The relationship between American businesses and their employees is undergoing a profound shift: For the first time in a generation, workers are gaining the upper hand. The change is broader than the pandemic-related signing bonuses at fast-food places. Up and down the wage scale, companies are becoming more willing to pay a little more, to train workers, to take chances on people without traditional qualifications, and to show greater flexibility in where and how people work. The erosion of employer power began during the low-unemployment years leading up to the pandemic and, given demographic trends, could persist for years. March had a record number of open positions, according to federal data that goes back to 2000, and workers were voluntarily leaving their jobs at a rate that matches a historical high. Burning Glass Technologies, a firm that analyzes millions of job listings a day, found that the share of postings that say “no experience necessary” is up two-thirds over 2019 levels, while the share of those promising a starting bonus has doubled. People are demanding more money to take a new job. The “reservation wage,” as economists call the minimum compensation workers would require, was 19 percent higher for those without a college degree in March than in November 2019, a jump of nearly $10,000 a year, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Employers are feeling it: A survey of human resources executives from large companies conducted in April by the Conference Board, a research group, found that 49 percent of organizations with a mostly blue-collar work force found it hard to retain workers, up from 30 percent before the pandemic. “Companies are going to have to work harder to attract and retain talent,” said Karen Fichuk, who as chief executive of the giant staffing company Randstad North America closely tracks supply and demand for labor. “We think it’s a bit of a historic moment for the American labor force.” This recalibration between worker and employer partly reflects a strange moment: The economy is reopening, but many would-be workers are not ready to return to the job. Yet in key respects, the shift builds on changes already underway in the tight labor market preceding the pandemic, when the unemployment rate was 4 percent or lower for two straight years. Editors’ Picks In This Country, Most People Rent for Life. Is That Really What They Want? Why Don’t Women’s Clothes Have More Pockets? Some Covid Vaccines Are Still Hard to Find That follows decades in which union power declined, unemployment was frequently high and employers made an art out of shifting work toward contract and gig arrangements that favored their interests over those of their employees. It would take years of change to undo those cumulative effects.
But the demographic picture is not becoming any more favorable for employers eager to fill positions. Population growth for Americans between ages 20 and 64 turned negative last year for the first time in the nation’s history. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the potential labor force will grow a mere 0.3 percent to 0.4 percent annually for the remainder of the 2020s; the size of the work force rose an average of 0.8 percent a year from 2000 to 2020. An important question for the overall economy is whether employers will be able to create conditions attractive enough to coax back in some of the millions of working-age adults not currently part of the labor force. Depending on your view of the causes, the end of expanded pandemic-era jobless benefits might also have an effect. Some businesses may need to raise prices or retool how they operate; others may be forced to close entirely.
Higher wages are part of the story. The jobs report issued on Friday showed that average hourly earnings for nonmanagerial workers were 1.3 percent higher in May than two months earlier. Other than in a brief period of statistical distortions early in the pandemic, that is the strongest two-month gain since 1983. But wages alone aren’t enough, and firms seem to be finding it in their own best interest to seek out workers across all strata of society, to the benefit of people who have missed out on opportunity in the last few decades. “I’ve been doing this a long time and have never felt more excited and more optimistic about the level of creative investment on this issue,” said Bertina Ceccarelli, chief executive of NPower, a nonprofit aimed at helping military veterans and disadvantaged young adults start tech industry careers. “It’s an explosive moment right now.” In effect, an entire generation of managers that came of age in an era of abundant workers is being forced to learn how to operate amid labor scarcity. That means different things for different companies and workers — and often involves strategies more elaborate than simply paying a signing bonus or a higher hourly wage.
Glasp is a social web highlighter that people can highlight and organize quotes and thoughts from the web, and access other like-minded people’s learning.