Even prior to onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020, the American workforce was experiencing an ongoing labor shortage. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. economy had some 7.6 million unfulfilled jobs, with only 6.5 million people actively looking for work as of January, 2019. That number only proceeded to grow throughout the pandemic and into 2021, with CNBC reporting that some 9.5 million Americans were unemployed and looking for work as of June, despite job openings at the time hitting an all-time high of roughly 9.2 million.
Due to global shifts in technology, automation and other sectors that had been occurring long before the pandemic, employers were raising alarms over a growing number of vital skills they noticed to be in short supply from incoming applications. While the pandemic has served to heighten concerns over this skills gap, the reasons for it run much deeper than would appear on the surface.
To name just a few factors, the role of national public policies on immigration status and access to post-secondary education is vital in understanding how the employment gap has come to be. It’s not a question of the U.S. running out of skilled workers, but rather the need for employers and policymakers to create viable solutions to address these issues. Doing so is not only crucial for the country’s workforce, but its industries and overall economy as well.
From a long-term perspective, the economy can’t thrive without an influx of entry-level workers who are allowed to progress and grow in their field. Many are immigrants, but in recent years U.S. policies on H1 and H1-B visas have limited the number of individuals who are allowed to legally immigrate into the country. When fewer immigrants are granted access to legal avenues of entry and work opportunities, the workforce gap broadens even further across all levels of employment, from technical occupations to customer service, sales and blue-collar jobs.
This issue causes the entry-level workforce to widen to a point where potential employees declare that no jobs potentially fit for them can be found. Subsequently, employers are forced to downsize their businesses or relocate to a region like China or Mexico, which then becomes noticed by other employers until it becomes a hiring (or, in this case, a lack of hiring) trend, further limiting the potential for job growth. Ultimately, this creates stagnation in the workforce — one that we’re currently witnessing, as current and future generations of potential employees assess the job market for growth opportunities elsewhere, taking their knowledge and skills with them.
The reality of the U.S. workforce is, and has always been, that the more we create opportunities for career growth and development from a wide array of diverse backgrounds, the more opportunities we create for ourselves and our economy.
Over the past few decades, the cost of higher-level education, particularly at private colleges and universities in the U.S., has increased dramatically. As a result, many from younger generations have adopted an increasingly negative view of careers requiring a college degree. Rather than risking placing themselves in financial debt for the sake of a diploma that may provide little reward in the form of job opportunities, an increasing number of college-age workers are instead opting for trade schools, programs or bootcamps that allow them to take their current work experience and migrate it with enhanced knowledge.
Along with this, an increasing portion of the eligible American workforce is holding off from retirement and continuing to work beyond the age of 65 or older. Due to risks brought about by social and economic disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic, more companies have been forced to hire candidates of all ages and re-strategize internal training. By remaining open to the different types of people who can fill roles, however, companies gain the opportunity to create workforces that are not only more diverse, but also more inclusive of dynamic and widespread skills. This, in turn, could help the American workforce retain a larger amount of highly skilled employees for longer periods of time, and help to alleviate present issues of stagnation in the workforce.
The U.S. depends on the acquisition and distribution of resources to thrive. When we consider the country’s employment level in relation to its economic performance, we must view the workforce as a resource in and of itself — vital in order to continue building and growing our economy.
By implementing policies to grow and stabilize the workforce, we can begin promote job opportunities across all aspects of our economy. In doing so, we can help to ensure that the U.S. remains less dependent on the labor of other countries, and maintains a domestic workforce that is strong, diverse and stable.
Matt Abbott is manager of The Sourcery, a tech startup recruiting firm based in San Francisco.