EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series that will explore the reassessment of work standards as well as turnover rates and retention challenges faced by local businesses. It will delve into what nearby counties, states and countries have tried to address the apparent workforce shortage. Part One can be found here.
MOUNT VERNON — The workforce has reassessed work. More people have voluntarily quit their jobs than ever before, and not all people who lost jobs are seeking new ones.
Because many businesses are looking for employees, job seekers that remain can be more selective.
What job seekers search for when selecting jobs has changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Trevon Logan, an economics professor at The Ohio State University and a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“It’s less of a worker shortage than it is really a wage and I’d call it a non-pecuniary shortage,” Logan said, meaning wage and non-cash benefits earned by workers in place of salary. “In a tight labor market like existed before the pandemic, a lot of employers were used to frankly really low wages and pretty difficult work conditions.
Many people did not leave jobs temporarily during the pandemic, Logan said.
“They went and chose to do something else,” he said. “They went to occupations where they could work at home. They went to occupations where they had a more flexible schedule. They went to occupations that had lower commutes, etc.
“So they’re now finding when (employers are) posting help wanted signs, there just aren’t people looking for those particular types of jobs.”
In both the state and country, the number of people unemployed has been decreasing, and so has the total number of people in the workforce.
In April, approximately 4 million people in the U.S. voluntarily quit their jobs.
As of May 2021, just under 300,000 people were unemployed out of Ohio’s total civilian labor force of 5,548,700, putting Ohio’s seasonally adjusted May unemployment rate at 5%.
County job and unemployment data is sparse.
The Ohio Labor Market Information does not seasonally adjust unemployment rates for counties or cities, and while there is a national program for looking at job openings, the number of job openings at the local level are not tracked. While rough estimates of openings can be done through online job postings, such estimates overestimate some jobs and underestimate others.
It is also unclear how many jobs have been added in Knox County since last year because LMI relies on wage records, which come out quarterly, for that data. There is a lag of approximately six months after the end of a quarter before that data is available.
Known County data indicates similar trends compared to state and national levels. Knox County’s average unemployment rate for May 2021 was 3.7%, below the state and country’s rates. This rate is up slightly from 3.5% in April 2021 but lower than its 9.3% rate in May 2020.
Unemployment rates measure the share of workers in the labor force who do not currently have a job but are actively looking for work, not people who have stopped receiving benefits or who were ineligible for benefits in the first place.
“We’re really just about at full employment, which is the problem,” Matthew Kurtz, director of Knox County’s Job and Family Services, said.
While a lot of companies are hiring, some job seekers have been unable to find a job with sufficient hourly pay, including Mount Vernon resident Tim Huffman.
Huffman works at a window and door factory but is seeking employment with higher pay elsewhere to better support his three children. He has been working in the same factory for approximately a decade but is now open to switching industries.
“I’ve looked into factory jobs,” he said. “I’ve been looking at some construction-related jobs. I’ve even looked into food and retail.”
The pandemic has led to a wage reckoning for many industries.
The minimum wage in Ohio is $8.80 per hour, and $4.40 per hour for tipped workers. These wages increased by 10 cents for non-tipped employees and five cents for tipped employees on Jan. 1, 2021.
Earlier this year, Democratic state lawmakers introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, and President Joe Biden has also directed agencies to start planning for a $15 minimum wage for federal workers and contractors.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 would increase pay for 17 million people, pulling 900,000 out of poverty. However, raising the minimum wage would also end 1.4 million jobs, the office estimates, because employers may cut jobs to accommodate higher labor costs.
Not all industries were impacted the same by the pandemic, said economist Bill LaFayette, owner of Regionomics. As consumer habits shifted, most sectors of the service economy, such as accommodations and transportation, saw declines in revenue, but technology (including telehealth), cleaning services, housing and Ohio startups surged during the pandemic.
Some workers have turned to gig economy jobs — temporary, flexible positions such as rideshare drivers for Uber or Lyft — to accommodate childcare and other needs, said Kurtz of Knox County’s Job and Family Services.
