FARGO — In August of 2020, Pam Hedstrom could no longer work for what she calls “The Man.”
Hedstrom had spent 30 years clocking in 8 to 5 at an office job that looked pretty good from the outside. She had benefits and decent pay, and never had to work weekends or holidays.
Then one day in August of 2020, Hedstrom decided to leave it all. Instead, she became a caregiver at a group home for individuals with special needs.
Now Hedstrom loves what she’s doing. "I've always been a caretaker and a passionate cheerleader for the imperfect, marginalized members of society,” she says. “I had no idea how this late-in-life career change would overflow my cup with feelings and fuzzies of doing something that actually matters in the big scheme of life.”
Hedstrom is just one example of “The Great Resignation,” a term coined by Texas A&M University’s Anthony Klotz in 2019 to predict a massive, voluntary exodus from the workforce. COVID — with its rash of shutdowns, layoffs and burnout — seems to have become the back-breaking straw to many employees who were already fed up with the stress, structure and sometimes soul-killing nature of cubicle culture.
Klotz says the pandemic forced people to stay home, reexamine priorities and look inward, which may have resulted in asking themselves if they are on the right life path and what really matters to them in the long run. In doing so, some realized that flexibility, more time with family or even a complete career change were worth more than a big paycheck.
Hedstrom can relate. In her group home job, she works 70-hour shifts, which require sleeping at the home Friday through Sunday, two times per month. After that, she has 10 days off. “I stay up late and sleep in if I feel like it on those days off,” she says. “I take trips without worrying about how much vacation time I have or finding someone who can cover my ‘must-do’ tasks in my absence. The joy of working six days a month instead of 20 days a month is indescribable.”
More importantly, Hedstrom is glad to be free of office politics and communication problems. “I was burned out on ‘playing the game’ of office BS, which is really just an adult version of high school. I was exhausted from higher-ups’ knee-jerk reactions and changing our workflow direction every time the CDC released COVID-19 statistics and information, which was often several times a day.”
Today, Hedstrom’s life looks completely different and she couldn’t be happier about it. “There isn’t anything I miss from the 30-year rat race,” she says. “It’s unfortunate it took a worldwide pandemic to figure that out.”
What's behind 'The Big Quit?'
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, during the months of April, May and June 2021, a total of 11.5 million workers quit their jobs.
And it probably isn’t over. A Microsoft survey of 30,000 workers found that 41% are considering quitting; that number leaps to 54% in the Gen-Z demographic alone.
North Dakota, with its limited labor pool and historically low unemployment numbers, has also been hit, although its unemployment claims have dropped from 9% in 2020 to 3.2% this year. The health care field contains the most unfilled positions, with 3,750 openings in August as reported by North Dakota Job Service.
The office and administrative support field offer the next highest number of open jobs, followed by sales positions at No. 3.
One oft-repeated theory is that people have become so dependent on government programs that they no longer want to work. Jill Berg, CEO/president of five Spherion offices throughout the Dakotas and Minnesota, speaks of the "hangover" effect from receiving government assistance. A person who used to make $35,000 a year may have made a significantly higher income from stimulus checks, child tax credits and amped-up unemployment benefits. After that, the thought of returning to work for less money has lost much of its luster, she says.
Phil Davis, the workforce director who oversees North Dakota Job Service's nine statewide Workforce Centers, hears this all the time, but doesn't necessarily agree. He points out that North Dakota had the third highest labor force participation in the country in August (only South Dakota and Washington DC ranked higher) and has always had one of the highest participation rates in the US.
Based on anecdotal evidence collected from the statewide workforce centers, he shares several theories as to why North Dakota is struggling to fill some jobs. Among them:
- Increased retirements within an aging workforce, especially when people had health conditions and weren't comfortable with returning to face-to-face interaction at work.
- Parents staying home to resolve child care shortages. The labor shortage also extends to child care centers, with owners needing to pay a higher wage to attract workers, Davis says. As a result, child care costs must go up and families might find it more economically feasible to live off one income than two incomes along with child care. "If during the pandemic, you had to have kids at home to homeschool, a lot of that fell on the backs of women," says Berg. "Now if they want to return to work, they cannot find child care."
- Seasonal layoffs. When assessing unemployment numbers, it's important to note they include people in construction or manufacturing who are laid off seasonally or temporarily, but are still tied to an employer, Davis says.
- A-ha moments. COVID restrictions allowed people to slow down and reassess their lives. In the process, some families realized they would rather tighten their belts and live off one income or decided to change careers completely. Davis points to one Fargo-area teacher who decided to return to school and become a nurse instead.
