(TNS) — Almost a year ago, Oklahoma's economy felt the shock of a worldwide pandemic that shuttered businesses, sent workers home and changed the landscape of what it means to be an employee in the workforce.
Across the state, at least 150,000 people lost their job. A record number filed for unemployment benefits. Entire industries felt the squeeze as jobs disappeared, and many still have not recovered. However, some surged. For example, companies in the financial services industry had about 3 percent more employees in November compared to 2019. And general merchandise stores, which include big-box retailers Walmart and Target, employed more people during the pandemic than they did the year before.
Different Industries Faced Different Realities Amid COVID Outbreak
On its face, the data seems easy to explain. Banks and credit institutions needed more people to handle billions of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program loans and other federal and state programs. The challenge wasn't hiring more staff at a community retail bank like Citizens Bank of Edmond, it was adapting to customers' behavior as fewer people went inside the lobby. "Our team really shifted from being in-person," said Jill Castilla, CEO and President of Citizens Bank of Edmond. "So we were able to keep our employment the same through the pandemic, even though job functions shifted considerably."
The pandemic exposed businesses already vulnerable to swings in the energy sector. Oklahoma's oil and gas industry began a workforce decline in mid-2019, but a stark shift in how people lived their daily lives hit those companies harder.
Bauman Machine Inc., an Oklahoma City-based manufacturer that built directional drilling tools, lost about 60 percent of its workforce. Owner Mark McCarty said it began when the energy industry began to falter, but he also lost business when the pandemic hit.
"We do work for the casino industry also, and we were shut down and hurt pretty bad with that," McCarty said. "Our normal (number of) employees are between 24 and 26, and right now we're down to nine."
'Employers Need Employees, Employees Need Jobs, but 'Match' Matters'
Economist Travis Roach said a recession can be a catalyst that pushes someone toward a new career, or at least evaluating their current one.
"Employers need employees, employees need jobs, but 'match' matters," said Roach, an associate professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. "It might change what people look for in a job. They may use this moment to choose a new career or change career paths completely."
That's especially true as workers see how their employers handle a crisis, he said.
"You see how much you've been willing to stay with a company either out of loyalty or duty, then when you see how the company in dire straits treats you, you may start recalculating that," Roach said.
People looking for a different job have to understand their skills and analyze how those skills can transfer, especially if they're moving to a different industry. That's especially true for the thousands laid off from the energy sector, said Bettye Taylor, regional director for Express Employment Professionals, whether they worked in the field or in the office.
"Sometimes they're pigeonholed into being thought of as somebody who can only do oil and gas accounting, when the reality is basic accounting principles are all the same," Taylor said, highlighting one example.
'We Were Just Open in a Different Way'
Boutique retailer Plenty Mercantile completely shifted to online sales in March when it closed its three locations to the public. Co-founder Brittney Matlock was able to keep her dozen employees who needed their job on the payroll, but they had to quickly adapt from face-to-face transactions to being an online-only salesforce.
"We did a lot of Facetime shopping and texting photos," Matlock said. "We never actually closed the business, we never stopped operating. We just were open in a different way."
Plenty Mercantile utilized government programs and applied for grants to keep the business going. Matlock considers herself lucky.
"We worked really hard, but there are things that have aligned for us that are outside of our control," she said. "And we are incredibly thankful and aware that it is not all due to hard, hard work. But regardless, we do work really hard. And we figure things out."
Thousands Remain Unemployed
More than 38,000 people remain on unemployment. That might not seem like a lot compared to the massive spike in jobless claims last year, but the number of people filing each week is still twice as high as a typical week before the pandemic.
Chrystalynn Sanchez is a college student and worked as a nanny when the pandemic hit. Her employer, a physician, encouraged her to file for unemployment.
Although she was only briefly in the system before finding a job where she could work from home, Sanchez stayed up to date with the struggle others had, both with receiving their benefits and trying to find work. These problems are often laid bare on social media whenever the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission posts an update.
In the comments section of a post last month, Sanchez began organizing a slightly tongue-in-cheek job fair to ease tensions among the frustrated claimants.
"I feel like that calmed a little bit of a riot because some people were like, 'oh, we're going to protest,'" Sanchez said. "I'm like, no, show up in a suit, take a resume, ask where your desk is and be a part of the solution. I think people do need to do that. As crappy as it is, be a part of the solution."
It wasn't a far cry from what she does in her daily life. Her husband is a pastor and career navigator at Reaching Our City, a nonprofit ministry that serves disadvantaged residents in the metro.
"I live in a community in which we work on these small hopes. We've joked about assigning jobs to all these different people, and even finding somebody to watch the kiddos," she said. "So as much as it seems like a joke on Facebook to some people, we really do that."
The pandemic exacerbated the struggle of finding steady employment for some people, especially those who already face an uphill climb. They might need proper identification documents, or a babysitter, or even just a ride to work.
"These are small realities that people deal with every day," Sanchez said.
'The Good News and Hope We All Need'
A survey released in January hints business owners and managers expect the pace of hiring to pick up in 2021. The Harris Poll survey, commissioned by Express Employment Professionals, reported 46 percent of businesses expect to increase their number of employees.
When the pandemic began, less than a third planned on hiring more workers.
"The trend line of hiring at the end of 2020 is very encouraging for economic recovery as we kick off 2021," Express CEO Bill Stoller said. "It's the good news and hope we all need to begin the new year with optimism as the economy continues to move in the right direction, drastically different from where we were early last year."
The Incredible Shrinking Workforce by the Numbers
Most industries in Oklahoma have fewer employees now than they did in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants were the hardest hit during the early months, losing 44 percent of its employees in April before rebounding. The number of retail store workers grew significantly, being one of the few bright spots in data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Administrative, Support, Waste Management/Remediation
This broad category includes jobs like office administration, hiring of personnel, document preparation and clerical services, solicitation, collection, security and surveillance services, cleaning and waste disposal services.
This sector has shrunk by an estimated 12,750 employees, or roughly 13 percent since 2019, making it one of the worst-hit industries that hasn't yet recovered.
Durable goods manufacturing shops lost more than 15 percent of its workforce this year, or about 14,600 jobs. This category includes welders, machinists, assemblers, truck drivers and others in the manufacturing sector.
Aerospace manufacturing is an outlier. Its job category was one of the few durable goods categories tracked by BLS that consistently had as many or more employees than the previous year throughout the entire pandemic.
The pandemic hit even the highly skilled and educated workforce. The sector includes both public and private educational institutions, whether online, in home or in school.
The teaching workforce shrank by 4,400 employees. That means one in five jobs before the pandemic haven't yet come back.
Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation
Your favorite theater or museum probably shut down sometime during this past year leading to layoffs.
This sector lost a quarter of its workforce since 2019, about 4,500 employees (seasonally adjusted).
General Merchandise Stores
One of the few bright spots for employment, general merchandise stores grew by an estimated 4,450 employees as of November 2020. It's almost 11 percent compared to the typical number of employees during the entire year of 2019.
Even though employment is seasonal with more workers in the lead-up to Christmas, the retail merchandise workforce consistently employed more people each month than it did the same month in 2019.
Food Services and Drinking Places
After taking a massive hit to its workforce at the beginning of the pandemic, this sector is one of the few industries that now has more employees than it did in 2019.
This sector, which includes restaurants, catering services and bars, now employs 3,000 more people than before the pandemic.
Finance and Insurance
This broad category includes companies that create and sell insurance policies, issue loans and facilitate the credit market.
The sector grew by an estimated 1,750, about 3 percent over the mean number of employees in 2019.
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