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The ‘Great Resignation’ has an upside

Millions of workers left their jobs — which may be good news for graduating Carolina students, says Tierney Bates, executive director of University Career Services.

Laptop shows a Job Search screen
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What seemed like a temporary labor turnover during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has been dubbed the “Great Resignation” and become a long-term trend: Millions of employees have left their jobs and employers are scrambling to replace them. In December of 2021, over 10 million jobs were empty in the United States after months of record-high quit rates.

Tierney Bates, the executive director of University Career Services, shared with The Well his views on why millions of employees left the workforce, where they went and what their absence means for recent and future Carolina graduates.

What is the Great Resignation and what caused it?

The Great Resignation is a mass exodus from the workforce caused by the pandemic, both directly and indirectly.

In August 2021, after offices and businesses reopened, some 4.3 million people didn’t come back to work. Many decided to pursue their passion and changed careers or started their own businesses to allow for better work-life balance and improved work conditions.

Another group who left the workforce are women who lacked childcare during the pandemic and either resigned to stay home with their children or to find remote work where they have the flexibility they need as COVID-19 protocols in schools and daycares change rapidly.

The number of retirements also doubled in 2021. The average number of people retiring per year is typically around 1.5 million. In 2021 it was around 3 million. Those close to retirement age decided to leave sooner than planned either because their retirement packages were generous, they didn’t want to be exposed to COVID-19 or because they knew they could find a position working part-time or remotely.

How are companies reacting to the Great Resignation?

Salary disparities and sign-on bonuses are going to continue to grow moving forward. Cities like Austin, Atlanta, Nashville and Raleigh/Durham attract new college graduates because those are technology hubs and salaries are higher on average, and there are cultural and creative components to those areas that appeal to young people. Companies located in those areas have a recruitment advantage over other regions.

I recently had a student who received a job offer that included a $27,000 sign-on bonus, and if he stays with the company for three years, he’ll get a $23,000 retention bonus. We’ll keep seeing that trend even in the fast-food industry, where they’re offering $500-$2,000 sign-on bonuses for jobs that used to pay minimum wage, but now pay $15 an hour.

Many companies have also begun programs for employees to work both in and out of the office, or even fully remotely. The pandemic was an unexpected but effective test of which industries and jobs can work remotely.

Are there any negative effects of the Great Resignation?

There is going to be an imbalance in gender and social economics in the workplace since women are leaving, which results in a lack of inclusivity and opportunity for increased wages and leadership for women in the future.

On the flip side, we’ve seen more companies talk about diversity, equity and inclusion and instituting new initiatives to hire people of color and women during the pandemic. Companies that offer remote opportunities can now recruit diverse candidates from across the United States — the talent pool has always been diverse and accomplished, but increased flexibility widens that pool of candidates.

What is University Career Services doing to prepare Carolina students to enter the workforce during the Great Resignation?

Our Handshake platform is an online portal for undergraduates that includes job and internship postings, details about on-campus recruiting, career fairs, workshops and employer contact information. In the last six months we’ve had an additional 5,000 job listings posted, on top of the 40,000-50,000 postings we have on average. The Great Resignation has created thousands more jobs than existed for previous classes, and employers may be more willing to hire students straight out of college to fill necessary positions. We just have to work with our campus partners to ensure that our students have the skills and career readiness to qualify for those jobs.

Our students’ majors and minors matter less than they used to — 73% of students graduating from Carolina take jobs outside the focus of their major. Or, a better way to say it is they do not go into their intended major for work, which is something we must address. Skills like digital literacy, research experience, data analytics, cybersecurity and effective writing are what employers are looking for in candidates. We’re encouraging our students to add value to their degree by taking advantage of certification courses, experiential learning and internships available early in their time at Carolina.

What can faculty and staff do to help students?

We need our campus partners to offer more opportunities for students to gain experience and skills before they graduate, because we want students to start learning how to work independently, solve problems and get along with diverse groups early to prepare themselves for a career. There’s no reason why 95% of our students shouldn’t have a job offer by the end of their senior year — our students are exceptional; we just need to give them a chance to prove it to employers.

Faculty and staff can partner with us to build opportunities for students to gain workplace skills and certifications in the classroom and through assignments. If they know alumni, have corporate influence or friendships with industry leaders, let us know about those so we can connect students with people who can help them break into their field or find internships.

Read more stories on faculty and staff at TheWell.UNC.edu