The Editor’s Desk: Where are the workers?

With ‘Help Wanted’ signs in every other shop window, a look at where the workers went, and why

Where have all the workers gone?

That is the question on everyone’s lips right now, as businesses struggle to find enough employees to keep the doors open. Signs reading “Please be patient, we are very short-staffed” are almost as common in store windows and doors as “Help Wanted” notices. Walk down any main street in Canada, and you will see signs looking for everyone from cashiers to clerks to servers to delivery drivers.

That doesn’t even touch on the woes of employers looking for employees with specific skills. The construction industry and all related trades are screaming for workers, as is the trucking industry. Pilots, veterinarians, and pharmacists are in extremely short supply, and you don’t need me to tell you that the health care system is in dire need of — well, almost everyone.

What’s going on? There seems to be a perfect storm of factors at work, so before you huff “People today just don’t want to work,” consider the following:

Remote working: During the pandemic, a lot of people ended up working from home. It turns out that many of them — especially those with young children and/or who face long commutes each day to and from the office — found that they could do their job perfectly well from home. With many workplaces now insisting that people return to their cubicles, workers who enjoy seeing their kids more and not spending hours each day in traffic, and who are still worried about COVID, are looking to find a more accommodating employer.

Fed up: Many workers who couldn’t work from home, and who had to face the public for more than two years of the pandemic, are saying they’ve had it with public-facing jobs such as cashiers and servers. Along with fears about COVID, two+ years of increased abuse from customers have taken their toll. If you ever screamed at a 17-year-old server because your group of eight couldn’t sit at one table, or at a cashier because they reminded you of the store’s mask policy, congratulations: you’re part of the problem.

Greener pastures: A lot of businesses effectively laid off all or most of their staff during the pandemic, which gave a lot of people a lot of free time to look to their future and decide to go back to school, get more training or upgrade their skills, and look for something better. This training and upgrading is good, because …

Not qualified: … a lot of the jobs going vacant right now are for people who have to go to school for years in order to qualify for them. If you want to get to the corporate suite, you can (possibly; see below) start your career in whatever today’s equivalent of the mail room is and work your way up through the business; a process that doesn’t apply if you want to be a pilot or pharmacist or registered nurse.

High expectations: Gather round, young’uns, while I tell you of a long-ago world where you could get a decent clerical or entry-level job with nothing more than a high school diploma. These days, many of those jobs require applicants to have a college or university degree or certificate. Employers might want to re-think this, and return to a model where new hires learn the job by actually doing it and get specialized training as they go.

Bye-bye boomers: During the pandemic, a lot of people who were nearing retirement age anyway decided to collect their pensions (remember those?) early and leave the workforce, taking their skills and knowledge with them. That’s a big gap to fill.

Cost of living: Minimum wage in B.C. is now $15.65 an hour, but have you looked at the price of gas lately? Groceries? Utilities? Rent? Employees are looking for a wage that they can live on, not just subsist on.

How will all of this play out, and how long will it take? Who knows, is probably the answer. One thing I do know: we’ll all need a lot of patience for the foreseeable future.

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