Help Wanted

July 07, 2021 (City Weekly)

Economists interviewed say they believe the worst of the worker shortage will fade in the coming months, as higher wages, declining COVID risks and a return to in-person school lures more people back to the workplace.

However, researchers point out that worker shortages in Utah have been brewing for years—and likely won’t disappear anytime soon. Back in 2015, the Utah Foundation—a nonprofit, nonpartisan, policy research organization—surveyed 151 local employers and found that a shortage of qualified employers was the No. 1 factor limiting their company’s growth.

However, that report also pointed out that many employers in Utah were also offering below-average wages for open jobs, according to state data. That suggests the problem may not solely be a lack of workers, says Christopher Collard, a research analyst with the foundation.

“Is there really a labor shortage if employers aren’t willing to pay for workers?” he asked.

Many Utahns right now are wondering why workers might be staying home, but perhaps the answer is right in front of us—employers need to get used to paying Utahns a lot more. And Utah consumers, in turn, need to feel comfortable paying more for goods and services.

“We can do better as employers,” says Cedano. “It’s difficult, but we can do better. If we are able to pay better wages, that would make such a big difference in so many lives.”

Certainly without higher wages, it’s hard to see how new workers can move to Utah and afford to find an apartment—let alone buy a home—on the Wasatch Front. Looking ahead, Knold said, the “biggest risk” for Utah’s economy is clear: “The rapid increase in the cost of housing.”

Skyrocketing rents and a tiny inventory of homes for sale has grabbed headlines the past year, but Utahns have said housing affordability was one of their top concerns for years now. The Utah Foundation does periodic “quality of life” surveys and state residents reported in both 2018 and 2020 that housing concerns were a top issue.

It’s particularly important for younger families and workers, says Collard. “The younger generation—millennials and post-millennials—are most concerned about these issues. They’re the ones most directly affected.”

Another critical issue for Utah workers, especially those younger families, is the lack of affordable child care. The data is overwhelmingly clear that Utah doesn’t have nearly enough daycare for working- and middle-class families. A 2020 report from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that we may be providing only about 35% of the care we need, among the lowest of any of the 25 states studied.

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