Others have found remote options that are more suitable, whether it be telecommuting to higher paying jobs in nearby cities or flexible hours that accommodate childcare.
“We’ve always had about half the population leaving the county to go to Newark, Mansfield, Columbus – the bigger cities – because of the wage differential,” Kurtz said. “People can make more money in those other counties.”
But, work-from-home is not an option for all employers. Manufacturing jobs, for example, cannot be done remotely, said Brandy Booth, administrator at Opportunity Knox Employment Center.
Without a remote work option, flexible hours or autonomy over one's work schedule could help alleviate childcare issues, which are a concern for residents in Knox County.
Huffman said childcare is a main concern for his family. He and his wife both used to work, but his wife is currently not working because they cannot afford childcare.
“Childcare is so expensive that it wasn’t worth it,” he said
The workforce in Ashland County also has childcare concerns, said Kristin Aspin, chief program officer with the Ashland County Community Foundation.
In May, ACCF rolled out an assessment measuring childcare needs to businesses located at or near Ashland Business Park/Industrial Park. Results show a desire for more accessible and affordable childcare.
Specifically, 73% of respondents (125 out of 173 survey respondents) indicated they would be likely or very likely to use a new childcare center near their workplace. Those 125 respondents have a total of 214 children under the age of 13, Aspin said.
The childcare demand among respondents was greatest for full-day childcare and for infant- and toddler-aged children.
A satisfactory completion rate for an external survey is 15-30%, and ACCF’s survey had an approximate 50% completion rate, Aspin said.
As caregivers saw increased childcare needs during school and daycare closures throughout the pandemic, larger declines in workforce participation have been found among women than men in most countries.
In the U.S., 1.8 million fewer women were employed in May 2021 compared to just before the onset of the pandemic in the U.S. in February 2020.
Some former employees achieved greater autonomy over their work by being their own boss.
“People have either turned their side hustle into a business or just felt like ‘I could do better on my own,’” Jeff Gottke, president of the Area Development Foundation, said, noting a rise in entrepreneurship.
Mount Vernon resident Matthew T. Fields, for example, plans to start his own life coaching business. In the interim, Fields has been searching for a job to supplement his income.
If there were limited options, he would have likely just applied to whatever was available, he said. Because there are many job openings, Fields has been able to search for a position that works with his specific needs: morning hours, as he has to get certifications for his future company in the afternoons and evenings; and a short-term contract. He does not want to be stuck in a long-term contract given his approaching entrepreneurship plans.
Kathy and Barry Miller started their own business, K&B Mobility, LLC, in May 2021.
Barry Miller previously worked for a mobility equipment supplier but decided to open his own shop in Mount Vernon to have more control over products and pricing.
"I've always been an entrepreneur-type, and working for someone else was very rewarding when I was there for a while but without room for growth," Barry Miller said. "I wanted to expand and utilize my ideas."
Others decided it was time to prioritize quality time with family.
Carole Bolden of Ontario had been searching for a new job since the beginning of 2021, specifically looking for a position closer to home and with defined 9-5 work hours. She recently accepted a position with Avita Health System that met the aforementioned needs, although she took a slight pay cut.
Bolden had worked at the Cleveland Clinic in Medina for over a decade, traveling 52 miles to work each way, she said. While she worked eight-hour shifts, she had been away from home for nearly 12 hours per day factoring in her commute.
“Sometimes money is not everything,” Bolden said. “You’ve got to look at the financial part of it, yes, but also the whole part of being able to spend time with family and be closer to home.”
There is no one solution employers can implement that will work for all job seekers.
And Gottke does not foresee sweeping policies as an effective way to fill jobs.
"(The worker shortage issue) has gotten political, and when things get political, they get oversimplified and they get turned into bumper stickers and sound bites," Gottke said. "But, there's a whole lot to it."
Coming Wednesday: Local employers face retention challenges, and workers are aging out. Jobs may not be equally accessible to all.