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Where Are the Workers to Rebuild Local Economies?

The average number of workers available for every open job is half what it has been for the past 20 years. The government sector faces the biggest shortage of all, with 5 times as many open jobs as workers to fill them.

A "now hiring" sign in a store window.
A "now hiring" sign in a store window.
Justin Sullivan/TNS
Post-pandemic recovery is being held in check because employers cannot hire the workers they need, according to a new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Nine out of 10 of the business leaders surveyed said that a lack of available workers was slowing economic growth in their area.

The 8.1 million vacant job openings in March are a record high, nearly 600,000 more than the February total, and the pool of workers looking to fill them is the most out of sync it has been in decades. Over the past 20 years, the Worker Availability Ratio (WAR) — the average number of workers who want a job and are ready to start work divided by job openings — has averaged 4.8, but in March it had dropped to 2.4.

Nearly half of all states in the U.S. are opting out of federal unemployment programs introduced during the pandemic, based on the belief that these benefits are creating a disincentive for workers. Some states are discontinuing these benefits within weeks, several months before the Sept. 6 federal phaseout date.

These announcements prompted a temporary surge in job searches, according to an analysis by the employment website Indeed, but this increased activity subsided fairly quickly. Its most recent report shows that search activity in states ending federal benefits in June is below the national baseline, the opposite of what might be expected if these benefits were holding back job seekers. It’s too early to know what will happen as more and more payments are cut off.

“Employers across a number of sectors are looking to ramp up hiring, in both industries reopening and those who’ve seen strong demand during the pandemic,” says Nick Bunker, economic research director for Indeed. “Workers are more hesitant, due to a number of factors including the lingering COVID-19 risks, enhanced UI payments, and a dearth of child-care options.”

Not everyone agrees that taking away federal dollars will lead to economic growth. Florida State Sen. Gary Farmer characterized his governor’s move in this direction as a “gut punch” to the economy of a state with some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation.

Public-Sector Challenges

For government jobs, including education, the March WAR of 0.19 equates to five times as many job openings as persons seeking to fill them. The private health and education services sector had the next-lowest WAR, with less than one person for each available position — a worrying sign that making up for health and education losses could be impeded by lack of workers.

The challenge for public-sector employers is more than a matter of lower salaries, says Gerald Young, senior research analyst for the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE). Many public-sector services, whether public safety and health, social services or teaching in a classroom, are high-touch and interpersonal.

“The pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty to those interactions, whether it’s the number of people that you would be interfacing with or the environment in which you’d be interacting with them,” he says. “There’s understandable concern about the potential health risks that anybody faces in working in an environment where you are in an enclosed space with a large group of people.”

These worries are shared by existing government employees, says Rivka Liss-Levinson, Ph.D., SLGE’s senior research manager. A survey she conducted toward the end of 2020 found that three out of four workers considered their jobs to be risky in terms of COVID-19 exposure at work, and almost one in three said the pandemic had made them consider changing jobs.

Even mission-driven job seekers may be inclined to stay away because the disruptions of the past year have created barriers to their success. “Students are falling behind, public health workers are facing challenges in implementing safety measures,” says Liss-Levinson. “You have that piece as well that may be adding to the problem.”

Upping the Recruitment Game

When the supply of workers is low, private-sector employers can respond quickly by increasing their salary offerings. Government can’t do this, says Young, but there are other ways for it to remain competitive.

The reimagining of home, school and work routines that have been essential during the pandemic has created new sensibilities regarding the importance of work-life balance. In a recent survey, SLGE found that government employers had greatly increased options for both flexible work schedules and for mixing in-person responsibilities and work from home. This also gives recruiters a chance to offer less-crowded work environments.

The exodus of women from the workforce, especially working moms, points to the problem that happens when there is not sufficient child care for women working outside home, says Liss-Levinson. Scheduling could help address this, but other forms of child-care assistance would add appeal to government service.

“Post pandemic, what’s important to people is having employers who understand the competing needs that people have, especially women who are mothers,” she says. “That is an area where public-sector employers need to focus and try to get a competitive advantage.”

While controversy around public health response to COVID-19, police reform and the November election has hurt trust in government, the pandemic has also been full of examples of public-sector strength and support. Messaging and outreach, including social media campaigns, that emphasize the mission-focused aspects of public-sector careers can also give recruiters an edge.

“If you are interested in being of service to the public, that may be the career track for you, much more so than just finding a job,” says Young.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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