At last we’re beginning to see beyond the pandemic to a return to more normal times. Businesses are reopening. Corporations have capital to invest and are starting to do so. Thanks to government support during the pandemic, many people have savings to spend.
The combination of a liberation from lockdown and all these available funds could lead to the kind of boom that some compare to the Roaring ’20s of a century ago.
That may not happen.
Consumers can be willing and able to spend on all the goods and especially the services we’ve been missing. Companies and governments can be ready to start making needed investments.
But more than money is required. There have to be people to fill all the restored or newly-created positions.
This isn’t the case.
Not long ago and to the great delight of many people (including me), restaurants in Vancouver were permitted to reopen dining rooms, including indoor seating. The prospect of enjoying a meal away from home and not out of plastic containers was very appealing.
However, at least two of our favourite cafes didn’t offer indoor seating. Their dining rooms remained closed because they didn’t have the employees to staff them.
Such worker shortages aren’t limited to basic jobs in the service sector; still, that sector has been hardest hit by the pandemic and has the greatest upside potential for generating jobs.
The lingering fear of COVID-19 may make some people reluctant to take work where they face the public, especially if this fear is coupled with an irrational fear of vaccines. A dearth of affordable child care could also deter some parents from rejoining the workforce.
Much of the problem for lack of workers can’t be blamed on the pandemic. Good workers have been scarce for some time. Demographics offer one reason. Birth rates have been low since the mid-1960s, which means there have been fewer young workers since the 1980s. In addition, a record number of people are reaching retirement, meaning lots of folks are leaving the labour force and very few are entering it.
Natural population increases (births minus deaths) have been low in Canada for decades. Our economy flourished because we attracted workers through immigration, temporary foreign work programs and international student initiatives.
The pandemic has cut off this supply of workers, and it’s likely to be restored very slowly and carefully. In the meantime, there are two things business operators can do to deal with the lack of workers:
Automation: For some time, a store in my neighbourhood has offered customers the option of paying a human cashier or using a self-checkout machine. Lately, they’ve been steering all customers to the machines, using staff to guide the digitally shy. Once close to 100 per cent of clients can check themselves out, less staff will be needed.
Be a better boss: When there were many available workers and openings were scarce, bosses could pick and choose and fire at will. Now that the number of vacant jobs exceeds those willing to fill them, managers must offer desirable places to work.
Higher wages can help, but many businesses can’t pay more without raising their prices so high that they deter customers.
A main reason people leave a job is because of a bad boss. To keep staff, managers have to become better bosses. This doesn’t always cost money. Here are some ideas:
Offer training: A firm that trains is more attractive to workers, even if some take their training to another employer. People who learn new skills at work tend to stay longer.
Promote from within: People who see their co-workers moving up to better jobs and more pay will be more loyal to a firm and do a better job when they become supervisors or managers.
Remember little things: Greeting staff when they come in and thanking them for doing their job means you will keep workers longer than those bosses who say, “I pay them. That’s thanks enough.” And it’s amazing how far an occasional box of doughnuts or a pizza will go.
Be ‘easy to’: A boss should be easy to approach and talk to. It’s easier to bring a problem to a boss if they’re likely to work on fixing that problem and preventing its recurrence, rather than just yelling.
Now that available workers are rarer than job openings, smart business people will start making the adjustments we need so we can all enjoy some post-pandemic prosperity.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. For interview requests, click here.
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