Hennen: Where has our workforce gone?
"We did not have a crisis like this before the pandemic," writes columnist Scott Hennen. "What is keeping a portion of the workforce on the sidelines?"
The help wanted signs are literally everywhere. I'm not aware of a business that isn't in need of people. Some businesses are closing early because they don't have enough staff to stay open. I recently pulled into a convenience store that is part of a national chain at 5 p.m. on a weekday and they were shut down. The note on the door said "Closing at 5 p.m. due to no staff." This is crazy, yet that's far from unusual. It's happening everywhere.
Recent news had another troubling statistic: The U.S. labor force participation rate fell for a third straight month in November. There is your smoking gun. The ongoing struggle for businesses to find enough workers can be summed up by a simple supply and demand problem. There are more jobs than workers. Bloomberg reports, "The share of Americans either working or actively looking for a job fell to 62.1%, according to government data released Friday. The rate had risen to 62.4% in August, matching a post-pandemic high reached in March, but remains significantly below where it was before the pandemic."
Translation: The news is getting worse. Can it get any worse? Yes! We're still climbing out of a deep hole from the pandemic. It's easy to understand how government shutdowns would cause a disruption in normal business operations and send the workforce home. But nothing is locked down now. Business is booming. The pandemic is history. So where are the workers? The labor force participation rate is still well below the pre-pandemic numbers.
Is there an incentive to not work? Do we still have government programs that provide a better deal for workers than gainful employment? Wouldn't the pandemic programs have ended by now? I'll ask around with federal, state, and county officials to be sure, but what sense would it make for the government to incentivize not working when we have such a desperate need for workers?
Have we left an era where an honest day's work for an honest day's pay was desirable? Wouldn’t the vast majority of our able-body citizens prefer a job to a handout? That's a bedrock value in America. It's a time-honored tradition in North Dakota. But we're not exempt from this problem.
It's so frustrating. We did not have a crisis like this before the pandemic. Many workers idled during the pandemic, but we've long since restarted commerce. What is keeping a portion of the workforce on the sidelines? It's perplexing. There are 35,000 job openings today in North Dakota.
Enough about the problem. The bigger question is: What's the solution?
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum proposed a $167 million comprehensive package of programs to address the workforce shortage in an address to the legislature recently. The largest portion of that investment is meant to improve the affordability, availability and quality of childcare programs. Grants to communities and strategic marketing packages are also part of his plan.
This will take all of us. Every employer, community and lawmaker. Let's get to work getting people back to work.
Scott Hennen hosts the statewide radio program “What’s On Your Mind?” On AM 1100 “The Flag”, AM 1090 KTGO “The Flag” and AM 1460 KLTC. Email him at ScottH@FlagFamily.com
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.