Last week I attended Washington State Workforce Association’s annual conference in SeaTac. WWA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization made up of local Workforce Development boards like the South Central Workforce Council, and stakeholders from education, economic development, labor and community-based organizations.
Together, we work to advance the economic health of communities, primarily through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. WIOA is federal legislation designed to help job seekers become self-sufficient and match business with skilled workers so they can compete in today’s global economy.
The conference confirmed much of what we have already known: Like the rest of the United States, Washington is experiencing a workforce gap. Employers are struggling to find qualified talent to fill vacant jobs — especially in critical industries like health care, education and manufacturing.
Plus, tens of thousands of people are still on the sidelines of the labor market for various reasons including lack of affordable childcare, caretaking responsibilities, rising transportation costs, and more.
Finding workers has never been easy, but now it’s even more challenging. The unemployment rate is 3.7% in Washington and 3.5% nationally — record lows. And according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were nearly 1.7 job vacancies for every unemployed American in September.
Combine this with a few daunting facts from current labor market studies:
- The birth rate has declined in the United States. “By 2030, all Baby Boomers will be 65+, and by 2034, older adults will outnumber children for the first time in US history” (Burning Glass and EMSI).
- Immigration is down due to a variety of reasons.
- We have seen a huge jump in entrepreneurship and freelance work. People are working for themselves or through a temp agency, driving, delivering food, or other independent gig to make ends meet.
What about young people? Newsweek calls this group “Generation COVID” adding that “as many as 1 in 6 young adults ages 18 to 24 is neither in school nor working.”
So how do we solve this labor force issue? There is no easy answer, but a few possibilities were discussed at the conference.
Companies can engage people who are now on the sidelines — individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system, have a poor credit history, or mental or physical health challenges.
They also could consider hiring “experienced” workers (aka retirees). And in short, rethink hiring practices:
- Does the position really require a college degree?
- Is the wage realistic considering current inflation?
- Can the work be performed remotely from home?
Flexibility is key. Today, companies can no longer wait for the perfectly trained employee to apply.
There are some other great ways to recruit new talent: explore paid internships, on-the-job training, and registered apprenticeship to upskill and retain workers.
Lastly and perhaps most important, businesses must value the workers they have. Think about offering benefits like child care, paid leave, retention bonuses, career development pathways, etc.
COVID changed the way Americans live and work. It’s time to adjust to the new norm.
Michelle Smith is the communications and employer engagement manager for the South Central Workforce Council in Yakima.