Help Wanted—More Than Ever Before
Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer, Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc.
Julia Pollak, Chief Economist, ZipRecruiter
JULIA POLLAK: Typically, when we allow inflation, it pulls employment upwards and pulls people in off the sidelines and there can be some benefits. But right now, we’re seeing inflation, we’re seeing very rapid wage growth without people coming in off the sidelines. Labor shortages, low labor force participation can both cause inflation to rise and economic growth to slow down
TONY ROTH: That was ZipRecruiter’s Chief Economist, Julia Pollak, on how low labor participation rates are impacting inflation today and how solutions, like increasing automation, will impact the longer-term labor market outlook.
TONY ROTH: Welcome to Capital Considerations, the market and economic podcast that’s fully invested in your success. I'm your host, Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer of Wilmington Trust.
As we round out 2021, we naturally think about next year, and we publish our Annual Capital Markets Forecast. This year, we’re very focused on two interrelated phenomena. First, we’re very focused on the shortages that exist around the world as it relates to both supply chains and labor. Secondly, we are equally focused on how businesses are overcoming those shortages.
We’re going to take a look today very carefully at both of these issues, in particular within the context of the labor market. And we have a perfect individual here today to help us, Julia Pollak. Julia is the Chief Economist at ZipRecruiter, the leading online employment marketplace that uses AI technology to actively introduce employees to their next opportunity.
In her time at ZipRecruiter, Julia has built out internally generated data to better understand the health of the labor market generally and actively shares these insights with the broader marketplace. Her work has been cited in many financial outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, CNBC, and Bloomberg News. Prior to working at ZipRecruiter, Julia was an assistant policy analyst at the Rand Corporation and an adjunct economics professor at Pepperdine University. Julia, thank you so much for being here today
JULIA POLLAK: Thanks for having me on the show
TONY ROTH: In my career, when we’ve had concerns around inflation and it’s been a long time since we have had many concerns around inflation, certainly since the great financial crisis, the problem that monetary policymakers have had is to try to create more inflation globally. But now we seem to be in a moment where we do have quite a bit of inflation in the economy, at least in the short-term. And it seems to be an inflation that has a very different character to it than what I'm familiar within my lifetime, which is inflation that typically comes from an abundance of demand.
But here, we’re dealing with something different, which is not that what we call demand pull inflation where costs are being pulled up by too much demand, but what we might call cost push inflation, where costs are rising and as costs rise businesses have to raise their prices in order to pass those costs on. And when we think about the kinds of things that are missing, probably the clearest resource that is scarce are people, skilled people, laborers to go into jobs.
Just give us an overview of why all of the sudden in your mind have we run out of people that are qualified and able to go into all these jobs that you’re identifying at ZipRecruiter?
JULIA POLLAK: So, demand for stuff has grown since the pandemic. Consumer spending monthly has risen about 10% or $1.
5 trillion since the pandemic. But, yes, as you've said, remarkably it’s done so despite employment being lower by about $4.2 million.
So, typically, when we allow inflation, it pulls employment upwards and pulls people in off the sidelines and there can be some benefits. But right now, we’re seeing inflation, we’re seeing very rapid wage growth without people coming in off the sidelines. Labor force participation has been basically flat for over a year now and that is what is concerning, because labor shortages, low labor force participation can be stagflationary. It can both cause inflation to rise and economic growth to slow down and that I think is what the Fed is so worried about and why we saw their tone shift a little bit this week.
Okay, Julia. So, you’ve laid out that there is, in fact, a a shortage of vital resources and people and labor. But why do you see that as having happened now? There are a lot of reasons probably, whether it be COVID or people retiring. Almost the perfect storm if you will for a drop in what we call labor force participation, the number of people that are looking for jobs or willing to work. What do you attribute that to principally?
JULIA POLLAK: So, you know, ten years ago there were more than four unemployed people per job opening in the economy and now there’s not even one unemployed person per job opening. There are only 0.7 per vacancy. So, even if all the unemployed Americans, all the unemployed job seekers were slotted into those vacancies, there would still be three million unfilled positions and the main reason that we’re sort of concerned about that is that we think there should be more job seekers right now.
