This article originally appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on April 7, 2022 and posted at Dispatch.com
Two years after the pandemic battered the economy, the Greater Columbus unemployment rate is flirting with historic lows. Job openings in central Ohio continue to be so strong that they exceed the number of workers listed as unemployed.
Statewide, it is a similar story as employers complain about how difficult it is to fill jobs. Yet not everything about the economy is back to normal, even as coronavirus cases subside.
Ohio has recovered about 80% of the nearly 900,000 jobs lost during the early days of the pandemic and has about 160,000 fewer workers than it had two years ago. Both have been slower to come back than the overall U.S. economy, which likely will recover all of the lost jobs from the pandemic in the next few months.
The employment situation in Ohio continues to get better, but it is slow, said Ben Ayers, senior economist at Nationwide.
"Until more workers engage with the labor force in Ohio, job gains are likely to continue to underwhelm as there are too few workers available to hire for businesses," Ayers said in a research note after the Ohio February unemployment report was released. "We expect these trends to improve in response to plentiful job options and rising wages but this is likely to take time."
Ohio employers begging for workers
At Easton Town Center, a sign on the door of Dragon Donuts lets customers know it is short-staffed and asks them to be patient with staff who have shown up.
Some restaurants still aren't offering dine-in options because of a lack of staff.
"There's just not enough people coming up to satisfy all the jobs," said Natalie Jordan, corporate developer for staffing firm Express Employment Professionals in charge of Ohio and West Virginia.
Jordan said more people have come into the company's offices looking for work in recent weeks after traffic had slowed to a crawl in January and February.
Jordan credited the boost in applicants to the expiration of some government benefit programs put in place to help consumers through the pandemic, the easing of the omicron variant of COVID-19, the reopening of daycare centers and the fact that many consumers already have received tax refunds.
Jordan said her offices have 3,500 openings from clients and are hiring 270 people a week.
Central Ohio's unemployment rate was 2.8% in December, the lowest since 1999. The rate has gone up since, but still remains low at 3.7% in February. Ohio's unemployment rate was 4.2% in February, the lowest since August 2019. The state unemployment rate is adjusted to account for seasonal variations while the local unemployment is not.
Meanwhile, openings remain high in Columbus and statewide.
There were 77,431 openings posted online for the Columbus area at OhioMeansJobs.com, Ohio's jobs website, from Jan. 14 through Feb. 13 while the state posted 334,959 openings for that period. Both numbers are the highest in data that goes back to 2018.
Meanwhile, the last state unemployment report listed 41,600 unemployed workers in Greater Columbus and 242,000 statewide. The state's labor force participation rate, the percentage of people either working or looking for work, has barely budged over the last year, coming in at 61.5% in February. That was 2 percentage points lower than before COVID-19 struck.
Beyond the shortage, employers complain that the skills workers have don't match what they need.
What are employers doing
Companies need to be creative to attract and keep the workers they hire, especially with labor markets as tight as they are, Jordan said.
"The war on talent is not going to go away," Jordan said. "I don't think it will go away in my lifetime."
Some companies are taking on a greater share of workers' health care premiums, paying bonuses, offering more time off, paying tuition and offering financial education programs. Workers want money, flexibility and knowledge, she said.
"Employees want to accomplish all the things expected of them at work and required of them at home," said Andrea Applegate, founder and president of Applegate Talent Strategies in Columbus.
Applegate agreed with Jordan that workers want flexibility and autonomy, whether that means working from home or having the ability to care for sick children or other emergencies.
"Our clients, our employers, make the jobs they have something employees love so they want to stay," she said.
Workers want policies, processes and practices that support them so they are successful, she said. Little things such as bringing in a food truck for a day or leaders spending time working with staff and understanding their struggles can make a difference, Jordan said.
"The person they report to has the greatest influence on how connected and engaged they are," she said.
Some companies purposefully not filling openings
Both say some employers have purposefully not filled some jobs eliminated in the early days of the pandemic, piling on the stress of the remaining workers stuck doing their job along with other responsibilities.
"A lot of people are leaving and doing so because they haven't felt they've been treated well by their former employers," Applegate said.
Some companies are using technology to avoid filling jobs, Jordan said.
Other companies have opted to leave positions vacant, thinking that they can continue to get by without filling them, Applegate said.
"The ones left behind are required to do the work of two people," she said. "It adds extra stress and extra burdens for those employees."
Applegate also has noticed that some companies have paid above market for some positions, leading to resentment among long-tenured employees.
Also, after the protests following the death of George Floyd, workers are more willing to speak up and less willing to be taken advantage of, she said.
"Employees need to treat their employees fairly and equitably," she said.
If not, employees are going to walk down the street or go across town to a competitor, retire or start their own business, she said.
"I don't want to put up with hassle," she said workers think. "I want to work on my schedule."
Dispatch Reporter Taijuan Moorman contributed to this report.