Help signs were seen all over Kansas City as potential workers made tough choices. Photo by Bill Rankin

Now Hiring! Where are all the unemployed workers?

“Everyone acts like they don’t need a job. I’ve talked to a lot of people who would rather draw unemployment than go to work.”

By Jill Draper with contributors Max Goodwin and Kathy Feist

Is it Boomers retiring in droves? Parents stuck at home with kids? Folks enjoying their COVID-19 unemployment benefits until the money ends in September? Other folks still too afraid of the pandemic to interact with the public?

All of the above, say economists and business owners when asked why “help wanted” signs are popping up all over Kansas City.

“There’s going to be some pretty acute problems through the summer,” says Christopher Kuehl, economic forecaster and founder of Armada Corporate Intelligence. “When you come to the fall, it will abruptly change. Suddenly those extra unemployment benefits expire, and you’ve got kind of a new phase.” He predicted a big push in hiring around October when retailers get ready for what should be “a pretty spectacular Christmas.”

He also pointed to other factors that have increased the worker shortage. “The biggest concern has been the lack of women in the workforce,” he said. “We’re now back to numbers we saw in the 1970s. And that’s simply because school wasn’t in session. Women who are working part-time jobs, service sector jobs, are like, ‘ok, I could either go to work get paid $10 per hour and pay for daycare at $15 per hour, or I can stay home and do my own daycare and save $5.’ So, a lot of women just quit. They’ll come back when school is back in session. But they don’t have a lot of choices. They have to stay home with the kids and suddenly learn how to teach modern math.

Caring for elderly parents while nursing homes shut down, also played a part. “A lot of people have left the workforce because they’re now taking care of mom or dad, who are in their 80s or 90 and have health issues and dementia,” he said. “And so, they’ve had to drop out to take care of them.”

Meanwhile, many south KC business owners are hurting. Martin City Animal Hospital and its related vet clinics in Louisburg, Paola and Drexel are having difficulty hiring receptionists and technicians at all four locations. “It’s just crazy,” says Angie Graham, veterinary assistant, who noted the salaries are advertised at $14-$17 per hour.

Kevin Turner of Turner Painting says he can’t find anyone who is qualified and who can follow instructions. “It’s really a little unbelievable,” says Turner, who is paying a starting salary of $15-$20 per hour. He blames the federal stimulus and unemployment money. “Everyone acts like they don’t need a job. I’ve talked to a lot of people who would rather draw unemployment than go to work.” He’s now trying to recruit or “steal” employees from big box stores. “That’s the point I’m at,” he says.

Don Fowler, Parks Services Manager for Grandview Parks and Recreation, says they have only had a couple of applicants for seasonal park workers. The job usually attracts college students. But there have been none who have applied so far. “That’s what’s most puzzling of all,” he says.  According to Fowler, the department may consider increasing pay to $13 an hour next year as a motivator. It currently pays $12. 

The transportation director at Grandview School District, Adam Schwartz, also is in a bind. He needs to hire 11 additional bus drivers, but there’s little interest. “We’re not seeing applicants come in regardless of where we advertise. They’re not even putting in an application. If they do call, then we are ‘ghosted,’ as the kids say.” 

Schwartz says the district ramps up recruitment in May so new drivers can be trained over the summer. The job usually attracts people who are semi-retired or retired, single moms and dads, and college students. He says it offers a good benefits package with part-time hours.

Grandview’s situation is not unique. “There’s a national shortage of school bus drivers. It’s definitely a big problem,” says Schwartz, who cites several factors—fear of COVID, enhanced unemployment benefits, and parents still caring for children at home.

At the Red Bridge location of Euston Hardware, manager Chris Socha relies on much the same category of employees—retirees, college students and moms who want to work part-time. He blames the shortage of workers largely on the COVID fear factor.

“I don’t see potential job candidates walking through the door like they were before. I don’t think it’s a wage issue because we’re not even getting to that part of the conversation,” he says. “I just think people are a little bit skittish about working in an environment where they’re dealing with customers face to face.”

Kuehl and other economists say labor problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but they’re not new. “Manufacturers have been screaming for employees. We just don’t train,” he says. “Companies used to be able to hire somebody who had potential, but now they can’t because it takes too long. The companies can’t just carry somebody on the payrolls for a year while they learn.” Trade schools and community colleges are filling some of the need, he says, but it’s not enough.

Trade schools for truck drivers are busy because the current demand is “through the roof,” says Brad Ball, president of Roadmaster Drivers School, which operates in 11 states, including a campus in Grandview. He attributes the shortage of drivers to a “perfect storm” whipped up by the need to reduce class sizes due to social distancing rules, a wave of older drivers retiring and an outpouring of demand for goods as people spend their federal stimulus checks.

Ball says most truck driving students are pre-hired by the beginning of their four-week training course that costs $7,000. “With no prior education you can make about $50,000 a year after a month’s training,” he says, noting the industry has seen a dramatic increase in female and minority drivers. “It is on the road and you’re away from home, but in parts of the Midwest and Northeast you can get home nightly.” Besides, he adds, “A lot of careers aren’t easy.”

In 2020 the Grandview Roadmaster School had 250 students graduate. Ball expects twice that many in 2021, especially after federal unemployment funds run out in the fall. Interest is strong this spring, he says, noting the company’s larger schools in Orlando and Atlanta have waiting lists. 

While unemployment compensation may be cramping the current job market, it’s also expanding future possibilities for many who have used the money and time off to seek additional training, says Kuehl. “When they do come back, they’re going to be in a better position to get decent jobs.”

“Right now, we have probably the lowest workforce participation rate since the ’70s, at about 61%. Much of that is due to retirement,” he says…“Traditionally, the U.S. has always solved that problem with immigration. And we probably will do that again. We always hate the immigrants until we need them.”


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