Building a strong workforce and bringing workers back into the labor force were among the issues discussed at last month’s NCSL Jobs Summit in Las Vegas.
The biennial Jobs Summit gathers legislators and legislative staff from across the country to learn about issues related to jobs, business and the workforce and to discuss what their states are doing to address them.
This year’s Jobs Summit featured overviews of the U.S. economy and the future of work from economist Chris Thornberg and futurist Rebecca Ryan, respectively, along with speakers from Walmart, Microsoft, the workforce nonprofits JFF and Right to Start, and various state legislatures.
Thornberg, an economist from Beacon Economics, kicked the meeting off with his overview, noting that the American economy is surprisingly strong despite a disrupted supply chain and changes in the workforce.
The supply chain crisis has only slowed growth and is not a threat to the economic rebound, Thornberg said.
Touching on the so-called “new normals” of the workforce, he illustrated that many of the changes, including remote and hybrid work, were in fact existing trends sped up by the pandemic. The labor shortages are here to stay, he explained, because millions of people retired at the beginning of the pandemic.
Thornberg stated that instead of job creation being key like it was in the past, a focus on workforce attraction—that is, attracting and retaining talented workers—is much more important for states. Because of this shift, Thornberg joked that NCSL’s event should be renamed the “Worker Summit” going forward.
Although the U.S. economy looks fundamentally strong, Thornberg stated that in many people’s minds, there is a labor paradox.
Millions of jobs have disappeared since the pandemic started, but unemployment is at 4.2%, a rate that Thornberg said is very low when looking back at the last 50 years. Many of the jobs that disappeared belonged to the 3.1 million people who have retired since the start of the pandemic.
Additionally, since the federal government has given out trillions of dollars in economic stimulus, many people do not have to work low-wage jobs anymore and have options to pursue higher-paying opportunities. This phenomenon is why Thornberg emphasized the importance of workforce attraction. Where people move is where economic growth is most likely to be seen.
Thornberg’s long-term outlook for the economy is fairly simple: The labor shortage is here for the foreseeable future, but shutting off unemployment benefits is not going to bring workers back into the workforce.
The labor shortage, however, provides opportunities for states to help underserved constituencies, because workforce development programs will be more effective than they have been in the past. Additionally, he said, stimulus spending needs to slow down, even if it causes a slight economic downturn in the short run.
Workers’ Values Changing
Futurist Rebecca Ryan, said we are in the early days of a large social and economic experiment due to the accelerated trends and changes from the pandemic.
Since April 2021, she explained, people have been quitting their jobs in record numbers because they are confident they will find new jobs or succeed as entrepreneurs in new businesses.
Additionally, workers’ personal values have changed, which in turn alters the way we all work. Ryan said it is becoming clearer that work will not be the most important thing in people’s lives anymore. Many women, for example, have dropped out of the labor force to stay home with their families. The labor participation rate for women has fallen to where it was at in 1989.
People who are not working have experienced changes in their values, too. According to Ryan, 86% of people who are on the sidelines of our workforce want flexibility when they reenter the job market, and 74% say they want a welcoming place to work.
This includes remote work, hybrid work and comfortable working spaces. Most people want to have a bigger purpose than profit in their work, and 53% want to have a high-paying job. Ryan argued this reinforces her theory that if a business only hires cheap labor, that business will not succeed in the long term.
Ryan said many people who want to work feel they cannot due to a disability. She emphasized the importance of remote work and other strategies that can get these disenfranchised workers into jobs.
Child care is a big factor in any discussion of the workforce and the future of work, she said, explaining that employer-provided maternity leave and child care could help women reenter the workforce.
Policies that help individuals gain competency with new skills, such as apprenticeship and credential programs, will also help people to reenter the workforce. Upskilling, she said, means providing opportunities for people to further their education, which in turn helps grow a more skilled and competent workforce.
The summit’s other speakers covered entrepreneurship, child care and upskilling, and tied their ideas into the bigger picture laid out by Thornberg and Ryan. Attendees learned about many workforce and labor issues and gained insights to take back to their states to create positive change for workers, business owners and the self-employed.
Landon Jacquinot is a policy analyst in NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.