If you can’t get enough waiters to staff a restaurant today, how can you get the millions of construction workers that are needed?
I open the website of a restaurant in Washington, D.C., to make a reservation, and the portal opens with a want ad: Chefs and kitchen supervisors needed; $22 an hour for the former and $24 for the latter. I visit a pizzeria that has a long waiting list and an equal number of empty tables. I approach the manager to ask why he has people waiting for tables when there is so much space available. It isn’t because of the tables, he explains, there are simply not enough chefs or waiters to staff the place.
The same thing happens in many cities throughout the United States. The shortage is notoriously bad in the service sector. There aren’t enough taxi or Uber drivers, restaurants are unable to rent enough equipment, and hotels can’t get the people they need to get going again. There is a lack of workers in other sectors, including large trucking companies, which can’t find trained drivers to transport trailers throughout the country.
A few anecdotes are not evidence, but the data are there. In the United States, there are approximately 8.4 million unemployed people. At the same time, there are close to 9.2 million jobs available (or jobs that are needed, we should say, given that it is from the business side) that simply fail to get filled.
One hypothesis considered a few months ago was related to unemployment benefits. Economic logic would suggest that by continuing to receive pandemic-related benefits, workers would have little incentive to return to the labor market by accepting jobs they held before. But those benefits ended in August in virtually every state, and the situation continues.
What can explain this imbalance? There are more questions than answers. Some hypothesize that it is just a matter of prices: Once wages adjust in the face of shortages, the imbalance will be corrected. Others point to health and safety issues, perhaps people are rethinking their return based on their risk of contracting COVID-19 or are recovering from an infection. There is also the possibility that the lack of child care options is making it more difficult to return to the workforce in the pandemic environment without access (yet) to vaccines for children. Other hypotheses point to a more profound change in the labor market. Perhaps we are in the midst of a transformation to automation, and the country is at that point where there is a mismatch between what workers are offering and what employers are demanding.
There are also fears that the shortage of workers will become more acute in the near future once Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan is rolled out. If you can’t get enough waiters to staff a restaurant today, how can you get the millions of construction workers that will be needed?
While the discussion continues, there are thousands of people waiting to get into the United States and looking for a job and a future. Isn’t there an opportunity here? I don’t know. It’s a question.