Millions Are Out Of A Job. Yet Some Employers Wonder: Why Can't I Find Workers?

Feb 15, 2021
Originally published on February 15, 2021 2:10 pm

At a time when millions of Americans are unemployed, businessman Bill Martin has a head-scratching problem: He's got plenty of jobs but few people willing to take them.

"I keep hearing about all the unemployed people," Martin says. "I certainly can't find any of those folks."

Martin helps run M.A. Industries, a plastics manufacturing company in Peachtree City, Ga. The company makes products used in the medical industry — specifically, in things like coronavirus tests and vaccine manufacturing and development.

But as he struggles to keep up with demand, Martin is finding it almost impossible to find new workers.

His difficulties are putting a spotlight on a peculiar problem in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.

Some industries are thriving and eager to hire, which should be welcome in an economy that has recovered only a little over half of the 22 million jobs lost during the coronavirus pandemic.

Data from the Labor Department this month, for example, showed job openings at a five-month high. Meanwhile, job search site Indeed said recently that job postings are back to pre-pandemic levels.

The problem is that a lot of those openings are in industries that require in-person work, like construction, delivery services or warehousing — exactly the types of jobs now being shunned by many Americans in the midst of a fearful pandemic.

Martin says he has tried it all to hire workers. His company has offered higher wages and even posted good old-fashioned "We're Hiring" signs.

Julia Pollak, a labor economist at employment recruitment site ZipRecruiter, says Martin is not alone in struggling to find workers.

Most job seekers, she says, are looking for remote work. The problem is that those are not the jobs available right now.

In fact, only 1 in 10 job postings in the ZipRecruiter marketplace offers remote work as an option, she says.

"There's this huge gap between the kinds of conditions under which people are prepared to work and the kinds of conditions that they actually find in the jobs that are available," Pollak says.

That is leading to a mismatch in filling jobs, and it's contributing to the painful, slow recovery in jobs.

"We are 10 million jobs in the hole," she points out. "So ideally what you'd want to see is the number of job openings to be much higher to compensate."

For many workers, there's an understandable fear of getting sick and then infecting kids or other family members at home.

"A pandemic is a shock both to labor demand and to labor supply, and it's a really significant shock to labor supply," Pollak says. "There are many, many people who have pulled back and are deciding to sort of wait out this year and come back to work when the conditions are right."

That could continue to leave Martin from M.A. Industries in a bind, especially because his company's products could make a difference in the fight against the pandemic.

"We talk about job growth," he says. "But if no one wants to do it, it gets to be a problem."

Correction: 2/15/21

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Bill Martin is the owner of M.A. Industries.

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Next, we report on a contradiction - the unemployment rate is high in this country, but when businesses are hiring, as many are, it's hard to find workers. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reports.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Bill Martin runs a manufacturing business in Peachtree City, Ga., right outside of Atlanta, and he's been on a hiring spree for months.

BILL MARTIN: I keep hearing about all the unemployed people, and I certainly can't find any of those folks.

LONSDORF: His company, M.A. Industries, makes plastics specifically used in the medical industry - pipettes for things like COVID tests and vaccine development. As you can probably imagine, they're busy.

MARTIN: Now we're expanding so fast, we just can't fill jobs.

LONSDORF: He's raised starting wages to up to $16 an hour, but still, this is the hardest it's ever been for him to find people to work.

MARTIN: We have been trying everything from putting signs on the front lawn to offering our employees, if you bring somebody in, we'll give you a thousand dollars if they stick - temp agencies, you know, recruiters, that type of thing.

LONSDORF: Martin is baffled by it. Job openings are at a five-month high, according to data released by the Department of Labor this month. On job finding sites like Indeed, postings for open positions have gone back to pre-pandemic numbers, but they're mostly in specific industries like construction, warehousing and delivery services. Julia Pollak is a labor economist at ZipRecruiter, a site that matches employers with potential employees. She says Bill Martin's situation in Georgia is exactly what they're seeing across the country.

JULIA POLLAK: There was sort of huge exuberance in our marketplace in January. The number of employers signing up and posting jobs sort of smashed all of our expectations. But the number of job-seekers coming back has been way, way below.

LONSDORF: There are around 10 million unemployed people in the U.S., but an increasing number are leaving the workforce altogether.

POLLAK: Many people are giving up and not even looking for work because there are still so many pandemic-related barriers to returning to work.

LONSDORF: Barriers like having kids at home with remote school, taking care of elderly parents or simply being worried about getting sick themselves. Pollak says a majority of seekers are looking for remote work, but only around 1 in 10 jobs listed check that box. There's just no way to work in manufacturing or construction or delivery from home. It's a conundrum we haven't really seen before.

POLLAK: In most recessions, you know, people can put a help-wanted sign in the window and see a line of candidates form around the block. And this is just a very, very, very different recession. A pandemic is a shock both to labor demand and to labor supply, and it's a really significant shock to labor supply.

LONSDORF: Pollak says a lot of workers are planning to wait it out until it's safe to work, which might mean employers like Bill Martin, whose company is making the crucial parts to get us vaccinated and out of this mess, won't find the help they're looking for anytime soon.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News.

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