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Labor shortage should be a wakeup call

It doesn’t take long to see the impact of the pandemic on local businesses. The rising demand for labor coincides with a labor shortage, meaning businesses will be left looking for workers. That labor shortage will have a direct impact on Washtenaw Community College’s enrollment for the foreseeable future.

It’s easy to attribute the labor shortage to able-bodied people who don’t want to work. To put it mildly, that’s a trope. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ workforce participation data debunks this myth. 70.1% of men aged 20 or older are currently employed. In March 2020, just as the pandemic hit, 70.9% of men aged 20 or older were employed. Currently, 61.8% of women 20 or older are employed. In March 2020, 62.6% of women aged 20 or older were employed.

For workers aged 16-19, their labor participation rate has actually increased during the pandemic. In March 2020, 35.5% of people aged 16-19 worked. Today, 36.4% of people in that age bracket have a job. That confirms the notion that more people are entering the workforce directly after high school than they did prior to the pandemic.

Community college administrators have spent time wringing their hands about the “enrollment cliff,” driven by a declining number of 18 year olds. But they showed little recognition that retiring Baby Boomers would drive a growing demand for entry-level workers.

Community college could help ease labor shortage

Labor participation among women is currently lower than it was at the pandemic’s onset. It remains one area where increased participation could ease the labor shortage. One of the major stumbling blocks to increasing women’s participation in the labor force is childcare. Finding appropriate childcare has always been a challenge, but now it is even more so. Childcare availability can either enable or disable female employment. This was clearly not the time to clobber the Children’s Center.

Mass retirements have also entered the picture. For years, labor economists have warned that Baby Boomers aging out of the workforce would create a measurable impact. And just like that, here it is. BLS data from November show a significant drop in workforce participation among workers 55 years of age and older.
Community college executives must work far more intelligently to increase enrollment. (And yes, it is possible to increase enrollment.) But it will take lots of work.

Fortunately, Washtenaw Community College has loaded up on college executives. Our rich community will need them to draft and deploy workable strategies to convince more young people not to enter the workforce directly out of high school. Or to enter the workforce while simultaneously enrolling in college. These strategies must support both working students and student parents. And there had better be a noticeable economic benefit for these students on the other side of graduation.

That means new academic programs in high-demand fields that also pay well. (Side note: this does not include jobs that pay $12 per hour.) It also means eliminating occupational programs that do not lead to high-wage jobs. Finally, it means putting the needs of this community – the community that funds WCC’s operations – first.

Photo Credit: Marco Verch, via Flickr under Creative Commons 2.0