- Multiple-job holders. Industrious North Dakota ranks near the top nationally for number of workers who hold multiple jobs. During the pandemic, many North Dakotans were laid off from their secondary jobs working retail or waiting tables. Or they quit those frontline positions to stay safe and concentrate on their full-time work. This also helps explain the shortfall in restaurant and retail jobs, Davis says.
- More people moving out of 'oil country' in the west, as the state's oil-drilling experienced a downturn. Now that prices at the pump are again on the rise, we may see those areas perk up a bit, Davis says.
- A decrease in high school workers, which has occurred over the last 10 to 15 years. The number of 16- to 18-year-olds who used to fill those part time jobs in retail or restaurants is waning, possibly because they've grown busier with school obligations and extracurricular activities, Davis says. (Berg says fewer college students are taking these jobs as well, either because they're studying remotely or their families no longer expect them to hold down jobs while in school.)
Yet another theory is that our population can't quite keep up with our state's entrepreneurial zeal. Davis says 6,500 new businesses have been successfully launched in the state over the last 10 years. When considering that our population has only grown by 106,000 since the last census, it makes sense that there aren't enough candidates to meet the surge for new jobs, he notes.
Berg says she anticipates the hangover from 2020 and the Great Resignation won't be over anytime soon. She believes it could take anywhere from three to five years for our workplace to return to anything approximating normalcy. "This isn't a one-year problem," she says.
She also predicts that factors like vaccine mandates will exacerbate the problem, especially within health care.
Berg's biggest fear is that US companies won't be able to weather the workforce shortages and greater expectations of today's American worker. As a result, she adds, more businesses will resort to outsourcing to employees in other countries.
A burned-out workforce
While Davis's list identifies some of the more pragmatic reasons for leaving, others attribute the shift to the changing philosophy of the American worker.
Klotz, the Texas A&M associate professor whose research first predicted the Great Resignation, says employee resignations have increased steadily for the past decade, but the chaos around COVID acted as an “accelerant.”
“The old contract between companies and employees no longer exists,” Klotz says in an online interview with The Verse. “It’s a ‘tours of duty’ mentality.”
Resignations dropped significantly during COVID as people clamped onto their jobs like shipwreck survivors clinging to a piece of floating lumber. But as vaccines rolled out and the economy improved, a backlog of people who were dissatisfied in their jobs, even before COVID, gave their notice, Klotz says.
Klotz also cites burnout as a major reason why people are choosing to bolt. “People are emotionally exhausted,” Klotz says. “It’s a strong predictor of quitting, which makes sense, because the only cure for it is taking a break and replenishing who you are.”
The remote workplace also altered people’s identities, Klotz says. “During the pandemic, a lot of us have spent time doing different things, whether with family or hobbies. And I think a lot of people now realize, ‘I’m more than just my job.’”
Finally, many American workers value autonomy, which teleworking provides. “Once you give people this flexibility and autonomy and we adjust to it, we're not going to give it back easily,” Klotz says.
Berg says many CEOs are aware of this, citing a Spherion study in which 93% of American CEOs said they would allow some kind of remote work going forward. "But even then, the employees are saying, 'That's not enough. I want more,'" she says.
At the same time, she adds, remote work isn't possible for every type of job. Positions such as human resources, logistics or transportation don’t work well remotely, she says. The effort to foster collaboration, connection and communication while everyone works in their own little bubble can prove so frustrating for some managers that they simply burn out and walk away, she says.
Connie Bailey, a North Dakota native and NDSU graduate now living in Florida, understands the challenges presented by managing remote workers, but believes her own team is more efficient in a remote setting. For years, she spent three hours a day commuting to and from her home to Orlando for her job as a project manager. The drive required paying $10 in tolls every day.
When COVID descended, Bailey and her team started working at home five days a week. “I’ve gotten a lot of time back. (With video meetings) you get going, you take a quick roll so you can see who is on,” she says. “You have an agenda and you go through it.”
However, she acknowledges that videoconferencing makes it harder for everyone to participate. She also knows that remote-work was difficult for colleagues who didn’t have reliable internet or were homeschooling their kids.
But for her, it's been ideal. “To be honest, when I started to think they'd make us all go back in, I'd met with my financial planner and was thinking of retiring, because I didn't have an interest in going back into that.”
SUNDAY: What do employers need to do to survive amid the Great Resignation? Check out part 2 of this two-part series on Sunday's Business page to find out.