So, absent the pandemic there would be about five to six million more people in the labor force. Why have they stopped working? Are they sick with long COVID? Have they lost childcare? Or were they so traumatized by the experience of being laid off that they’ve soured on work entirely
And then, you know, there’s also reason to be concerned about the effects on businesses and on economic growth. When businesses can’t fill vacancies at wages that make sense given potential revenues in an industry, they may have to cut hours or offer only, you know, fewer goods and services, reducing the amount of stuff available. Or they may choose to go out of business entirely. We also see that some businesses are choosing to automate jobs and that could reduce the number of jobs available to workers later when people do return to the workforce.
JULIA POLLAK: They may also force customers to wait on hold for hours and hours, to bus their own tables, to assemble their own furniture, to install their own internet systems and alarm systems, harming customer experience, and we’re seeing that happen too.
TONY ROTH: Yeah. I, I’ve experienced it. My daughter got a new chair for her desk at IKEA, and she brought it home fully unassembled, but unassembled and to a level that I didn’t think a chair could have this many components that need to be put together.
TONY ROTH: And so, she thought she had done a brilliant job putting it all together and proceeded to spin around on it and she didn’t realize that the nuts actually needed to be tightened with a wrench.
JULIA POLLAK: we’re seeing the IKEA-ization of the entire economy and, you know, that’s harming the customer experience. But we’re also seeing some harm to the employee experience because many companies are trying to squeeze as much productivity as possible out of the existing employees and that is causing burnout and also, you know, harming retention.
TONY ROTH: Right.
JULIA POLLAK: So, all of these things are happening to some degree. And then, of course, the other effect is inflation.
TONY ROTH: I want to take a sharper look at where those people are, that six million folks that aren’t working today. By our estimate, there may be two to 2.5 million perhaps that have retired that would not have typically retired. They’ve retired early. So, that leaves around 3.5 million perhaps that are eligible in some conceptual sense to come back into the labor market. Do you have any sense or does your research show whether those folks are likely to come back into the labor market?
JULIA POLLAK: So, I think about half of these five to six million are retirees, but they’re not necessarily people who’ve retired early. Many of them are retirees who just did not unretire and would’ve unretired absent the pandemic. So, in normal times a large number of retirees come back to work. They realize that they retired too soon, they’re still productive, they still want the social interaction of work, the sense of meaning and fulfillment and the earnings, and they come back. But, due to the pandemic, they have been sitting out the labor market largely due to the health risks and also, of course, rising asset prices and housing prices, which have made it possible for them to do so.
We expect that about half of these people will come back. These are people who are flexible and who by definition tend to come back to work when the conditions are right. And if the pandemic conditions sort of improve and Omicron isn’t followed by, you know, Omega followed by whatever, and this doesn’t go on forever, we should see many of these people return to work.
About 1.8 million of the missing workers are prime age women, many of whom left the labor force to meet their caregiving responsibilities due to the pandemic. Also, many of them are people who joined the labor market when it was particularly attractive to do so, you know, at the end of a ten-year expansion when wages were growing, and employers were offering more flexibility and expanding their talent pools. So, these are women who may have been kind of on the margins of going back to work and who only come back when the conditions are sufficiently attractive.
TONY ROTH: I find the whole concept of unretirement to be really interesting. I hadn't heard that before and it’s so fascinating to hear that it’s not really that people necessarily retire early but that you normally have this rebound effect
TONY ROTH: – within the experience of retirement and that’s just not there as much now because the desire to go back in the context of COVID and expose oneself and deal with that is obviously not attractive. When it comes to caretakers and demographics, such as women that tend to fulfill that role, I also wonder at what point does this get extended with, you know, increasing variants, as you’ve just mentioned, Julia, where those demographics will have an increasingly difficult time as the phenomenon of obsolescence takes hold.
When you try to calibrate for the number of folks that are going to come back into the labor force, that number is going to start to drop more quickly if we don’t get through this pandemic within the next three to six months as we had originally thought we would earlier in the year?
JULIA POLLAK: I think this number’s only going to move very slowly. So, I think labor shortages are going to be a protracted issue. I think that labor force participation is going to almost return to its pre-COVID level, but not to its pre-COVID trend. So, rather than getting the five or six million more workers than we would’ve had, we’ll just go right back to where we were. And then, for structural reasons, because the population is aging, we’ll actually likely see labor force participation edge downwards in the coming years.
