Where are the workers? Employers must adapt to worker sentiment post-COVID-19

Long checkout lines. Short-staffed hospitals. Slow service at your favorite restaurant.

Where have all the workers gone?

The reasons are varied—ranging from a lack of child care to forced, often early, retirement, to a desire for the flexibility that freelance work brings. 

Northeast Ohio has not been untouched by these trends, according to a 2022 study led by The Fund for Our Economic FutureTeam NEO, and a host of other partners.

Employee career development is another must-have for the modern workplace including continuous on-the-job training Called “Where are the Workers?,” the study found that more than 408,000 people in Northeast Ohio quit their jobs in 2021 and more than 437,000 started contract or freelance work during the pandemic.

The local trend mirrored the national trend. In 2021, more than 47 million people quit their jobs as early retirements, stimulus checks, and the health impacts of COVID-19 became nightly news sound bites.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the quit rate rose from 1.6% in April 2020 to 3% percent in November 2021, a gain of 1.4 percentage points—contributing to the “Great Resignation.” 

The shift  in the local labor market  was a long time coming and likely permanent, says Fund president Bethia Burke. She says COVID-19 fundamentally altered long-standing ideals of work while transforming the public’s relationship with career success.

Examples include employees working from home or part-time, returning to school or enrolling in job training programs, or quitting jobs to take gig work. 

Burke says employers have had to respond to these changing attitudes to keep and attract employees. For organizations in Northeast Ohio and beyond, Burke says this means becoming an “employer of choice” in vital areas such as nimble business practices and strong company culture.

“Flexibility is a baseline factor of being competitive for talent,” she explains. “Thinking about this up front will help employers in the long-term.”

President and CEO Dominic Ozanne of Ozanne Construction CompanyDominic Ozanne, president and CEO of Ozanne Construction Company, agrees. Remote work for certain positions—along with other policies his company started early in the pandemic—will continue at his company for the foreseeable future.

“The only permanent thing in the job market is flexibility,” Ozanne says. “Issues are going to come up in a person’s life. In the past, the industry would say just get to work, but that’s no longer the case. You have to pay attention to what’s going on with the person.”

 An era of choice
The regional talent pool has been declining for decades, a trend that will only continue as the population ages and young professionals leave the state. The Fund’s “Where Are the Workers?”—a multi-part analysis of the area’s changing talent landscape—found that 80% of Northeast Ohio companies are currently facing an employee shortage. Of that figure, about 94% noted that they are not getting enough qualified applicants for their hiring needs.

Fund officials estimate that more than 330,000 Northeast Ohio residents are planning to leave their jobs in the coming year. This trend contradicts low unemployment numbers—about 3.7% nationally and 3.9% in Ohio, according to August 2022 BLS figures.

 Alex Ballard rode her own career roller coaster at the height of the pandemic, leaving the Robert Half staffing solutions agency for a similar, though fully remote, position with a Denver firm.
“I hadn’t been looking at the time, but someone reached out to me on LinkedIn, and I felt like I was ready for a new challenge,” says Ballard, of Lakewood. “I’d been in the same division [at Robert Half] since 2015, so I needed a change.”

Even as demand remains, people are still exiting work in record numbers across industries—from retail and hospitality fields to white collar and office jobs.

Theories abound about why workers are quitting, a subject that the Fund report explores in detail.

 For example, of the 343,484 working-age adults in Northeast Ohio who are neither working nor looking for work, most of the people either have a disability that prevents them from work; are staying home to care for children; or are dealing with persistent medical issues. About 4% are actively choosing not to work.

The region is also awash in the “silver tsunami” that employers have been talking about for a decade. In the last two years, 125,090 Northeast Ohioans retired—about 61% of those left work earlier than expected, which aligns with pre-pandemic early retirement rates of 59%.

Approximately 102,000 residents say ongoing effects of long COVID negatively impacted their employment. This does not even consider the pandemic’s staggering human toll. More than 9,000 working-age adults in Ohio have died since March 2020.

Individuals feeling burnt out are now reassessing work, at the same time becoming emboldened to make new choices about their direction in life, says Fund president Burke. Many folks in the pandemic era have left employment without having another job lined up.

In Northeast Ohio alone, more than 400,000 people—or 20% of the area workforce—quit their jobs in the last year. More than half of that population did not have another job secured before quitting.

A high “quits rate” pervades nationally as well, reflected by 3% of workforce-eligible adults leaving their jobs in September 2021. With a national average of just under 2% in the prior two decades, the quits numbers are a key indicator of changing worker attitudes.

