Help Wanted: Pandemic reprieve could bring return of labor force

Published: Mar. 1, 2022 at 3:11 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Where have all the workers gone? That’s the question many employers and state labor officials have been asking as the state attempts to bounce back from the pandemic.

“It’s not like 20,000 people just got up and decided to leave,” said Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington. He says people left their jobs during the pandemic for a variety of reasons. “There are individuals who were maybe past retirement or close to retirement that were still working pre-pandemic and used the pandemic as an opportunity to separate themselves from the workforce.”

Economists say the workforce had already been shrinking for nearly a decade and that the pandemic just made a bad situation worse. Retired University of Vermont economics professor Art Woolf says about six percent fewer people are working now than before the pandemic. Compare that to the Great Recession in 2008, where he says it was only four percent fewer. Woolf says we’ve lost more workers in two months of the pandemic than the deepest part of the recession. “That’s a big deal. And you can notice that when you go anywhere in Vermont and see help wanted signs,” he said.

One change that Woold says job-seekers are noticing -- you don’t have to hunt to find what companies are offering. “First of all, it’s very unusual for firms to advertise what they are paying. And that’s a very clear indication of how bad things are in that regard,” he said.

Harrington says the challenge is that the available jobs aren’t one-size-fits-all. “It’s about having the right people living in the right part of the state with the right skills to meet the needs of employers,” he said. “It’s not going to be fixed simply by the existing population we have in Vermont.”

One of the primary needs is affordable housing. But creating those units could take years and the construction industry is already hurting for workers. “We’re still not where we’d expect to be by the start of the season,” said Byron Furman, director of safety S.D. Ireland, a major construction contractor looking to hire workers.

Construction is one of the top three fields in need of help in the state, according to labor officials. Furman says their situation is actually starting to improve. “The applications are actually coming in at a much more rapid pace,” he said.

As the pandemic eases, experts say they expect people who left the workforce will start to return.

If you’re looking to get back into the workforce or switch careers, a good first stop is the Department of Labor’s website.

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