So, this is likely to be a long-term issue. Employers are going to need to figure out how to recruit and retain workers in a tight labor market. I do share your concern that people’s careers will suffer in the long-term due to this large interruption. You know, fortunately this time around, gaps on one’s resume probably won’t be as stigmatizing as they usually are, because everyone understands that we were in a global pandemic.
The other long-term effect that I worry about though is the effect on schooling and that’s going to have long-term ramifications for labor productivity and for, you know, our human capital. So, schools were largely closed in person all of 2020. That led to severe learning loss, particularly among minority communities. And now that schools are back in person around the country, they are heavily, heavily understaffed. So, they have started the school year with 723,000 fewer staff on payrolls than before the pandemic, despite the fact that arguably there’s a greater need for staff at schools than ever before to deal with learning loss, you know, to provide remedial assistance, to provide counseling to all the kids who have lost primary caregivers in the pandemic. So, this, I think, is a really serious crisis and schools need to figure it out very soon.
TONY ROTH: That’s just fascinating as well. It’s another one I haven’t appreciated. When you think about the impact of that, my reaction is that it tends to be perhaps more of a overall impact on the system as opposed to any individual within the system in the sense so many individuals within the system are participating in or suffering from this learning loss. But on a relative basis to their peers, they are not necessarily significantly disadvantaged. But the system as a whole will be less efficient, proficient than it might’ve been otherwise and when you think about the trend of the economy.
JULIA POLLAK: Right. So, I think it it could have implications for economic growth going forward, unless private companies that are offering online courses and employers who are largely stepping in and providing educational assistance sort of sufficiently fill that gap. It’s not really, you know, their primary role. But we are seeing a lot of innovation in this space as companies rush to offer more affordable, more convenient online training programs.
TONY ROTH: So, let’s talk about that for a moment, because historically at least in my career when I’ve looked to try to increase my talent pool in my, on my team, I’ve looked to one instrument to do that, which is to offer more money. And you're not seeing necessarily that employers have been successful enticing workers back just through offering more money. So maybe you could just expand on that a bit.
And then also, Julia, I think we’ve had an education crisis in this country in that companies have not for many decades now really invested in their employees in the way that you’re just describing. They haven’t needed to in order to be able to attract the kinds of employees that they wanted. But could that be a silver lining of the pandemic?
JULIA POLLAK: So, I think there’ll be many silver linings of this pandemic. When companies are forced to recruit and retain workers in a tight labor market, they have to do everything right. There’s a lot of pressure on them to do everything perfectly and to become better employers.
So, we’re seeing the share of jobs, the, you know, the offer of schedule flexibility. That's gone up about fourfold over the past five years. It’s doubled in just the last year, thanks to the pandemic.
When companies like Starbucks and Amazon adopt technologies that allow employee preferences to be captured in schedules and allow people to trade shifts very easily, you see a reduction in absenteeism. You see an increase in morale and retention. It’s just it’s better for everyone. When you allow people to work more flexible shifts, you don’t see them work less. You just see them work different times that make sense for them.
We’re also seeing increasing numbers of companies basically offer to pay for your college tuition. So, in jobs where there isn't that much career growth, warehousing jobs and some retail jobs, employers are saying, hey, we understand this is a job where you’re not likely to stay very long. But we’re going to help you get career growth outside of the company afterwards and we will pay for your college degree while you're here. So, a long list of companies are doing this and we’ve seen many more added to the club this year, like Macy’s, joining companies that have been doing this, like Papa John’s Pizza, for a very long time. So, I think there are many things that will happen but will be good for workers.
TONY ROTH: Is there a respect in which, Julia, that the employees might be holding too many cards? And what I mean by that is it’s nice to work from home. I happen to work in an area where the kind of collaboration that is typified by sitting around a table and joking and laughing together and having a level of ease with one another so that we could be spontaneously creative in thinking about the markets and events in the markets and how to position portfolios really can’t be replicated through a Zoom or WebEx.
