Just among the recent posts, we have local employers looking for cooks, tellers, pre-school teachers, laborers, hotel front desk attendant, security officer, and loan processor. Dig a little deeper, you’ll full-time positions available as branch managers, business analyst, certified nursing assistant, machine operator, carpenter, director of data management, electronics tester, fashion stylist, family advocate, immigration services specialist, landscape architect, news producer, planner, veterinary assistant, warehouse worker, and welder. Right now, every sector in our local economy is struggling with open jobs that can’t be filled.
Some suggest the labor shortage is being caused by the Federal government’s $300 weekly unemployment bonus. There have been calls for this bonus to be discontinued. It is set to expire in September. I certainly know a few people who are staying home versus returning to work because of this bonus. I also know others who need this support because of childcare issues and school-aged children who still have not returned to school full-time.
The reality is that Saratoga County had a labor shortage before the pandemic. At the time, our unemployment rate was about 3.5%. Now it is 4.4%. Then, there were approximately 4,000 people who qualified for unemployment benefits. Now there are just over 5,000. Even if all 1,000 of the “new” individuals on unemployment came back to work, we’d still have a labor shortage. Getting people on unemployment back to work will help. It won’t solve the problem.
I believe there are larger demographic forces at play. Locally, we have an aging population. During the pandemic, the percentage of people over 65 who decided to retire started to increase. The stock market helped many of them immensely in the last decade. Even after the bottom fell out last March, the market rebounded and retirement investments continued to increase in value. Those 65 and over were also more susceptible to the virus. So some made the choice to retire for health and safety reasons.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’re not having as many kids as we once did. This isn’t hurting us today but it will soon. The younger generation now in high school and college has also stayed away from working more so than prior generations. Roughly twenty years ago, more than 70% of this cohort worked. Today, that percentage is down to nearly 40%. During the pandemic, some parents kept their children at home versus encouraging them to take a front-facing job where they might be at risk.
Our immigration system is broken. It’s been broken for decades. The US Chamber of Commerce has been a leading advocate for immigration reform because of the labor shortage. Once again, immigration reform won’t solve the problem. But if done thoughtfully, it can help the hospitality, technology, agricultural, construction and healthcare sectors.
The Chamber is doing what we can to help. Any employer in Saratoga County can post open jobs for free on the Job Zone. This was once a members-only benefit. We realize everyone needs our help now. That’s why we made the change. We’ve also created a Saratoga County Help Wanted promotional campaign. For as little as $100, we’ll do a mini-social media campaign to promote your local job openings. This is helping but it won’t solve the labor shortage.
We’re seeing local employers increasing starting wages. Some have bonus programs if you get a friend to apply or if you stay for a certain period of time. We’re seeing flexible hours and work from home options. Employers are hosting their own drive-up job fairs. Some are providing transportation to and from work or partnering with CDTA. We’re also seeing businesses automate. You can see this every time you exit a big box retailer and there are more self-checkout lines than staffed ones. And small business owners are just working more hours themselves.
I feel particularly bad for our locally owned small businesses. This summer as we return to normal, it’s likely many of them will be understaffed. This is where you can help. Be kind to these businesses and their employees. It may take them a little longer to serve or to help you. Have some patience. Be respectful. Remember that those who are working will likely be working harder than ever before.