EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series that will explore the reassessment of work standards as well as turnover rates and retention challenges faced by local businesses. It will delve into what nearby counties, states and countries have tried to address the apparent workforce shortage. Part One can be found here.
ASHLAND — The workforce has reassessed work. More people have voluntarily quit their jobs than ever before, and not all people who lost jobs are seeking new ones.
Ashland County has seen job openings across sectors.
“We have manufacturers that are trying to hire. We have fast food that’s trying to hire. We have restaurants that are trying to hire. We have small businesses that are trying to hire,” said Amy Daubenspeck, director of operations at The Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce.
Because many businesses are looking for employees, job seekers can be more selective about jobs.
What job seekers search for when selecting jobs has changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Trevon Logan, an economics professor at The Ohio State University and a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“It’s less of a worker shortage than it is really a wage and I’d call it a non pecuniary shortage,” Logan said, meaning wage and non-cash benefits earned by workers in place of salary. “In a tight labor market like (the one that) existed before the pandemic, a lot of employers were used to frankly really low wages and pretty difficult work conditions.”
Many people did not leave jobs temporarily during the pandemic, Logan said.
“They went and chose to do something else,” he said. “They went to occupations where they could work at home. They went to occupations where they had a more flexible schedule. They went to occupations that had lower commutes, et cetera.
“So they’re now finding when (employers are) posting help wanted signs, there just aren’t people looking for those particular types of jobs.”
Jessica Hiser, business development and client relations director for the employment agency Spherion in Ashland, has seen this disconnect play out when trying to match job seekers with local employers.
“We’ve worked closely with clients (businesses) to get them to offer more than what would have worked pre-pandemic, which was ‘Hey, we have a job opening,’” Hiser said. “What we really saw was a shift in focus of what employees were looking for.
"The pandemic kind of forced everyone to stop and think and pause about really what they were doing with their careers, or where they were at, if they thought that the job they were doing had value.”
In both the state and country, the number of people unemployed has been decreasing. So has the total number of people in the workforce.
In April 2021, approximately 4 million people in the U.S. voluntarily quit their jobs.
As of May 2021, just under 300,000 people were unemployed out of Ohio’s total civilian labor force of 5,548,700, putting Ohio’s seasonally adjusted May unemployment rate at 5%.
County job and unemployment data is sparse.
The Ohio Labor Market Information does not seasonally adjust unemployment rates for counties or cities. While there is a national program for looking at job openings, the number of job openings at the local level are not tracked. While rough estimates of openings can be done through online job postings, such estimates overestimate some jobs and underestimate others.
It is also unclear how many jobs have been added in Ashland since last year because LMI relies on wage records, which come out quarterly, for that data. There is a lag of approximately six months after the end of a quarter before that data is available.
Known-county data indicates similar trends compared to state and national levels. Ashland County’s average unemployment rate for May was 4.3%, below the state and country’s rates. This rate is up from 3.8% in April, but lower than its 9.6% rate in May 2020.
Unemployment rates measure the share of workers in the labor force who do not currently have a job but are actively looking for work, not people who have stopped receiving benefits or who were ineligible for benefits in the first place.
The county is just about at full employment.
The pandemic has led to a wage reckoning for many industries.
Low pay and burnout are factors impacting whether people pursue careers in education, said Steve Paramore, assistant superintendent of Ashland City Schools. Paramore has seen a decrease in substitute teachers over the past five years, he said, which is indicative of a larger trend of fewer people pursuing education as a career.
The district has also had increasing difficulty hiring for lower-wage, hourly paid classified positions, such as bus drivers, custodial staff and secretaries, which Paramore said had begun even before the pandemic.
While there are currently many jobs available in Ashland and surrounding areas, some job seekers have been unable to find adequate wages, including Mount Vernon resident Tim Huffman.
Huffman has been working in the same window and door factory for approximately a decade but is currently searching for a job with a higher wage, and is willing to switch industries to avoid a pay cut, he said.
“I’ve looked into factory jobs,” he said. “I’ve been looking at some construction-related jobs. I’ve even looked into food and retail.”
Currently, the minimum wage in Ohio is $8.80 per hour, and $4.40 per hour for tipped workers. These wages increased by 10 cents for non-tipped employees and five cents for tipped employees on January 1, 2021.
