Posted by on July 12, 2021

“Help Wanted:” it’s a sign of the times. No matter the industry, there are jobs out there going unfilled, and it’s been one of our biggest economic recovery concerns. There’s a lot of speculation about why it’s so hard to find help, but no simple answers. Many point to unemployment benefits, suggesting that unemployed workers are reluctant to return to work because of supplemental unemployment benefits – and it looks like that might be true, for some. A US Chamber of Commerce survey found that 16% of unemployed individuals aren’t seeking work because of unemployment benefits. So, what about the other 84%? What’s behind their decisions or inability to find work? Research shows many factors are playing into individual decisions about going back to work – one of the most significant being the lack of childcare. Many childcare providers closed during COVID; if they’re open now, they have long waitlists and are, predictably, often short-staffed.  For jobs that can only be done in-person – like the hospitality and retail work that’s particularly in-demand right now – parents might not have the option to go to work. Women, who are more likely to act as caregivers, are more likely to be impacted by limited childcare options: a March 2021 Census survey found that women make up 80% of those who left their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic. Others that lost their jobs last year may be looking for work in their particular field, or might not have the right skills for available jobs. And after a tumultuous year for essential workers on the front lines of COVID risk and regulations, some report they’re looking for more stable employment that offers benefits, vacation time, and sick pay. Nationally, the situation is expected to resolve itself over time. But in some parts of the country, like the U.P., the current labor shortage – exacerbated, like everything else, by COVID – foreshadows a deeper, longer-lasting issue that’s been decades in the making. The U.P.’s population, especially its working-age population, has been shrinking. Over the last 10 years in Marquette County, the number of those aged 60 or older grew by nearly 30% – while the number of those under age 60 dropped by 10%.  The number of children – our future workforce – dropped by 7%. That means that without new residents moving to our region, our workforce shortages are going to grow. That’s why efforts to attract new residents are so important. Investing in assets like broadband and creating a quality place to live are now standard parts of any economic development efforts. At the same time, we need to create welcoming communities that have the housing choices and childcare that potential new residents and workers need. In the short term, solutions are already in play. Many businesses are raising pay, offering benefits, or using automation to fill gaps – if you’ve ordered food from a touchscreen or app, or noticed more self-checkout lanes, you’ve experienced some of that innovation.  Meanwhile, programs from state and regional partners like U.P. Michigan Works! can help to expand our workforce through training, apprenticeships, and free community college tuition. Then LSCP is an important part of these solutions and longer-term efforts, in partnership with other economic development organizations and local governments. Our data services, which provide comprehensive workforce analyses, can help businesses and partners understand our workforce dynamics; while our advocacy and coordination at the state and regional level for investments in infrastructure, childcare, and housing are critical in building the communities and workforce we need for a sustainable economy. To learn more about our services and advocacy, contact us. Sarah Lucas, CEO, writes a bi-weekly column for the Mining Journal.