A perfect storm in the region contributes to the ongoing lack of workers

As the COVID-19 cases wane and restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus ease, the worker shortage continues.

As the global pandemic enters its third year, signs advertising “Help Wanted” and “Hiring” still hang everywhere. Many businesses post handmade signs asking customers for extra patience as they operate without full staffing.

Area experts blame a host of factors for the shortage affecting nearly every industry from hospitality and fast food to grocery stores and auto service centers.

“It’s a very complex situation,” says Chris Rishko, CEO of Great Lakes Bay Michigan Works! “I can say it’s kind of a perfect storm of things that happened. We had low unemployment before COVID, then COVID hit, and it spiked really high, then came down just as quickly.”

“Wages have gone up across our region 10% since COVID. There are fewer people (looking for work) and that’s driving wages up,” Rishko says.

The unemployment rate alone is not an accurate measure of what’s going on in the region as far as jobs go, Rishko adds. The most recent numbers are posted online on the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market and Strategic Initiatives.

 “The key thing to know about unemployment rate is that the unemployment rate measures those who are unemployed, and what percentage of those who are actually looking for work out of the total labor force,” he says. “The labor force is everybody who is either working or actively looking for work.”

When an individual stops actively looking for work for any reason, they’re no longer counted in the unemployment rate. People stop looking for work due to illness, childcare issues, and other reasons other than simply no longer wanting jobs.

A more accurate measure is the Labor Force Participation Rate, Rishko says. The labor force participation rate measures everyone over the age of 16 who is actively working.

“Instead of saying the unemployment rate is low, we say, everyone who is looking for work is working. That’s a way to cover the gap,” he explains.

Rishko says the fluctuating unemployment rate isn’t the only factor. Lack of access to childcare also drives people out of the workforce. At the peak of the pandemic, many schools and families switched to online learning, meaning someone had to stay home during the day to supervise kids and lend a hand with schoolwork.

From February 2020 until now, 220,000 women statewide have left the workforce. That’s a direct result of dependent care needs,” he says.

He says since December most schools are back to full-time in-person instruction, which may have eased some of that stress. However, he also thinks some families may have discovered they can make it on one income.

“They had already adjusted their personal situation to make do with less, so they were able to get by on a single income,” he says, adding that some of those people may be waiting to find better jobs than they had before 2020.

Delta College is changing its training programs to immediately meet the needs of the area during the worker shortage.Better doesn’t necessarily mean higher wages, he adds. In a non-scientific survey taken by the local Michigan Works! office, Rishko received about 1,000 responses from participants about why they’re not re-entering the workforce. Of those who said they were waiting for something better, many wanted flexibility and scheduling options. “Wage came in as a secondary preference.”

Getting people the training they want to get back to work is the focus of Michigan Works! and the folks at Delta College.

“Delta is working with students to select pathways, whatever is going to help the student realize what they want to do and find the resources to do it,” says Ed Suniga, Dean of Career Education and Learning Partnerships at Delta.

He says the college is taking steps to help people quickly get back into the workforce. For example, the college squeezed some program requirements down to seven weeks from 15 weeks. Delta also offers short-term, immediate training programs.

“We’re working to identify non-credit skills to be able to offer weeklong training and boot-camps. We see a need for them,” he adds.

Dr. Michael Gavin, the Delta College President since 2021, has said he is focused on equity and diversity as well as meeting the immediate needs of employers in the area.
Both Suniga and Rishko say the focus has to be on getting people into the workforce quickly. Like everything else, though, that’s a complex issue. Delta’s enrollment is down, not just because of COVID, but also because of a shrinking local population. Suniga says there is a smaller pool of students to draw from, leading to fewer people entering the workforce after graduation.

That has led the college to focus on helping students find the right path earlier in life. The college also works with industry leaders to make sure Delta students leave the institution with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to succeed. At the same time, the college needs to consider each student’s motivation. Initially, it’s to pay the bills. But ultimately people want to earn enough money to afford a better lifestyle and they want to have job satisfaction.

Both Delta and Michigan Works! have programs designed to help people get the training and the assistance they need to get back to work.

“We have programs like Michigan Reconnect, Futures for Frontliners, plus we have our own federal programs to help train people and get certifications,” says Rishko. “Our message is ‘Now is a great time to get out there to better your career.’ Don’t wait – now’s a great time to do it.”

Rishko says Michigan Works! and the State of Michigan are also working to resolve the childcare issue. “We’re doing a childcare-focused job fair,” he says, trying to fill the gap in what is a complex industry. “There’s no one-size fits all fix, but we’re working to get more folks with childcare openings connected.”

Michigan Works! and Delta College are working hard to get people back to work in the region. For information on specific programs, visit the website at www.delta.edu, and https://www.michiganworks.org/.

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