By ART RAYMOND, The Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Concerns about critical labor shortage challenges have wandered beyond the boundaries of the business world and are now shared by more than two-thirds of Utahners, according to a new survey.
The Deseret News / Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, conducted earlier this month, found that 68% of Utah voters polled are concerned about the number of vacancies, while 27% were not concerned about the issue and 5% were unsure of their posture. The results come from polls of 764 registered voters in Utah and have a margin of error of 3.54%.
Utah’s current unemployment rate of 2.4% holds second place in the nation, surpassed only by Nebraska’s 2% for the month of September, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Low unemployment is one of the leading indicators of positive economic health, but it also serves as a litmus test of how difficult it can be for a typical business to recruit the workforce it needs, especially before seasonal fluctuations such as Christmas shopping.
Respondents gave mixed responses to who is responsible for taking action to address the government labor shortage dilemma, but 44% said they believe this is a problem for the private sector. Of those who believe that public agencies should play a role in working towards a solution, 22% said it falls to the state government and 19% believe that federal agencies should work towards a solution.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox said he shared the concerns of most Utahners, as reflected in the new Deseret News polls, and is examining all aspects of the state’s faster recovery from the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While we are excited about the 2.4% unemployment rate in Utah, we are very concerned about the labor shortage that affects every sector in every community in Utah,” Cox told Deseret News. “We are currently working with experts and economists to learn more about changes in worker participation and expectations due to the pandemic.
“As the markets continue to adjust, government officials must be vigilant to make sure we are not incentivizing work.”
This spring, Cox announced his own move to remove some perceived barriers to work and force greater job search efforts among unemployed Utahners when he announced his decision on the 26th scheduled expiry.
But data from a study published in August suggested the plan hadn’t quite produced those results, and Utah’s nationwide leading economy may be at least partially responsible.
A two-part survey conducted in June by researchers at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business examined, among other things, the opinions of business owners and unemployed Utahners, including 500 households, on the results of changes in state unemployment benefits issues.
One of the most striking data points hit the core of Cox’s hopes that the removal of extended benefits and grants would incentivize job seekers.
“In order to evaluate the effects of the expiry of co-payments (unemployment insurance), we asked the respondents whether this expiry affects the effort for job search or their financial planning,” says the survey report. “Over 90% of the respondents state that the expiry of (unemployment) benefits has no influence on their efforts to find a job or their savings behavior.”
While Utah currently has more jobs overall than before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 53,000 new jobs accumulated since September 2019, the state employment rate is still below pre-pandemic levels. And the latest data available shows that the 131,000 job openings in July far surpassed the 79,000 hires for the month.
“The Utah economy is still moving heavily through the major pandemic event,” said Mark Knold, chief economist for the Department of Workforce Services in a statement attached to the agency’s monthly job report last week. “The Utah economy now has more jobs than it did before the pandemic, and that speaks volumes about Utah’s economic resilience. There remains room for improvement as the population’s labor engagement is below that of the pre-pandemic.
“For some, concerns about resumption of work, ie, public interaction, remain. We see this as a natural and short-term condition and not as a new normal. “
While Utah businesses looking to build their own workforce face fierce competition in the state’s current workforce, the circumstances are a great benefit for those on the job search side and wages are rising, and especially those who are On the side of the equation are the lower wage levels, according to economists in the state personnel services industry.
Salt Lake Chamber President / CEO Derek Miller said Utah companies in multiple sectors are struggling to fill critical positions.
“We really cannot overstate the scale or impact of the problem,” Miller said. “I was in St. George last week and went to an ice cream parlor. There were three teenage girls who worked there and they were struggling to keep up with the business. They did their best and apologized to the customers but also let people know they would wait 45 minutes.
“That’s the case across the state, and it’s not just consumer-centric companies like an ice cream parlor trying to meet the challenges.”
Miller also has concerns that the upcoming implementation of President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates for larger private companies could further exacerbate staffing problems for employers as some workers step out in protest at the forced vaccination or testing requirements.
“I have some labor shortage concerns that the federal mandate could make things worse,” Miller said. “I don’t know how it will turn out, but I’m trying to keep my sights on the horizon on this issue.”
For current job seekers in Utah, however, the horizons have never been so bright.
In a Deseret News interview, Michael Jeanfreau, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said that the state’s current job market is a boon to those looking to get a first job, as well as those interested in getting their income through to increase a move to a new job. This applies in particular to positions with lower educational requirements.
“What we are currently seeing are worse conditions from the employers’ point of view, but better conditions for employees,” said Jeanfreau. “When Amazon is hiring 250 new drivers and I’m working at a gas station, it sounds like a great opportunity.”
Jeanfreau said competition for workers, driving wage increases, is one factor that improves the quality of life of wage earners across the board and makes Utah an even more attractive environment for workers in all sectors.
“When the bottom rises, everyone else rises too,” said Jeanfreau. “From an economic point of view, they are all related. Positive economic upward mobility affects everyone. “
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