For the first time in generations, American workers have the edge against employers. The tight labor market is allowing them to dictate the terms, including higher wages and better working conditions. According to economists, workers have the power, at least for now.
American Workers Have The Power
A pandemic-tightened labor market has given willing and able workers more of an upper hand with their employers for the first time in generations. While workers are trying to take advantage of this rare moment of opportunity, economists are less convinced.
For the first time in decades, workers are getting offers of higher wages and better benefits. They are also getting a say on the working conditions. Previously, employees will need union representation to get as much as a seat at the negotiating table.
However, the pandemic changed all that as many workers left retail and service jobs for fear of contracting the virus. Once the demand returned, employers had to scramble to fill in vacancies.
Job Market Records Most Number of Jobs Available
Now, the US now has the most available jobs since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data in December 2000. By June, there were 10.1 million job openings posted.
However, these numbers suggest that there are more available jobs than actual takers. In fact, only 94 unemployed American workers are available for every 100 jobs.
Anna Stansbury, a labor economist and assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says it’s a zero-sum game. “We think of worker power as basically where the balance of power lies in the employment relationship between the employee and the worker. To some extent, it’s a zero-sum game,” she added. If an employee gains the upper hand, it’s often at the expense of the employer. And vice-versa.
Prior to the pandemic, signs pointed to a shifting dynamic favoring workers. Diane Swonk, the chief economist at advisory firm Grant Thorton, says it’s inevitable. “We had a tightening labor market before the crisis, and the war for talent was already picking up. By both constraining supply and boosting demand, we have put the whole labor market on steroids.”
Worker Power Remains Unevenly Distributed
However, don’t expect the balance of power to stay on one side for long. “Wage dynamic and worker power depend on which side of the labor shock you fall on,” said Anu Madgavkar of the McKinsey Global Institute.
Even as wage growth helped workers across, a specific niche holds even better odds. Highly skilled workers that have remote work capabilities are now commanding the most attention.
Meanwhile, unemployed American workers in fields that are prone to COVID-induced shutdowns should upgrade their skills. Employers are looking more for data literacy, understanding digital systems, adaptability, empathy, and collaboration. This is according to research by McKinsey.
Highly-Skilled Remote Workers Get The Best Deals
In addition, high-demand remote workers are also more likely to secure permanent remote work assignments. This affords them the best deals related to the cost of living and better work-life balance.
Successful remote workers managed to turn commuting into better activities like working out or helping out at the house. Without the usual office banter and a more relaxed environment, they managed to perform better in terms of productivity and output.
In contrast, lower-skilled workers get even less attention during the pandemic. Workers who cannot refuse to adapt often find themselves left out. Daniel Alpert, Westwood Capital managing partner, said that worker power increased. “Measured by hourly wages, hourly worker ‘power’ has increased substantially.
Measured by hours offered to hourly workers in the lower wage sectors such as leisure and hospitality, retail, not so much.” he said. “Restaurants, especially limited service, and fast food, only want staff during busy hours, and run thin the rest of the time. That was not the case in the mid-20th century,” he added.
Worker Power Isn’t Long Term
However, many experts believe that the newfound worker power won’t remain for long. Even as wages increased, nothing changed much for worker protection policies.
In addition, unions and norms of fairness have yet to see increased movement during the pandemic. “We have a kind of very short-term tight labor market layered on top of still actually not a very tight labor market in a more systemic sense,” MIT’s Stansbury observed.
Meanwhile, other economists also find other factors working in favor of American workers might be temporary. Once businesses start reopening offices, many workers might balk at the idea of leaving their homes.
Watch the NBC Bay Area video featuring Help Needed: Industries Searching for Workers:
Do you agree that American workers hold the labor market power now? How long do you think this power shift will last? In addition, will things return back to normal once the pandemic clears?
Let us know what you think. Share your comments below.