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Can this workforce be saved? Here's why US workers are quitting in droves

“Help wanted” signs are everywhere. Job specialists say people won’t take a job unless it pays at least $15 an hour. Since April, workers have been voluntarily leaving their jobs at a rate of 4 million people — that’s more people than the populations of the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metro area — per month. What's behind this Great Resignation, and can this workforce be saved?

The Great Resignation, a trend of US workers walking away from jobs, is illustrated with a pyramid of workers, with some workers struggling to hold up the gaps in the pyramid caused by missing workers.
U.S. workers, burnt out by the stress of the past two years and wondering if their lives are about more than work, are voluntarily walking away from jobs at an unprecedented rate of 4 million people per month.
Troy Becker / The Forum
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EDITOR’S NOTE: It's called "The Great Resignation," a seismic upheaval in the workforce that is reshaping today's economy. This week, Forum Communication Co. reporters will look at The Great Resignation's profound effects on workers and businesses across the region in our multi-part series, “Help Wanted.”


In western North Dakota, a young RN who always longed to see the world decides to leave a steady job in Bismarck, pack up her young family and take a $90-an-hour position as a travel nurse.

A Fargo teacher, frustrated with trying to connect with students via remote learning, decides to change careers completely and pursue a nursing career.

Down in Arizona, a North Dakota snowbird who has worked in marketing for over 45 years notices that her client load keeps getting lighter — and decides she doesn’t mind. She’d rather play pickleball and ease into retirement.

These are just a few of the work stories around the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has been like a giant boot kicking over an anthill — and we are the ants, running frantically, seeking some sense of order and wondering if the world around us will ever look the same.

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It’s little wonder, then, that today’s workscape looks so new and strange. “Help wanted” signs are everywhere, with restaurants and stores cutting hours due to lack of staff. Employment specialists complain that people won’t take a job unless it pays at least $15 an hour. Since April, workers have been voluntarily leaving their jobs at an unprecedented rate of 4 million people — that’s more people than the populations of the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metro area — per month.

Jill Berg, CEO of Spherion Staffing, which has offices in North Dakota and Minnesota, says this hemorrhage of employees, commonly called The Great Resignation , is unprecedented.

“What we have to do is figure out how we are going to flip that switch and turn that Great Resignation into the Great Retention, because if we don’t, we will not be able to survive as a country,” Berg said during a Concordia College webinar titled “The Big Quit” in November.

So what’s the problem? Have American workers grown too entitled? Or is this real culprit a profit-focused corporate culture which left too many employees feeling overlooked, undervalued and expendable?

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The answer likely lies somewhere in between. It seems COVID triggered more than a Great Resignation; it also inspired a Great Reckoning . The virus has been a double-edged sword — taking lives, disrupting the economy and spreading fear on one hand, yet stopping the world for long enough that people dared to ask themselves existential questions they may have never asked otherwise.

"People are really seeing things through a different filter here," says Berg. "They're seeing what's important in my life? Is my health important? Is my family important? Is my safety important? What are those things? And it may not be the 12-hour workday or the eight-hour workday."

In the case of Kari Schaaf, the labor-and-delivery RN who opted to become a travel nurse, the lure of $90-an-hour wages and the chance to explore different parts of the country were too powerful to resist. Schaaf has wanted to travel the world since she was young, even persuading husband, Danny, to spend their honeymoon in Thailand. The adventure of living elsewhere seemed especially enticing after two years of shrouding herself in masks, gloves and gowns; watching her co-workers divide into pro- and anti-vax camps and seeing unvaccinated moms get deathly ill from the virus.

Schaaf says she’ll miss her family in North Dakota and her workplace. But she’s excited about her new job, which starts with a 13-week assignment in Seattle. She doesn’t think this job could have happened without the conditions created by the pandemic. “I’m not sure it would have been possible to support the entire family prior to COVID, as wages skyrocketed for travel nurses because of it,” she says.

