Since unemployment spiked at a record high of 15% in April 2020 (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), the labor force in the U.S. has been a mess.
It's affecting everyone, whether it be your favorite restaurant closing early (or permanently) or the supply chains of goods from around the world.
Now that unemployment has declined to a slightly above normal level of 5%, and continues to trend downward, these problems should be alleviated, right?
Well, look around. Shops and restaurants continue to struggle to keep and/or hire staff to meet the demands of an increasingly vaccinated population. Locally, Fort Wayne Community Schools announced it is considering e-learning as a result of staff shortages.
So, where did everyone go?
Let's first address the obvious: More than 700,000 people have died as a direct result of COVID-19, according to the most recent data from the New York Times.
While that number does not entirely consist of members of the workforce, it certainly represents no small number of laborers. These deaths also have further-reaching effects on families where guardians, caretakers and children are involved.
College enrollment has also declined, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. So it's not as though laborers went back to finish or get degrees.
However, trade and vocational schools are seeing major upticks in enrollment. Northwest Lineman College in Iowa boasted a staggering 20% increase in recent enrollments.
The last piece of the puzzle comes from a recent Gallup poll claiming that support for labor unions is the highest it's been since 1965.
In short, people don't want to be replaceable and they want respect from employers. Workers are prioritizing happiness and longevity over quick, yet insufficient wages. The glorification of “the grind” is diminishing, and that's a good thing.
It's important to note that the current Indiana minimum wage doesn't meet our own living wage, according to MIT's living wage calculator. Even a jump to a $15 minimum wage doesn't cover the living wage for a family of two working adults and two children (even one working adult and one child, for that matter).
With workers finally saying “enough” to low-pay, low-respect jobs, certain fields seem doomed to struggle: food service, education, retail and manufacturing, to name a few. (Education stands out as the only field typically requiring a form of certification, but non-certified positions in the field are short-staffed as well).
The workers who filled those jobs previously are searching for meaning in their careers, but also seeking respect and flexibility. They're most likely letting others know about their previous experiences with those positions regarding management, workplace morale and compensation.
Don't expect this labor shortage to end just because large companies increase their starting salary. This extends beyond the responsibility of the employer to include the consumer and their level of respect toward laborers.
Tyler Adelsperger is a Northwest Allen County Schools English teacher.