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Businesses Say They’re Struggling to Find Qualified Workers

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As the U.S. reopens and the demand for workers increases, employers are faced with what feels like a scarcity of qualified people, despite a national unemployment rate of 5.8%.

A recent survey conducted by The Conference Board, a nonprofit business membership and research organization, reveals that employees are having difficulty recruiting and retaining talent, especially in the industry and manual services sector.

A scarcity of qualified workers, especially in the industry and manual services sector

While employers are more willing to hire remote workers than before the coronavirus pandemic, finding qualified workers in the industry and manual services sector (i.e., health care support, construction and farming) has been more challenging than in the professional sector (i.e., management, sales and administrative support).

According to the survey, 80% of organizations that hire mostly industry and manual services workers report trouble filling job vacancies, with 25% saying it’s very difficult and 55% saying it’s somewhat difficult. Only 4% of organizations reported it being very difficult before the pandemic, with another 70% saying it was somewhat difficult.

Another April survey from the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) finds that 44% of owners say they couldn’t fill job openings, the highest rate in 48 years of collecting this data.

Difficulties in finding workers might include:

  • A surge in demand amid labor supply problems
  • Fear of getting infected
  • Need to care for children at home
  • Supplemental federal unemployment benefits

As for retention, 41% of organizations that hire mostly industry and manual services and workers have trouble retaining skilled employees, with another 8% finding it very difficult. This compares to 27% and 3%, respectively, before the pandemic.

For organizations that hire mostly professional and office workers, 25% have found it somewhat difficult to retain workers, with another 3% finding it very difficult. The pre-pandemic numbers (22% and 1%, respectively) don’t differ much.

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Will workers be returning to the office soon?

Nearly 40% of companies expect a significant chunk of their workers — 40% or more — will work remotely a year after the COVID-19 crisis subsides. Before the pandemic, nearly 75% of the surveyed organizations had a staff with no more than 10% remote workers.

When polled about their plans for returning to the workplace, 42% of respondents expect their workplace will implement a hybrid plan, where returning to work will be voluntary for some and required for others. Less than 1 in 10 (8%) report that returning to the workplace will be voluntary for everyone.

Nearly 3 in 4 (72%) say workers who have been remote will be able to return to the office within six months, and 10% either have already returned or never closed.

Surveyed organizations say they’re encouraging workers to get vaccinated, offering incentives from paid time off to gifts of $100 to $200 to wellness program points.

Productivity increases, but employee well-being decreases

The percentage of human resources (HR) leaders reporting that productivity among its workers has increased in the past year more than doubled to 59% in April, versus 23% a year prior.

Working from home can be more conducive to productivity, but it also highlights that people have — at times — worked in crisis mode while confined to their homes.

That means what has been perceived to be higher productivity has also led to a decrease in employee well-being:

  • 76% of respondents say they’ve seen an increase in the number of workers expressing being burned out, compared with 42% in September 2020
  • 55% say work-life balances have decreased, up from 46% in September 2020
  • 72% say there’s been a boost in the number of employees seeking mental health support
  • 67% say there’s been an increase in people using Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs)
  • 58% say there’s been an increase in the number of hours worked
  • 30% say there’s been an increase in the number of sick days taken

To recruit and retain qualified talent, employers can consider looking at ways to boost work-life balance for their workers, in part by offering sufficient vacation and paid time off.

Methodology: Between April 5-16, 2021, New York-based The Conference Board conducted an online survey of 231 human capital (HC) leaders, mainly from large companies. This was the third installment, following September 2020 and April 2020.


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