem exacerbated by well intended public policies which have strained an already tight workforce.
While unemployment was a vital safety net for people during the pandemic, it is time for people to come off unemployment and rejoin the workforce. There is only one problem: When some people are making more money on enhanced unemployment, how do you get them to back to work?
The Saratoga-Warren-Washington Workforce Development Board (SWW WDB), with a regional population of over 355,000 residents, recently reached out to State representatives requesting that they facilitate the return of the pre-pandemic "work search requirement" to receive continued NYS unemployment benefits. Our neighbors in Vermont are returning to pre-pandemic "work search requirements" on May 9, 2021, and our WDB is suggesting that New York State follow their lead.
The WDB also reached out to Congressional and Senate representatives to express their desire that no further Unemployment Stimulus packages be entertained by Congress or the Senate. In a letter to State Representatives, Executive Director Gretchen Steffan emphasized that “The time has come for workers to rejoin or reenter the workforce and to support our State and our Nation in rebuilding what has been lost over the last year of the pandemic. Our business community can no longer afford to compete with enhanced unemployment insurance payments. Businesses are being hit with enormous Unemployment rate increases, which drive up the cost of doing business in NYS. These increases take away from a business's opportunity to remain wage competitive and ensure long-term viability.”
Restaurants and local retailers are the cornerstone of our communities and there is a clear consumer desire to visit Saratoga County, stay in our hotels and enjoy restaurants on-premises more than they have been able to during the pandemic. It is more urgent than ever to find creative short-term solutions like public policy fixes to well-intended enhanced unemployed benefits, letting our kids get their working papers to take a summer jobs, assisting with childcare needs, encouraging retired residents to work, and working with our employers to provide shuttle service to jobs. It is critical to fill open jobs and keep the Saratoga County economy growing.
In addition to the overwhelming need for people to reenter the workforce, if we continue on this current path, many teens and young adults will be missing out on critical life skills. Teens who work develop critical soft skills needed for future careers. Kids who work also get the opportunity to learn valuable lessons about finance when they are young. Studies shows that kids who learn to manage money when they’re young will be able to better handle their finances as adults.
According to a study by the Brookings Institution in 2019, fewer teens are taking on summer jobs than ever before. The study found that there is an increase in year-round school enrollment and a decrease in the number of employed teens. In 1979, almost 60% of American teenagers were employed, an all-time high. In 2018, about 35% of teens between the ages of 16-19 were part of the workforce. A third of Americans get their first job in a restaurant according to the National Restaurant Association. Nearly 6 in 10 adults have worked in the restaurant industry at some point during their lives. In the U.S., restaurants are the top employers of teenagers in the economy — 1 in 3 employed teens work in the restaurant industry. Teenagers choosing not to work means restaurants especially feel the loss of teen workers.
A survey by the National Restaurant Association this month found 76% of operators in New York have job openings that are difficult to fill, and most don't expect labor challenges to ease after the pandemic ends; 93% said recruiting and retaining employees will likely be harder after the pandemic ends than it was before it began.
While the pandemic and government policies problems have increased these problems, the labor shortage has been growing for years. Over the past decade, employers have been voicing concern about a shortage of skilled workers, particularly workers with advanced degrees in STEM fields. Prior to the pandemic, nearly every industry reported that it was experiencing a labor shortage, but some industries were hit harder than others. Employers are having a harder time filling blue-collar positions than professional positions that require a college education. The hardest-to-find workers are no longer computer engineers. They are home health care aides, restaurant workers, and hotel staff. The shift has been happening because more and more Americans are going to college and taking professional jobs, while working-class baby boomers are retiring en masse.
Despite the problems, there is light at the end of the tunnel as we transition out of the pandemic. Americans are resilient, our county is growing, our economy is strong and the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, along with our workforce development partners, will continue to seek long-range solutions so that our unmet labor needs don’t stunt the recovery process.