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Kari Schaaf, pictured here in front of the Missouri River in Bismarck with her husband, Danny, and their son, Blixen, will temporarily relocate to Seattle for Kari's first assignment as a travel nurse.
Kari Schaaf is pictured here with husband, Danny, and their son, Blixen, near the Missouri River in Bismarck in early fall 2021. The Schaafs will temporarily relocate to Seattle in January for Kari's first assignment as a travel nurse. Kari says she's always wanted to see more of the country and the high wages being paid to travel nurses, due to COVID, made that possible.
Contributed / Kari Schaaf

Workforce shortage isn't new phenomenon

 North Dakota and Minnesota — known for sturdy work ethics — show some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. North Dakota has the 13th lowest unemployment rate in the U.S. with a seasonally adjusted rate of 3.3%, while Minnesota trails closely at just 3.5 percent, according to November numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“There's nobody milking that supposed gravy train,” says Carey Fry, director of North Dakota Job Service’s Workforce Development Center in Fargo, in response to criticisms that federal stimulus payments and child care tax credits have turned Americans into freeloaders. “It's not happening.”

Studies suggest people are leaving for jobs with higher pay, more flexibility or a healthier work culture. “It’s not just quitting for the sake of quitting, it’s quitting to find better employment,” Gregory Daco, the chief US economist at Oxford Economics, told the New York Times.

Fry also points out that the pandemic only created the tipping point for a workforce that’s been shrinking for years.

People are really seeing things through a different filter here. They're seeing what’s important in my life? Is my health important? Is my family important? Is my safety important? What are those things? And it may not be the 12-hour workday or the eight-hour workday.
Jill Berg, CEO of Spherion Staffing

On the one hand, the law of supply-and-demand has given American workers a new surge of bargaining power. Employers must reach deeper into their pockets to pay workers, who may have once juggled several minimum-wage jobs to pay rent but now can find positions that start at $15.

Joyce Norals, vice president and chief human resource officer at Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, also spoke at the Concordia webinar on "The Big Quit." Norals believes that one positive development from the labor shortage is that it has forced the system to pay a better wage to the working poor.

"The benefit of it was it helped organization and public policy around helping set the minimum wage as a livable wage," she says.

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On the other hand, many smaller businesses cannot afford those wages. And the workers who suffer most are those jammed in the middle — the reliable stalwarts who always show up, as well as the middle managers who are caught between meeting organizational goals while picking up the slack left by skeletal staffing.

Causes range from demographic shifts to personal epiphanies

This unprecedented labor shortage has everyone scrambling to find the cause.

Some of it represents a simple demographic shift: Many older workers retired early when COVID hit. At the same time, families are smaller, which means fewer young workers are entering the workforce, Fry says.

And of that smaller demographic, fewer high school and college-age students — who traditionally filled many restaurant and hospitality jobs — are opting to enter the job market these days.

RELATED: Read more articles in this Help Wanted series

Young people seem to have more academic pressure and extracurricular choices, or their parents no longer expect them to get a job, Fry says. More college students also are studying remotely from other communities.

And once those young people graduate from North Dakota colleges, it can be an uphill battle to keep them here. Many graduates flock to larger cities, with the promise of higher wages and more social and entertainment options.

“We are competing with every state in this country for workers. What is it that’s going to make them want to come to North Dakota or to Fargo-Moorhead and take a job here?” Fry says.

Other reasons commonly cited for workers exiting are trouble securing reliable child care, vaccine hesitancy, pandemic-related safety fears and the trend of workers quitting to work for themselves.

But for some, it's an internal drive to feel valued and like they're in the right job. The term, "epiphany quitters," has been coined for those who made drastic career shifts amid COVID.

Fry's own daughter experienced this after months of struggling to engage students while teaching high school English remotely. After listening to her cousin speak enthusiastically about her nursing degree, Fry's daughter informed her mom she would finish out the year teaching, but she was also taking the prerequisite classes to get into the accelerated bachelor's in nursing program through Concordia College.

"She told me, 'I just re-evaluated what I wanted to do, and I think this is really what I want and so I'm doing it," Fry says.

Related Topics: HELP WANTED PROJECT
Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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