If you were to listen to news reports, you would find what seems to be conflicting stories regarding American workers. There is a labor shortage and high unemployment. Workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers and others are unable to find a job. What gives?
During the Covid shutdowns, American workers were divided into two groups…those who could work from home and those that could not. This accelerated the trend of a two-employment economy which was already underway. There was very little disruption in income for those who could continue to work from the confines of their homes or apartments. Those who could not, which tended to be lower paid workers, had time to assess their employment and the amount they were being paid.
Low-paying industries such as restaurants and retail have taken the biggest hit in finding employees. Other sectors such as transportation and warehouse have also had trouble filling positions. Workers believe they should be paid much more than what was offered pre-Covid, and the market is adjusting.
There is nothing wrong with this occurring. Productivity and pay from 1940s to 1979 rose together. Since 1979 wages adjusted for inflation have increased by only 17.5 % while productivity rates have increased by 61.8%. Workers have been getting the short end of the stick for over 40 years.
Will we see unions more prevalent as they were in the 1950s and 1960s? I do not believe that will happen. Instead, market forces will adjust pay to attract workers. The government will need to stay vigilant and offer the social safety net that is currently being debated in Congress. That will go a long way in leveling the playing field so that the pre-Covid situation of paying workers far too little for jobs does not return.
The mismatch between what employers need and what skill set employees have must be addressed. Job training is critical. It cannot be the old job training programs that did not prepare people for what jobs employers had. The training should be pinpointed to local needs with employers playing a part in the design of such programs.
That scenario is what is needed. All work has dignity, but society must help workers have good lives. The government must allow the markets to determine adequate compensation for employment positions. If the nation has universal childcare, health insurance, and other social safety benefits along with adequate taxation to pay for what is offered, employees and employers could just concentrate on making a success of their businesses.
To make sure that people would seek out employment, the current system of unemployment benefits would have to change. I would propose that after two months of actively looking for work and receiving benefits, the still unemployed would be required to do community service to receive their checks. As I wrote above, there is dignity in all work.
What happens next will depend on the measures we take as a nation.