“This is a different situation than the Great Recession, when people who did not lose jobs felt an insecurity that made them less mobile,” says Burke. “You wanted to keep your job because there may have been nowhere else to go. Today is different, because the economy rebounded from COVID, opening up opportunities and giving workers more choice.”

Even with employees back at the office full-time, Ozanne is offering adaptable work schedules that allow non-construction staff to spend one day at home A permanent change
Ozanne Construction Company was deemed essential during the pandemic’s opening months, but even Dominc Ozanne had several of his 35-person staff working virtually due to immunocompromised loved ones or other personal circumstances.

 Even with employees back at the office full-time, Ozanne is offering adaptable work schedules that allow non-construction staff to spend one day at home. Ozanne’s own Jesuit-inspired “care-for-the-person” mantra was already baked into company culture, but COVID-19 highlighted the importance of actually “walking that talk,” says Ozanne.

“We’re still working through all of that now,” he says. “What type of work conditions are you willing to accept? Are there different ways to work that don’t require being in the office? It’s about keeping people interested in your company.”

As college recruitment is just now coming back online, Ozanne says he is hoping to get back on campuses to find talented new staff. He has also had feelers from would-be hires from overseas, who maintain they can do marketing and proposal preparation from beyond the country’s borders.

Jill Rizika, executive director of the Cleveland-based job training and placement agency Towards Employment, knows that, in many ways, workers are simply worn out. Layoffs and pay cuts are coinciding with full-time caregiver duties, while social determinants around work—including childcare and lack of transportation—remain top-of-mind.

 It is therefore incumbent upon employers to understand where job candidates are coming from. Though money is crucial, creative approaches to work are equally important to attracting and retaining employees. For example, dividing a worker’s day into two shifts can make life easier for parents unable to afford daycare.

Echoing a solution found in the Fund’s “Where Are the Workers?” report, Rizika points to employee career development as another must-have for the modern workplace. This can include continuous on-the-job training along with tuition reimbursements or internship programs.

Ultimately, Rizika implores employers to confer with workers on ways to make life easier.

“Talk to your employees to set the agenda,” Rizika says. “That could mean letting them change shifts to align with public bus schedules. When you think of job quality, there’s wages and benefits, pathways to advancement, and creating an inclusive culture. There [are a] 1,000 different tweaks you can do on the hiring or retention side.”

Companies desperate for talent do not have much choice but to consider the tectonic shift in worker attitudes post-COVID, adds Burke.

“From a straightforward place, there are more job openings that companies can fill,” Burke says. “Understanding what is influencing decisions about how people work is going to make you more competitive.”

More than just wages
Recruiter Ballard’s story further illustrates the new dynamic between employers and workers. Ballard stayed on with the Denver agency for a year before returning to Robert Half in September 2021, citing isolation as the main driver for returning to her previous job.

“I felt l was on my own little island,” Ballard says. “I never met my managers or my peers, and it made me realize that I missed the culture of luncheons and community service events I had at Robert Half. I didn’t realize how important that was, because I originally thought I’d be fine working for a fully remote company.”

Choice in today’s working world also includes freelancing, according to the Fund report. About one in five adults have done contract work over the last 12 months, including app-based jobs as well as household work such as yardwork or house cleaning.

One in three residents—many of them young, low-income, and persons of color—say they plan to start doing freelance or contract work in the next year.

 Alongside part-time workers (15% of the Northeast Ohio workforce) and the self-employed (16%), more people have adjusted their career trajectories during the pandemic. Of the 40% of employed people preparing to find another job in the next year, more than half planned a transition to a different industry. Another 60% said they were searching for a different position with their current employer. The majority seeking change (nearly 84%) were confident about finding a job with similar income and benefits.

Tanya Budler of Rise Together“Job flexibility runs across all levels of employment,” says Tanya Budler of Rise Together, a Cleveland workforce consulting firm. “Even middle managers and above are turning down offers because they don’t want to be in an office five days a week,” she says.

Younger generations at the mid-level stage of their careers desire more than good wages, says Budler, herself a millennial. She says perks like loan forgiveness serve entire families, not just individuals. Young professionals also want visibility in the workplace, in terms of being part of company dynamics and decision-making.

“These generations are saying we can’t burn down the house, and that the system won’t change overnight,” Budler says. “But at least let us have a seat at the table around influential conversations. It’s about talking to your people and communicating why you’re doing what you’re doing. Companies can do that without hurting the bottom line.”

Though Ballard is back with Robert Half on a remote basis, she is able to meet her fellow team members whenever she desires. Simply having this option even as the region’s employment atmosphere continues to evolve is nothing less than priceless, she says.

“It means everything,” says Ballard. “I’m very social and that correlates with work as well. You’re with work people more than family. Those relationships are so important.” 

This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland.

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.