The pandemic led to a historic drop in job opportunities. Now, as the world continues its journey out of the pandemic, the U.S. has seen an unprecedented rebound in job availability.
This national trend holds true in North Carolina. Between February and April 2020, employment dropped 12%, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. But by November 2022, the state had 218,000 more jobs than it did pre-pandemic.
Yet businesses are struggling to find enough employees to meet their labor demands. Labor shortages have led to increased service errors, employee burnout, and reduced profit and production.
Such economic issues have been the focus of UNC School of Government professor Anita Brown-Graham, who directs a statewide effort using research and data to inform policy called ncIMPACT. In 2021, Brown-Graham found a strong collaborator in NCGrowth. This Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise center provides technical assistance to businesses, governments and other groups to create jobs and new wealth in economically distressed communities.
The groups quickly realized how well they complement one another. Together, they launched a new project: “Where are the Workers?”
“That project reflected the need to examine both the demand and supply side of labor and how they meet in a place of mutual benefit in communities,” Brown-Graham says.
A new generation
They decided to focus the project on the 18-24 age group, the generation entering the workforce as the world shut down.
“Our motivation behind this research goes back to our core values: Creating new wealth in economically distressed areas,” emphasizes Carolyn Fryberger, assistant director of economic development at NCGrowth. “We believe this research informs the work we do for communities and businesses.”
The one-year project began in fall 2022 and will wrap later this year. To understand the motivations behind the gap in the labor market, the researchers conducted focus groups within eight economic regions across the state. They asked un- and under-employed youths what prevented them from taking available jobs. They asked employers and employment support groups how they encouraged and prepared young adults.
Lack of transportation, unaffordable or unavailable childcare and inadequate training are barriers to work, according to Fryberger, and so is housing. “Whether someone can even afford to live in a community can be a deciding factor in whether they can take a job there.”
Over the past year, the project has illuminated a difference in perspective between employers and potential employees. What some employers may see as laziness, the 18-24 age group sees as a desire for connection, value, and meaning in the work they do.
“They say they are willing to work very hard, but they want their voices to be heard,” says NCGrowth Executive Director Mark Little.
The future of work
While a tight labor market has created some problems in the present, the project has illuminated hope for the future. Legislation recently passed in North Carolina with the goal to equip 2 million people with post-secondary education by 2030. This is a sign that organizations across the state are focused on preparing workers for an economy that rewards education, says Brown-Graham.
Fryberger also noticed some employers changing shift structures from five eight-hour days to four 10-hour shifts throughout the week and implementing rolling start times instead of a few major shift changes, allowing for greater flexibility for employees.
Brown-Graham has emerged from the project with optimism.
“I have seen a massive amount of creativity in these communities throughout the state,” she says. “The entire team looks forward to sharing these insights with employers and workforce development leaders.”