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Louisiana’s Workers Are Quitting At Record-Setting Pace

As of July, approximately 440,000 Louisianans have voluntarily left their jobs this year, the highest total for the first seven months of a year since 2000. But experts say mobility signals a healthy economy, albeit a challenging one for employers.

Mandeville, La., with Spanish moss hanging over a street
Mandeville, La.
(TNS) — Two years ago, Jason Richoux faced a choice to stick to his guns or make a move into the unknown.

Richoux spent nearly 18 years in marketing and advertising, working for agencies and corporations along the way. He joined a Mandeville, La., solar company as its marketing director in 2019.

But around mid-2020, as sales leads dipped during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company furloughed its marketing department, including Richoux.

He explored his options. He played with opening his own marketing firm or a franchise of another company. But he slowly realized real estate was a possibility. He owned some investment properties and enjoyed his experience with the industry.

So in September 2020, he took the test to become a mortgage lender. Now he owns Argent Lending and is renovating a space on Girod Street in Mandeville for his growing business. Richoux called the pandemic a "reflection point" that convinced him to take a risk that has paid off in spades.

"I had never wanted to make that jump into the sales world, and now I wish I would have done it 15 years ago," he said.

More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic first pushed the reset button for many workers' careers, Louisiana's workforce is as mobile as ever.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 440,000 Louisiana workers have voluntarily left their jobs through July, the state's highest total for the first seven months of the year since the bureau began tracking the data in 2000. Should the trend hold, the state could once again break its record for quits in a single year.

Meanwhile, job openings in Louisiana hit a record 163,000 in May and have been above 140,000 since December. Before 2020, the state's previous record was 101,000 openings in April 2015.

The shifting labor market is yet another enduring economic effect of COVID-19. Workforce levels are still down from pre-pandemic times, providing opportunities for in-demand workers to rethink their career choices.

Economists say the mobility is a sign of a healthy economy, albeit a perplexing challenge for employers, who acknowledge the new reality while struggling to find workers amid historically low unemployment in Louisiana.

"Employers are still looking for people, and that's one of the reasons you see the quit rate actually as high as it is," said Gary Wagner, Acadiana business economist with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "It's a great time to move if you're in the labor force."

Behind the Numbers

Prior to this summer, Louisiana had hit the 70,000-quit plateau only three times — the two months after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and again in July 2019.

Now Louisiana has hit 70,000 quits the past two months, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In addition, the 440,000 quits through July — the latest data available — are more than the annual totals from 2009 through 2013, when the effects of the Great Recession were still shaking the economy. The state hit a 12-year low in 2020 with 566,000 quits, but the number shot up to a record 720,000 in 2021.

Wagner said the quit rate is elevated because 31,000 fewer people in Louisiana are working than before the pandemic started. Workers are still in demand, giving job seekers more leverage to be choosy.

The national labor pool began to rise about four months ago. That hasn't happened in Louisiana, Wagner said, which has been a factor in the state's low unemployment rate.

"If those 30,000-plus people that were working before the pandemic all came back into the labor force, you wouldn't have the opportunities you would have switching to other employers," Wagner said.

Wagner said it's hard to imagine COVID-19 stimulus funds didn't affect some people's career choices. The remaining question is whether those funds were the "dominant effect."

"I think there were probably people who were just reevaluating what they wanted to do, what their lifestyle choices were," he said.

Stephen Waguespack, president and CEO of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said younger workers are far more willing to job-hop than their predecessors. Some workers have also shifted to part-time work instead of pursuing full-time employment.

"Workers have gotten used to more flexibility," Waguespack said.

Struggling Sectors

The overall outlook for Louisiana's labor pool is positive. The Louisiana Workforce Commission is projecting employment will increase by 3.5 percent across all sectors in 2023.

However, several industries are likely to take a hit, including agriculture, fishing, forestry and hunting; mining; utilities; finance and insurance; real estate, rental and leasing; educational services; arts, entertainment and recreation; and government.

Amid the shifting landscape, Waguespack said employers in oil and gas, hospitality, manufacturing and agriculture are still struggling to find workers in Louisiana. Baton Rouge Area Chamber officials have also said demand has heightened for registered nurses, retail workers and retail supervisors.

In some cases, employers can find applicants, but few will show up for in-person interviews, Waguespack said.

Waguespack said employers must be creative in terms of touting their benefits, particularly on social media. Successful businesses have connected with community colleges and technical schools to create talent pipelines.

"It's more imperative now than ever for employers to get out and talk about the benefits of open jobs," he said.

Gary Jupiter, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Baton Rouge, said his hotel has tried to plug workforce gaps by connecting with local colleges and universities and hospitality trade shows. The hotel has struggled to rerecruit employees who were laid off early in the pandemic.

"A lot of those people found other ways of making ends meet in other careers," Jupiter said.

Some employers are getting creative. Stan Harris, president and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said one restaurant operator in the north shore area is offering up to $1,000 in college tuition reimbursement for new hires. "He said he's hired six people under that plan," Harris said.

Harris expressed optimism for the industry. He said restaurant jobs are up by 2.5 percent in Baton Rouge compared to 2020 and 10 percent in Lafayette, though Shreveport, Lake Charles and New Orleans are still down.

Harris said applications for restaurant jobs are up slightly this year, though fewer workers are looking at the restaurant industry as a career choice.

However, he added that employers — even restaurants with their razor-thin margins — have to examine all of their benefits to establish themselves as an employer of choice.

"If you look outside and say it's just wage driven, it's not," Harris said. "There are other things internally that you want to make sure of."

(c)2022 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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