Do you feel in any way that that kind of sort of protean collaboration that should exist within an economy like the US economy might be hampered by the very significant leverage that the employee has today and their desire to have a lifestyle which suits them on their terms? Is that a possible risk that some companies might run if they are too accommodating in that sense?
JULIA POLLAK: So, this remote work revolution is real. We’ve seen norms totally upended in many industries, even in industries that really required people to be in the office before, like law and finance. And companies that are forcing workers to return to offices are losing their best people in droves to competitor companies that are allowing people to work remotely indefinitely.
So, I don’t think employers are going to be able to fight against this trend. It is real. The genie is out of the bottle, and you can’t put it back. And what employers are going to have to do now is find a way to replicate that collaboration and familiarity online.
it can be difficult in certain organizations. It really depends on culture. But if you create Slack channels, if you require people to have their cameras on during meetings, If you recreate those chance encounters that can take place in the hallway in a normal office online, I think many companies will find that they can actually get that level of group productivity and creativity and collaboration.
TONY ROTH: So, companies have to work really hard, and they have to be creative in order to get their employees to be creative together I think is the –
JULIA POLLAK: Yes.
TONY ROTH: – moral of that story.
JULIA POLLAK: Many employers are finding ways to get employees who live in areas near to one another to meet up in person as well. So, I'm hearing of law firms in Los Angeles that used to have a big office in Century City, for example, that have now opened tiny little satellite offices in various neighborhoods of Los Angeles. And the partners are now, instead of coming all the way to Century City, three partners who live in Redondo Beach are meeting in an office within walking distance of their own homes, spending more time with their families, but also going into the office when they need to meet with clients or when they need to brainstorm and collaborate together. So, we’ll see all kinds of interesting innovations emerge and I think companies will try to foster that kind of connection among workers who do work near to each other.
TONY ROTH: Yeah. And it really sounds to me like the companies that have more corporate imagination are the ones that will over time have probably a healthier corporate culture. In other words, ones that don’t fight but give into the desires of the employee but do so in a way that is perhaps directive towards the kind of culture they want to have, will be the ones that come out on the right side of the success ledger if you will –as opposed to ones that really resist this will probably end up with less happy or even less employees or less well-qualified employees.
JULIA POLLAK: Right. I also think if employers are worried about something like connection to the company, sometimes it’s useful to push in the opposite direction, so to go far further than you ever would have before. And here’s what I mean. You know, at my company we used to have quarterly or annual all-hands meetings in person where hundreds of employees would be sitting there in front of a stage where the CEO would be addressing everyone.
With the switch to remote work, the company instituted weekly all-hands meetings and the CEO made presentations to the entire company every single week and gave us much more insight into business performance than ever before. So, he spoke to everyone in the company far more closely and in far greater detail, disclosing so much more of what was going on in leadership and of their thinking than we’d ever been privy to before.
So, sometimes if you have a worry by totally leaning into it you can, rather than seeing connection to the company decline, you can actually see it increase. And that’s I think the challenge for employers.
TONY ROTH: Julia, let me ask you about the idea of the YOLO economy, which is to say you only live once economy. there’s a premise that of the six million there’s some material number of them perhaps that have really shifted from a values standpoint how they want to lead their lives, not just they want to work differently but whether they want to work at all or where they want to work, where, which is to not home or at work, but in a different city. They want to live in the mountains or by the ocean or they want to have a totally different type of job if they’re going to work,
Do you think it’s a real phenomenon? Or that we’re seeing is more a function, again, of this slow recovery over COVID and if we look back in three or five years we’re not really going to see this sort of generational change where folks have just sort of stepped away from their trajectories and path that they had been on?
JULIA POLLAK: So, I don’t think humans have fundamentally changed since the pandemic. I don’t think we’ve seen sort of a spiritual awakening.
But I do think that two important things have changed, and one is the relative costs and benefits of different activities and the other is professional norms. So, what do I mean? You know, take the first issue. The relative benefits of working in face-to-face services have fallen dramatically because it’s become less safe, less pleasant, less convenient, and even less lucrative And in the meanwhile, remote work has become relatively widespread and more prevalent. The costs of working in person have risen and the benefits of working from home have increased and that’s why I think people are making the switch.
