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Editorial: Summer is almost over, but COVID's impact on the workforce remains
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Boats come and go on Labor Day Monday, Sept.3, 2018, at Gainesville Marina on Lake Lanier to finish the long holiday weekend. - photo by Scott Rogers

A year ago, as we entered the Labor Day weekend, we were deep into the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic and anxiously looking forward to the vaccines we thought would allow us to move past the worst of the deadly disease and return to something approximating normal routines.

A year later, the vaccines are plentiful, but a hesitance and sometimes willing refusal to be vaccinated by roughly half the people in the country has us again suffering from a virus spike as we look forward to the unofficial end of summer.

Welcome to Labor Day 2021. Celebrate at your own risk, knowing that odds are at least half of those standing around the backyard grill waiting for the burgers to cook have not done the single most important thing they could do to stop a public health crisis.

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The original intent of Labor Day often takes a back seat to its timing in the waning days of the summer season, as a holiday meant to celebrate the American workforce is more often celebrated as a recognition that another summer is behind us and fall is soon to be in the air.

Most of us are a lot more likely to spend the holiday weekend cooking hot dogs, enjoying a dip in the pool or watching a ball game than contemplating the value of the women and men who constitute the nation’s labor force. And that’s unfortunate, because the role of that workforce in building the strongest capitalistic economy the world has ever known is more than worthy of recognition.

Given the events of the past 18 months, it is hard not to wonder what the long-term effect of the pandemic on that workforce will be.

You would be hard pressed to find a business that has not been affected COVID-19. Most have had to make drastic changes to survive as viable business entities; and many have had to close.

One inescapable fact as we struggle to emerge from the chaotic business environment of the past year is that the workforce is different than at the beginning of 2020.

Whether it’s offering the possibility of remote work or focusing on healthy employment conditions for those who labor onsite, companies find themselves dealing with issues that didn’t exist just a short while ago.

At the same time, the labor supply has seen the sort of changes in a period of months that you might expect to play out over decades. Employees are deciding in large numbers they no longer want to do the jobs they were doing before the coronavirus became a household word.

The conclusion of a Work Trend Index commissioned by Microsoft is that “the year 2020 changed work forever, impacting every person and organization across the globe.”

The survey of 30,000 employees worldwide found that more than 40% of them are likely to change professions or quit their jobs this year. If that’s the case, the upheaval in the workplace will be sweeping and unlike anything seen in recent years.

Before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, there was the expectation that the coming years would bring with them a huge uptick in retirements as those in the Baby Boomer generation aged out of the workforce. Indications are that the pandemic has sped up that process, as many boomers choose to retire rather than try to return to careers after months of quarantines and job cuts.

Experts also say that younger employees are looking for new career paths as a result of changes brought by the disease. They theorize that some have decided that the pursuit of happiness is perhaps more important than financial security, and are moving forward with new, more satisfying jobs as they emerge from the cocoons of pandemic isolation.

The Microsoft study found those employees who are members of Gen Z, between the ages of 18 and 25, are having a hard time making the adjustments demanded by the pandemic economy. Considering that those likely are young people in their first jobs, and that those jobs have in many cases been devoid of any sort of stability for more than a year, it’s not hard to understand why that portion of the workforce is suffering.

Young people unsure of what to do; older folks retiring instead of working a few more years. The labor pool shallows as a result.

Meanwhile, many businesses are juggling the need for positions that allow for remote employees, who in turn find digital tethers to an employer mean the lines between home and work are blurred, causing more job dissatisfaction and burnout.

Until we can gain some ground on the virus, it’s impossible to say what the future is for many enterprises. Can hospitality and travel rebound, and if they do, can they find employees willing to commit to careers that may again be interrupted by the next health scare? Can traditional manufacturing entities operate in a way so as to protect the health of employees? Can the supply chain find the people needed to get goods where they need to go?

Business owners in our area are bemoaning the lack of candidates for existing positions, as evidenced by the signing bonuses being offered and the job fairs being held. When employees are scarce, pay scales climb to entice talent, but when that happens, either the cost of goods goes up, or the profit for businesses goes down. Inflation is already a problem, and many businesses are already operating on razor thin profits.

A year ago, most of us never imagined we would be where we are now once the vaccines became available. With that in mind, we can only wonder what the nation’s workforce will be like that we celebrate a year from now when Labor Day rolls around again.

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