ASHLAND — The pandemic made a mess of several areas of daily life.
It disrupted hospitals, the way we consume food and even the way we interact with each other.
The pandemic also challenged the nation’s labor force.
Unemployment rates skyrocketed in the early months of the pandemic in 2020. But those same rates rebounded rather quickly, at least when compared to 2008’s recession.
Today, job openings remain at an all-time high, leaving economists and employers alike scratching their heads and scrambling to figure out how to get people back to a redefined version of work.
The reasons behind these facts are complicated to understand — exactly what Report for America reporter Emma Davis and a handful of panelists tackled Wednesday during an hourlong webinar.
“It’s Complicated: North Central Ohio Navigates the Future of Work” featured a Kenyon College economics professor, an employment center administrator, two area employers and a woman working to fill childcare needs in Ashland County.
PJ Glandon, the Kenyon economist, opened the webinar with some facts and figures.
“In terms of intensity, this recession was pretty severe in terms of unemployment rate,” Glandon said. “We’ve never seen unemployment raise as high as it did nationally … since the Great Recession.”
But the economy also recovered “extremely quickly,” he said, reaching more stability by October 2020 in Ohio. Yet pre-pandemic levels are not quite back to normal. The reasons behind that vary.
Glandon said job openings and job quits are at record highs at the national level. But the unemployment rate, 5.4%, is relatively low. Rates in Ashland, Knox and Richland counties are 4.1%, 4.0% and 4.6% respectively.
“I think what this means is there’s just a big reshuffling,” he said.
This reshuffling is affecting local employers big and small.
Doug Reynolds, who co-owns Uniontown Brewing Co. with his wife Anna, said his brewpub suffered a 75% loss in sales last year. The restaurant employed 35 people before the pandemic and dropped to seven before rebounding recently to around 30. He said Uniontown shut down for two weeks last year and then offered takeout options for patrons for a time.
Reynolds said his largest struggle right now is keeping employees around.
“We can hire five in one week and then lose four of them within two weeks,” he said, adding that pattern has developed over the last four to six months.
Reynolds said he suspects newer employees have ample opportunities currently. So when presented with a sweeter deal, they jump ship.
Mark Osborn, senior vice president of Corna Kokosing — a construction company — currently employs around 3,500 in up to 15 states.
The U.S. government deemed construction workers as essential during the pandemic. But the industry has been faced with attracting workers even before the pandemic, Osborn said.
Now, the challenge for Kokosing is competing with other similar companies for skilled workers.
“Those with skills are being more attracted to other companies because you start getting into a pay differential,” he said. Technology offers job seekers the resources to research pay scales and other benefits, putting a strain on companies to match pay packages or lose out on a skilled laborer.
Earning more money is something job seekers in Knox County are interested in, said Brandy Booth, an administrator at Opportunity Knox Employment Center.
Before the pandemic, job seekers were most interested in benefits employers offered.
“Wage is usually the very first question they ask,” Booth said, adding other important factors in choosing work is a flexible schedule and the option to work from home.
Booth also said current job seekers are interested mainly in retail and service-oriented jobs, whereas before the pandemic they mostly sought manufacturing gigs.
“We kind of attribute that to the fact that retailers have really increased their wages through this process and they can be a little more flexible with scheduling than you can in factories and the manufacturing industry,” she said.
One of the big barriers in job security is the ability to have stable childcare, said Kristin Aspin, chief program officer at the Ashland County Community Foundation.
The foundation surveyed workers in May that measured childcare needs. The biggest need among those surveyed was full-day childcare for infants and toddlers.
The foundation’s Women Fund is working to do just that by partnering with a nonprofit that would operate a new center in Ashland’s business park.
“We’re hoping this could help businesses recruit and retain employees, boost productivity, reduce absenteeism … childcare is just sort of a deeply-rooted need that needs to be met,” Aspin said.