Take the second issue, norms. You know, as I said, even in finance and tech in companies where people were expected to be in the office at 8:00 a.m. and to have their lunch and their dinner there. Many of those jobs were performed remotely exclusively for more than a year and people learned something from that experience. They learned that remote work works. Employees love it. It reduces absenteeism. It cuts real estate and operating costs. Individual productivity grows. Team productivity really depends on what the company does. But individual productivity tends to grow. Even for junior employees whom, you know, nobody thought would be able to manage this responsibility in call centers, so even some low wage, junior, young, employees have managed to make calls from home rather than in call centers where they’re being monitored by their supervisors looking over their shoulders.
And what happened during the pandemic is that many companies, you know, allowed their employees to work from anywhere. Once they did that and it worked, sometimes it made sense for them to hire people from out of state because everyone was working remotely. And once they did that, it made sense to allow for, you know, employees to move from office locations permanently.
And now, as I said before, sort of the genie is out the bottle, and you can’t put it back. You – when your top employees move to Florida and Texas and are doing really well and don’t seem to want to come back, it’s very hard to force them to.
JULIA POLLAK: People have become aware of their value because of this massive shift and relative scarcity and bargaining power. So, there are 25% fewer unemployed people per job opening now. And so, the typical job seeker looking at the market sees 50% more job openings than before on average and openings in 20,000 more cities are accessible now than before, thanks to remote work.
And employers have responded to this issue and to labor shortages by leaning into firm-initiated search and to proactive sourcing, to recruiting, to poaching. So, even people who are sitting there happily doing their jobs are suddenly becoming aware of more attractive outside opportunities, because they’re getting a call from a recruiter or from a friend who’s trying to refer a friend to a company. That's happening because of supply and demand, not because of some sort of cultural awakening.
TONY ROTH: Well, it’s really interesting because it sort of ties into, when we talked about folks that were retiring where there wasn’t necessarily a rebound that there used to be. And similarly, when individuals may be stepping away initially from their current job situation, it’s not to say that they’re leaving altogether because of a spiritual shift.
TONY ROTH: But it is to say rather that they are reassessing and over a period of time they have an opportunity to digest what’s important to them. They’ve retained those core values, but they want to express them in a different context, a different way that is overall more satisfying. But the underlying drive is still there at that stage in life.
TONY ROTH: So, Julia, let me pull it all together from an inflation standpoint when you juxtapose the math around the number of workers that are out there today, which is to say we’ve – you’ve said 0.7 versus five, four or five per job opening where we were a decade ago, with the reality that in order for companies to make this transition to a more attractive work environment they need to spend money, need to spend money either in the unimaginative way of raising wages or need to spend money in the more creative and perhaps more permanently impactful way of changing the environment for the better for their employees by doing all the kinds of things that you’ve talked about.
So, what is the outcome from an inflation standpoint? At some point these companies need to pass those costs on to their customers. And then at some point, of course, the customers may lose their ability to keep up from a demand standpoint with the higher costs
So, from an inflation standpoint, how critical do you think that these labor dynamics are going to be on the economy in 2022?
JULIA POLLAK: One would hope that unemployment falling below 5% and signaling to people on the sidelines that it’s really easy to find a job now will cause more people to take a swing at it and come back. When wage growth is as fast as it is now, 4.9% overall, 12% almost in leisure and hospitality, you would also expect that that should pull people in off the sidelines. And so, that sort of supply response in the labor market should dampen the increase going forward.
One other thing that we’re seeing though is an improvement in productivity so that sort of unit labor costs are actually not so terrible. With so many companies getting more hours and more productivity out of each individual worker, the workweek has gone up pretty substantially, the overall costs of employing people can sometimes go down.
So, there are, you know, there are fixed costs like health insurance coverage that don’t change when you get more hours out of somebody. And so, I think part of the reason that employers are leaning into giving workers more hours and giving people more overtime is that you can actually then often get more bang for the buck.
So, there are many reasons to believe that employers might find a way around having to pass the wage increases on to consumers, because they could be getting more out of each employee in terms of productivity.
