Not Yet Normal: Valley Job Market Still Adjusting to Pandemic’s Impact
economists say that while the job market is recovering, it may never look quite the same
The condition of today’s labor market in the Chippewa Valley – and the nation as a whole – is a stark contrast to what it was just one year ago. And overall that’s good news for job-hunters as the economy rises from its pandemic-induced low point.
The jobless rate in the Eau Claire metro area shrank from 13.4% in April 2020 to 3.8% in April 2021, the latest month for which figures were available. That’s virtually the same as it was in February 2020, before the pandemic reached the U.S.
So have the conditions created by the pandemic and the responses to it completely vanished? Not exactly, say experts.
“I would say we’re not quite back to normal,” said Thomas Michels, a labor market economist for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. While Wisconsin’s labor market hasn’t experienced the same level of turmoil as seen in some other states, “there are a lot of openings in restaurants specifically, and in other businesses, too,” Michels said. “They’re having a hard time filling these jobs.”
“There are a lot of openings in restaurants specifically, and in other businesses, too. They’re having a hard time filling these jobs.” –Thomas Michels, labor market economist, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development
Businesses that are trying to hire are encountering the same tight labor market they were before the pandemic, Michels said. In fact, there are even more job openings now then there were then. According to federal data, the number of job openings was 22% higher in March 2021 than it was in February 2020. Nationwide, demand for manufacturing workers rose 76% during that period, and it more than doubled for businesses that manufacture nondurable goods such as groceries, clothing, and paper.
Other kinds of employers face challenges as well. Restaurants have experienced a chronic shortage of workers for years, most likely because of relatively low pay, Michels said. And while raising wages seems like an obvious approach to filling vacant jobs, it’s not an attractive option for many employers: For instance, businesses that rely on exports might not be able to increase their costs of doing business because of international competition, he said.
“What normally happens when labor markets are tight is wages increase, and we had some signs of that going into COVID,” added Thomas Kemp, a professor of economics at UW-Eau Claire. “Whether that will continue now is hard to say.”
While Kemp said the job market has recovered from the pandemic a bit more quickly than he anticipated, he’s not surprised that it has bounced back. “It was always an external event to the economy itself,” Kemp said of the COVID-19 recession. “The fundamentals of the economy going into COVID were relatively strong,” and they remain that way, he said.
“We kind of put everything on pause willingly, and now we’re taking our finger off the pause button.” –Thomas Kemp, professor of economics, UW-Eau Claire
“We kind of put everything on pause willingly, and now we’re taking our finger off the pause button,” Kemp said.
That’s not to say the labor market and the economy will ever be just like they were pre-pandemic. The restaurant industry and many service industries continue to struggle, Kemp said, and consumers’ changing tastes and preferences may have long-term implications. For instance, Kemp said, pandemic-driven social distancing seems to have led people to invest more time and money in their homes and hobbies, which may have long-term implications.
Because of the continued increase in online shopping – before, during, and after the pandemic – Michels of the Department of Workforce Development expects to see continued job growth among related occupations, such as delivery drivers, order fillers, and distribution center workers. This trend could have a positive impact on the Chippewa Valley, considering the presence of distribution centers for Menards, Walmart, and Fleet Farm in the region, he said.