By Katy Brooks, CEO, Bend Chamber

With the hope that our risk level setback from spring break will pass quickly, businesses are gearing up for the summer and our long-awaited emergence from COVID-19. And as restaurants, the entertainment and recreation industry, hospitality and others prepare for more customers, they are finding that a lack of labor is their next big hurdle to overcome.

According to the Oregon Employment Department, Deschutes County has now recovered around 11,350 of the 16,400 jobs lost since the initial shutdown. This still represents double the unemployment numbers since pre-pandemic days in Oregon and they are finding that there are underlying issues to getting everyone back to work.

Heather Ficht, director of East Cascade Works, a state workforce agency, says there are labor gaps in Central Oregon that are more persistent than the effects of the pandemic. She believes this is a trend that will carry into the future unless we prepare the workforce. “We not only need to address the shortage of labor today but plan for the expectation of about 16,500 new jobs in our region in the next 10 years,” she said.

The Central Oregon Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Plan found job vacancy trends are more prevalent in certain industries and specific skill sets that are lacking for difficult-to-fill positions. These gaps may impact the workforce for years to come. Ficht thinks much of the problem is due to a shrinking labor pool. “This is a warm body issue: there is a high demand for labor relative to very few workers unemployed or sitting on the sidelines,” she said. The exit of Baby Boomers from the workforce is one of the largest culprits for this impending labor shortage. Ficht says training and skills development of the incoming workforce is needed now to help close the growing labor gap.

Short-term job vacancies are also causing havoc. Many in the current workforce is delaying re-entry to the job market, exacerbating the labor shortage many businesses are experiencing. Part of the issue may be that those with public-facing jobs are worried about exposure to COVID-19. However, with more employees, including front-line workers, having recently become eligible for a vaccine fears of exposure to COVID-19 may decrease, encouraging people to come back to work. Businesses can help by asking employees to get vaccinated and making it convenient for them to do so.

Some employers believe that federal unemployment checks are keeping a portion of the labor force, particularly in service industries home because they can survive off the increased income. Although this may be true for some, it only brings full-time minimum wage earners to about $12 per hour, which is less than what many are now earning in entry-level, full-time positions. While these unemployment checks end on Sept. 1, it remains unclear how many people will wait until then to reenter the workforce.

Lack of child care is another significant factor limiting the ability of many parents to get back to work. It is impacting everyone, but mostly women, who lag behind returning to the workplace by nearly 2 to 1 nationwide. The reopening of schools will help many parents go back to work, but after-school care will be harder to come by. Even worse, the infant to preschool child care network in Central Oregon has been devastated by COVID-19. It will take a well-coordinated and expedited effort between incoming federal funding, the Oregon Early Learning Division and regional networks to help child care providers open and fill even a fraction of the need.

The rising cost of living in Bend is also impacting our labor pool. Housing costs are one of the biggest barriers to attracting employees. Many can’t find housing they can afford and have had to move out of town or have decided not to come here at all. Businesses are increasing wages but find the cost of housing far outpaces what they can afford to pay their employees. We’ve seen this problem coming for years and the pandemic has made the situation much worse.

The pandemic also made what looks to be permanent changes to how and where we work. People have experienced more flexibility than ever before and may not be interested in returning to their pre-pandemic schedule. This may force employers to think differently about how they schedule and build in flexibility to attract talent.

All these factors contribute to the lack of labor in both the short and long term and will require new ways to attract, train and accommodate employees — and most of what needs fixing will not come easy.

This article originally appeared in The Bulletin on April 18, 2021.

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