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November 18, 2021

Why Talent Is Staying Out of the Workforce and How to Bring Them Back

Data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in October 2021 showed that there were 10.4 million openings available within the US job market… despite the fact that at that exact moment, 8.4 million people were ready and able to work.

In a perfect world, those 8.4 million jobseekers would each find a role, leaving only 2 million jobs left unfilled. So why aren’t more workers being matched with more open jobs?

Some of this disparity can be put down to a misalignment of skills – many of those 10 million jobs demand specific qualifications that the bulk of the unemployed group don’t have. There are also the extenuating circumstances:

  • The perfect candidate is in a different geographical location to the open role.
  • The perfect candidate is not even aware that the open role exists.
  • Recruiting and staffing firms aren’t filling roles as efficiently and effectively as they could.

But there’s another major factor contributing to the issue: many of the 8.4 million unemployed are simply saying no to the opportunities available.

What is keeping talent away from the workplace?

Why is some talent refusing to re-enter the workforce? It’s a question that has only become more complicated over the past 18 months, as companies, careers, and candidate expectations have been flipped upside down by COVID.

Nonetheless, there are a few identifiable factors that have led us here.

Balancing kids and a career

While perhaps not directly related to the pandemic, the career issues faced by working parents have come into ever-sharper focus in the last decade or two.

What the pandemic did was highlight the ongoing inequality experienced by parents: In May and June 2020, 25% of women who lost their jobs said it was due to a lack of childcare – twice the rate seen in men. In another survey that covered figures from February 2020 to August 2020, 2.2 million mothers of young children (under 12 years old) lost their jobs, compared to 870,000 fathers.

Once out of the workforce, many of these parents turn their focus to their kids, deciding that unless the right opportunity comes along – one that offers appropriate levels of support and balance – they’ll continue to stay home.

The search for work-life balance

Balancing the needs of a young family with the demands of a career can be seen as one example of a broader trend that extends beyond young parents, and touches the entirety of the workforce: the desire for work-life balance.

The pandemic showed workers that certain aspects of their jobs were perhaps unnecessary: the daily, hour-long commute to and from the office, the cross-country or international trips that tore them away for days or weeks at a time. Along with working from home, many workers found themselves enjoying more flexible hours. With the focus often switching from the time you worked to the outcome of that work, the rigid, 40-hour workweek began to seem obsolete.

Modern workers want to be successful, sure, but not at the expense of their personal lives, which is why Gen Z is looking to  ditch the 40-hour workweek altogether. Like young parents, this group is waiting for an appropriately flexible opportunity to come along, and are happy to stay unemployed until it does.

Questions of fair pay

In years gone by, being offered a job was seen as a privilege offered to the lucky few – you graciously accepted then obediently did as you were told.

But the modern worker is more aware of what they bring to the table. The most talented know that an employer should be appealing to them as much as they should be appealing to the employer. As a result, these workers feel more empowered than ever before. If they don’t feel as though they’ll be properly reimbursed for the talent and dedication they bring to the table, they simply won’t accept the offer. Again, they’ll wait for the right one to come along.

Extended unemployment benefits

The three factors discussed so far have one thing in common: each time, an unemployed person simply waits for the right job opening to present itself. Which raises a question: how can they just avoid work for an extended period?

After offering life-saving support since the beginning of the pandemic, the Enhanced Federal Unemployment Insurance Benefit came to an end at the start of October 2021. Many states are now offering an Extended Benefits Program, which offers 13-20 additional weeks of support to individuals that, during periods of high unemployment, have exhausted regular unemployment insurance benefits.

While unemployment benefits offer critical help to those who need it, extended and particularly generous benefits can result in the unemployed becoming more selective when shopping job opportunities, and can decrease the motivation to find a job. The true impact of these benefits is difficult to judge – it should be said that there are a wealth of hoops that an individual has to jump through in order to access them – but nonetheless, COVID has made being unemployed slightly more comfortable than it otherwise might have been.

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How do we bring talent back to the workforce?

This all leads to a single, simple question: how do we get more talent back into the workforce, bridging the gap between supply and demand by connecting available workers with open jobs?

One of the four factors described above is out of our control, though it’ll be less influential moving forward. As we enter a COVID-normal state, the unemployment benefits designed to assist those affected by the pandemic are beginning to be withdrawn. If an individual is biding their time in returning to the workforce, waiting for the perfect offer to come along, this could provide them with extra impetus.

That said, in the battle to bring talent back, there are a number of things that are most certainly in the staffing and recruiting industry’s hands.

Offer parents appropriate support

Many young parents are more than happy to return to work, but simply can’t. To access this talent, consider offering family-friendly policies like:

  • Subsidized childcare: Or, if you can’t afford that expense, you could at least assist your workers in finding a quality, cost-effective, and reliable local provider.
  • Paid parental leave: The US  lags behind the rest of the world in this measure, as other countries legislate up to 12 months of paid parental leave. This means that paid parental leave can be quite the differentiator to attract people in, while also ensuring you continue to enjoy the talents of a new parent when the time comes for them to re-enter the workforce.
  • Emergency family leave: This leave is designed to be used in emergency situations, and can remove much of the anxiety a new parent experiences when returning to work.
  • Family health insurance: Providing cover for an employee’s children can be an alluring perk.
  • Family-friendly activities: From weekend getaways to Friday night drinks, many common team-building activities aren’t built for people with kids. Consider ways to build your team that are more family-friendly, like afternoon picnics or a trip to a theme park.
  • Family tax breaks: Help parents establish a Health Savings Account and a Dependent Care FSA, which see your payroll department take money out of an employee’s paycheck that they can then use on eligible expenses.

Offer workers flexibility and balance

Inspired by what they experienced during COVID, many a modern job seeker is looking for an opportunity to work on their own terms. For some that will be working remotely, whether from home or a Mexican resort. Others will want to do away with that 9-to-5 rigidity, looking for an employer that focuses more on the outcome than the hours. Others still will want a boss who understands their need to close the laptop and turn off their phone after hours, to strike a better balance between the personal and professional.

Work in 2021 looks very different to work in 2019. Talent knows this, and if you are to successfully attract the best, it’s time for recruiters and employers to understand it too.

Offer candidates a competitive salary

Finally, luring lost talent back to the workforce comes down to the simplest of factors: money. Today’s candidates are better informed than ever of their value in the market and will know if an offer isn’t where it could or should be.

By no means should you overpay, but somewhat ironically, you can’t afford to underpay. If you present an offer well below market rate, word will get around to other candidates, and your employer brand will suffer. Remember that you can’t pay a worker what you think they’re worth, you must pay a worker what the market thinks they’re worth – a small but important difference.

Realistically, we’ll never get to the point where every jobseeker finds work and every open role is filled. But that should be the aim.

By balancing the needs and wants of employers with the needs and wants of candidates, the staffing and recruiting industry will play a key role in bringing down unemployment and getting the wheels of a COVID-affected economy spinning again.