The foliage is at peak, if you had not noticed. That means we are sharing space with a lot of non-Vermonters. Typically, we are quite grateful when folks “from away” stop by and drop their money at our shops and restaurants. Main Street loves tourist season.

But it is made much harder when the demand put on Vermont by non-Vermonters does not match the supply we can provide. We want to provide, for sure, but this autumn has been about the struggle that comes with not having enough workers.

Think we’re kidding or exaggerating? Check out how many establishments — banking on the fourth quarter bump that comes every year from Labor Day through Christmas — have Help Wanted signs in the window. It’s a thing. And to call it “a thing” will seem insulting to business owners who are hanging on by a thread.

A few weeks ago, around Labor Day, national newspapers published commentaries detailing just how hard the labor shortage had become. It’s not a coincidence; it’s the problem.

A news release that hit our email Tuesday took the issue to another level here in Vermont. The title of the release was “Chronic staffing shortages threaten operation of local child care programs.”

It opens bluntly: “Throughout Vermont child care providers report that ongoing and worsening hiring challenges now coupled with symptoms of illness that keep teachers home are resulting in conditions that jeopardize their ability to keep their doors open — and there is no end in sight. The cracks in the system are widening as programs scramble to find stop-gap measures which include temporary closures, reduced hours of operation and placing administrators in the classroom on an almost daily basis. … Hiring challenges that have always existed have hit a breaking point.”

The release goes on to detail the hardships COVID has placed on parents and providers.

“Providers are issuing a call for immediate ARPA funds to stabilize existing child care programs as well as the current workforce and develop a new, fully-funded recruitment and mentoring system to increase the child care workforce. What is clear is that the status quo will mean less opportunities for child care for Vermont’s children and families,” the release states.

The need is desperate — not just for child care, but for providing for families.

In USA Today recently, journalist Paul Davidson asked two simple questions: Where is the labor? And when is it coming back?

“Experts are at odds over whether, and to what extent, unemployment insurance actually has discouraged people from working. And the recent surge in COVID-19 infections, driven by the delta variant, is disrupting some schools’ reopening plans and dissuading some idled workers from renewing their job searches,” he wrote.

The article goes on to outline just how deep the struggles of the labor force actually go.

“They include the large share of workers who decided to switch careers during the pandemic or retire early after a layoff and the daunting logistics of matching millions of jobless people with millions of openings,” he wrote. “That means interminable waits for a restaurant table, snaking lines at store cash registers and months-long delays for home renovations could be partly alleviated in coming months but are likely to stick around in some form for the longer term.”

And, he notes, COVID-19 fears persist. People thought the worst was behind us.

In June, there were a record 10.1 million job openings and 9.5 million unemployed people — the latter figure fell to 8.4 million in August — leaving fewer than one jobless worker for each vacancy. The COVID surge is also curtailing customer demand and led to a disappointing 235,000 job gains in August, Davidson reported.

In July, 49% of small business owners said they had job openings they couldn’t fill — the most on record — according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

According to Davidson’s reporting: The U.S. has recovered 17 million, or 76%, of the 22.4 million jobs lost last spring as states shuttered businesses to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving payrolls 5.3 million jobs below their pre-pandemic level. About half of those nearly 6 million missing workers are unemployed, meaning they’re looking for a job but can’t find one or are being very selective.

Losing jobless benefits did not have an effect. Several studies have shown that the enhanced benefits have had little effect on whether recipients look harder for jobs or accept offers. Many individuals have decided to either change careers or they “won’t settle.” In fact, a near-record 3.9 million workers actually quit jobs in June.

The labor shortage is real and ongoing. It feels unprecedented. It feels impossible. But as communities, we must work to make the hires that keep the economic engine running. It is how we overcome.

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