Earlier this year, democratic state lawmakers introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, and President Joe Biden has also directed agencies to start planning for a $15 minimum wage for federal workers and contractors.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 would increase pay for 17 million people, pulling 900,000 out of poverty. However, raising the minimum wage would also end 1.4 million jobs, the office estimates, because employers may cut jobs to accommodate higher labor costs.
Not all industries were impacted the same by the pandemic, said economist Bill LaFayette, owner of Regionomics. As consumer habits shifted, most sectors of the service economy, such as accommodations and transportation, saw declines in revenue, but technology (including telehealth), cleaning services, housing and Ohio startups surged during the pandemic.
Gig economy jobs — temporary, flexible positions such as rideshare drivers for Uber or Lyft — are on the rise. Hiser from the employment agency Spherion thinks people taking such positions may be a factor in Ashland businesses having difficulty hiring.
“Perhaps they are driving Uber or grocery delivery, things of that nature,” Hiser said. “I think the pandemic shifted the mind of a lot of job seekers to say ‘Hey I can find other forms of income that maybe give me a little more control over my schedule.’”
Nearby Knox County has also seen some of its workforce switching to gig economy jobs, said Matthew Kurtz, director of Knox County’s Job and Family Services.
The flexible hours of such positions may help alleviate childcare issues, which is a key concern for Ashland’s workforce, said Kristin Aspin, chief program officer with the Ashland County Community Foundation.
In May, ACCF rolled out an assessment measuring childcare needs to businesses located at or near Ashland Business Park/Industrial Park.Results show a desire for more accessible and affordable childcare.
Specifically, 73% of respondents (125 out of 173 survey respondents) indicated they would be likely or very likely to use a new childcare center near their workplace. Those 125 respondents have a total of 214 children under the age of 13, Aspin said.
The childcare demand among respondents was greatest for full-day childcare and for infant and toddler aged children.
A satisfactory completion rate for an external survey is 15-30%, and ACCF’s survey had an approximate 50% completion rate, Aspin said.
Childcare is a concern for residents of nearby Knox County as well, including for Huffman in Mount Vernon.
He and his wife both used to work, but his wife is currently not working because they cannot afford childcare.
“Childcare is so expensive that it wasn’t worth it,” he said.
As caregivers saw increased childcare needs during school and daycare closures throughout the pandemic, larger declines in workforce participation have been found among women than men in most countries.
In the U.S., 1.8 million fewer women were employed in May 2021 compared to just before the onset of the pandemic in the U.S. in February 2020.
Some former-employees achieved greater autonomy over their work by being their own boss.
In Knox County, Kathy and Barry Miller started their own business, K&B Mobility, LLC, in May 2021.
Barry Miller had previously worked for a mobility equipment supplier but decided to open his own in Mount Vernon to have more control over products and pricing.
"I've always been an entrepreneur-type, and working for someone else was very rewarding when I was there for a while but without room for growth," Barry Miller said. "I wanted to expand and utilize my ideas."
Coming out of the pandemic, some workers are now prioritizing quality time with loved ones.
Carole Bolden, of Ontario had been searching for a new job since the beginning of 2021, specifically looking for a position closer to home and with defined 9-5 work hours. She recently accepted a position with Avida Health System that met the aforementioned needs, although she took a slight pay cut.
“Sometimes money is not everything,” Bolden said. “You’ve got to look at the financial part of it, yes, but also the whole part of being able to spend time with family and be closer to home.”
Bolden had worked at the Cleveland Clinic in Medina for over a decade, traveling 52 miles to work each way, she said. Bolden considered switching job fields entirely during her job search, noting that Love’s Travel Stop, a truck stop chain, had offered her a spot in its management training program.
“I did think about doing that, getting out of healthcare and completely switching,” Bolden said. “Because let’s face it, the healthcare industry right now is really hard with all the changes and the fear of bringing home something to my family was definitely a thought in that.”
Ultimately, Bolden decided to stick with healthcare because she would not have to work weekends or holidays and the pay was higher.
There is no one solution employers can implement that will work for all job seekers.
No two job seekers are the same, said Hiser of the employment agency Spherion in Ashland.
“It’s a little bit of a little change here or there that makes a difference, but it’s not like ‘Oh, definitely higher wages are the answer, or definitely different shifts are the answer,’” Hiser said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s one magic thing right now.”
Coming Wednesday: Local employers face retention challenges, and workers are aging out. Jobs may not be equally accessible to all.