Statistics about employment in Clark County and elsewhere appear to be contradictory.
On one hand, unemployment in the region is extremely low, having fallen more than a percentage point in the past year. The latest data show that in August the county’s unemployment was 4.4 percent; in August 2021, it was 5.7 percent.
In raw numbers, the number of unemployed people in Clark County fell from 13,900 a year ago to 11,300 this year, suggesting a strong economic recovery from the days of COVID shutdowns.
At the same time, many industries report an inability to hire enough people, which slows the economy. A recent article from Columbian reporter Sarah Wolf detailed the trouble that local restaurants are having finding workers, leading many to shorten their operating hours and leading others to close for good.
As one local proprietor said: “It used to be in May and June of every year, I would get flooded with job inquiries and applications from high school sophomores and juniors that needed summer work.” This July, he had no applicants.
The scenario is common throughout the country, and the reasons for the dichotomy are varied. Economists have noted that many people have reexamined career and life choices, highlighting The Great Resignation that has accompanied the pandemic era. Others have pointed to workers expecting more from employment in terms of wages, benefits and job satisfaction.
But another factor is not receiving enough attention, with COVID-19 demonstrating the weaknesses of the nation’s child care system. A guest opinion by Elliot Haspel in The Washington Post recently focused on “a lack of public investment causing huge scarcity in the child-care sector. That scarcity, in turn, is keeping parents — especially mothers — from full participation in the labor force, exacerbating the labor shortage.”
Indeed, a woeful child care system has contributed to the United States’ lack of workers. Many parents of school-age children left the workforce when the pandemic arrived and students suddenly were at home during the day, and studies show that many of those parents have not sought a return to working outside the home.
Meanwhile, parents of younger children often decide that working does not provide enough financial or emotional benefits to offset the costs of placing a child or children in day care. Until the United States addresses this situation, a labor shortage is likely to continue.
As Haspel writes: “All the while, a massive pool of would-be workers remains sidelined by an inadequate and expensive child-care system. Given the desperate need for more workers, this means there is a key tool that policymakers have not yet utilized: an investment in child care.”
A lack of available and affordable child care is not the only cause of a labor shortage. But it has combined with other pandemic-generated factors to create difficulties for employers. In a society that has morphed toward a service economy, labor is the most important natural resource for many industries.
All of this, of course, is preferable to a situation in which too few jobs are available. Those who seek employment have numerous choices, and those hoping to change careers have a wide variety of options. That is more desirable than having more workers than jobs, and it is a harbinger of a robust recovery.
But for the United States to fully realize that recovery and to erase the contradictions in labor statistics, improved child care will have to be part of the solution.