Exploring Barriers to Economic Recovery

Pam Sornson, JD

The lack of skilled workers for millions of unfilled job openings is hampering America’s big plans for a strong, post-COVID economic comeback. The President’s proposed infrastructure bill would exacerbate that challenge by adding even more occupational opportunities to the already long list of unfilled job openings. At the same time, the number of unemployed workers is also at its highest point in decades. Addressing these two distinct but interrelated challenges requires understanding the barriers posed to unemployed workers in the face of such significant employment opportunities. Finding solutions also requires understanding how the evolving nature of work is compounding the problem. The data suggests that the overarching solution to both challenges is to upskill workers to meet the enhanced employment opportunities that are defining the post-COVID workforce.


Lots of Jobs but No Employment Candidates in Sight

recent survey revealed that more than 40% of America’s businesses were struggling to fill job openings, and 91% of those respondents added that they found few or no qualified candidates when reviewing submitted applications. The situation is causing distress across the country as businesses that survived the economic upheaval of ’20-’21 are now looking to build a stronger organization within the context of those lessons learned.

In many cases, the coronavirus remains the culprit causing the gap.

Millions of jobs were rendered obsolete due to corporate accommodations made to facilitate the sudden, COVID-19-driven, ‘all online’ service delivery format. The majority of those occupations will likely never return as the country embraces the newly ‘normal’ digital workplace.

As COVID-19 vaccines became available, businesses opened but with restrictions that curtailed earning opportunities, especially in the hospitality industries. Limited seating numbers in restaurants also limited tipping opportunities, and many previous hospitality workers weren’t enthused about either their lower revenue options or risking potential virus exposure when patrons weren’t required to be masked or vaccinated.

And many previously employed people have taken up roles that preclude an outside-the-home job. The closure of day-care centers eliminated the option for many moms and dads to seek outside employment. (Note here that the most recent April jobs report revealed that all those 266,000 job gains went to men; the number of employed or seeking employment women dropped by 64,000 during the same period. Gender apparently plays a significant role in who’s looking for work, too.)

Many parents have also embraced their new role as ‘home school’ teachers.

More recently, the surge of infections in unvaccinated people and equally concerning ‘breakthrough infections’ have caused additional community lock-downs and other restrictions. These developments only further dampen the desire to head into what can be seen as a threatening and inhospitable work search.


Other, non-COVID challenges are also influencing the decision not to seek new employment:

In many cases, the available jobs don’t pay a sufficient wage to justify going back to work. Again, the hospitality industry is impacted especially hard because it has traditionally paid workers low wages while also facilitating their opportunity to earn more through tipping. Many former servers, baristas, etc., aren’t willing to return to a job that offers low pay and no benefits.

Many emerging job opportunities also require special skills that have become significant only in light of the pandemic’s impact. These ‘middle’ skill occupations require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year university degree. The 40-year trend that emphasizes a university education versus a trade education has reduced the opportunities to gain training in these critical practices. Without the skills, workers aren’t qualified to take the jobs.

Not insignificantly, jobs that require previous experience are also hard to fill these days. Many of the currently unemployed had been working in the same position or industry for years. Without skills in other occupations or industries, many workers are not adequately qualified to secure a job in a new-to-them field.

These realities are just some of the challenges posed to the post-COVID recovery effort.


Reassessing the Nature of Work

Experts are now suggesting that addressing the current labor shortage/high unemployment quandary requires more than just introducing workers to employers. Both workers and industries are reassessing what ‘work’ is or should be, and the pandemic has provided the platform on which they can explore those concerns.


Changing Worker Priorities

The past 18 months of uncertainty and stress have caused significant psychological discomfort, as isolation and economic losses triggered depression, anxiety, and worse. Those who’ve weathered the darkness are now looking more closely at how they want to live – and work – going forward.

Some have found occupational freedom in their new work-from-home situation and want to retain that option in their future career searches.

Others are looking for a deeper work/life meaning, seeing their paycheck now as an ancillary benefit to working and not its primary objective. They want their work to offer meaning and value to their lives.

Still others are looking to move into jobs and careers they’ve never explored. Many people continued working in the fields where they first secured employment, not because they intentionally chose that career path. The pandemic ‘reset’ has allowed them to revisit those choices and make better ones for their future.


Emerging Employment Choices

The parameters defining jobs, occupations, and careers are changing, too.

COVID-19 revealed that the ‘distributed workforce’ is a viable option for many businesses. Not only does it provide comparable productivity, but it can also reduce costs by eliminating the need for office space, commuting requirements, etc.

Automation is also growing in popularity as companies implement machines to replace their now off-site workforce. That development, however, also revealed the need for ‘automation management,’ a job that transcends the unique specificities of all industries.

The lack of workers with high-quality middle skills is also driving innovations in industries that now recognize the high value offered to their organization by middle skills training. Many are considering adding training and upskilling capacities to lure potential employees who bring talent and willingness but lack just those specific skills to do the work.


The anticipated growth of the economy has been tempered by recent surges of coronavirus cases, further inhibiting both job seekers and employers from moving forward too fast. However, the continuing delay of a full economic recovery offers the opportunity for all involved to evaluate what kind of economy it will be and participate as both employee and employer in its creation.

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