TONY ROTH: I'm dying to hear what you think about automation, whether it be automation that is directed at removing an employee from a role per se in a, in an obvious way. A robot comes in and screws the fastener in in an automobile factory, right. How important is technology to companies in their ability to pivot and increase productivity of a smaller workforce? You can increase productivity through culture and morale. But you can also increase productivity by better equipping your employees with tools, technology-based tools to do a better job more quickly.
JULIA POLLAK: So, we have seen orders of robotic equipment rise 37% year-over-year according to the Association for Advancing Automation. So, and we also see businesses investing more in software and websites and then in other labor-saving technologies like customer service phone bots and then, of course, like the IKEA-ized systems we talked about before, self-assembly and self-installation.
So, there’s definitely a shift towards using less labor. QR code menus are here to stay, which lead to a lower need for wait staff and we’re likely to see this trend continue and accelerate due to the labor shortages that we’re seeing. The countries that have the most robots per person are Japan and Europe, where an aging labor force has led to pretty low labor force participation compared to demand. And so, a major, major push for automation is labor shortages and we’re likely to see a similar response happen here now in the United States.
TONY ROTH: Well, Julia, this has been a terrific conversation. Let's stop there and I'm going to summarize three key takeaways for our audience. The first is that the shortages that we see in the labor force today are very real and the fixes that companies are employing and will continue to need to employ are going to have to be very different than they have been historically in order to be successful and entice employees back into the seats that they have open.The shortages hopefully will abate over time, but there’s a lot of uncertainty around the degree to which skills may have become obsolete and the degree to which employees will be interested in coming back over time.
And so, employers are going to have to use a combination of creativity and creating cultures that are appealing to employees, creating workplaces that are appealing to employees. And companies are going to have to use all the tools at their disposal from a productivity standpoint in order to keep their employees educated, trained, engaged, excited, and moving forward in a way that helps increase the per unit productivity on an employee-by-employee basis of the company.
Second takeaway is that employees are very much in the driver’s seat in today’s environment and that means that employees have the opportunity to soul search, figure out what’s important to them, and continue across the trajectory of their career in a way that suits them, that suits them from a career standpoint, but also suits them from a personal standpoint. And I make this one of the takeaways because I think that it’s so important that we think not just about the direct economic and market impacts of these labor force dynamics, but also the personal impacts to employees, to individuals, and the opportunity that this particular dislocation is providing to each and every one of us to think more about the environment that we want to work within and how we can best sort of self-actualize if you will in today’s world. And there’s a lot of possibility out there, which I think is just incredibly exciting.
And then the last thing I would focus on, which is obviously critical for us as investors, is that the inflation environment and the impact on inflation of this dislocation in the workforce continues to be quite uncertain. Julia has expressed a hopeful view, over a reasonable amount of time given how low labor participation is that we will see a natural mean reversion if you will, maybe not to the long-term level that we’ve been at more recently, but to a level that is certainly closer to that longer-term trend in the mid-to-high 60s as a percentage of our population that is in the workforce from where we are today, which is in the low 60s.
And that has yet to be seen whether that will actually occur or whether instead we’ll see a more structural problem, if you will, from the perspective of labor force participation, which would then potentially drive inflation in a more sustained way. And so, that level of uncertainty is what we’re all dealing with as investors, what the Fed is dealing with as the monetary policymaker. And we're going to see how that plays out.
Our view here at Wilmington Trust is that the overall workforce participation rate will increase. But as the pandemic continues to drag on, we become increasingly worried that there will be individuals that are accustomed to a certain level of compensation, that when they start to get back into the labor force may not, even in this environment, be able to command, those kinds of wages given the obsolescence of their skills and that may cause them to sit out and sort of engage in a cycle that’s sort of self-defeating, and that could be a large portion of the workforce over time.
So, we’ll have to see what happens there. And with that, I want to thank you again, Julia, for your insights today, which have been just really terrific, and I’ve learned a lot.
JULIA POLLAK: Thank you for having me on the show.
TONY ROTH: So, I want to encourage everybody to visit wilmingtontrust.com for a roundup of all of our investment and planning ideas. You can subscribe to Capital Considerations on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast channel to ensure you get updates on future episodes. And thank you, everybody, for listening today.
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