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Millions Are Out Of A Job. Yet Some Employers Wonder: Why Can't I Find Workers?

A "Help Wanted" sign is posted in front of a business on Feb. 4 in Miami. Although millions are unemployed, some businesses that require being on-site are struggling to find workers.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
A "Help Wanted" sign is posted in front of a business on Feb. 4 in Miami. Although millions are unemployed, some businesses that require being on-site are struggling to find workers.

At a time when millions of Americans are unemployed, businessman Bill Martin has a head-scratching problem: He's got plenty of jobs but few people willing to take them.

"I keep hearing about all the unemployed people," Martin says. "I certainly can't find any of those folks."

Martin helps run M.A. Industries, a plastics manufacturing company in Peachtree City, Ga. The company makes products used in the medical industry — specifically, in things like coronavirus tests and vaccine manufacturing and development.

But as he struggles to keep up with demand, Martin is finding it almost impossible to find new workers.

His difficulties are putting a spotlight on a peculiar problem in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.

Some industries are thriving and eager to hire, which should be welcome in an economy thathas recovered onlya little over half of the 22 million jobs lost during the coronavirus pandemic.

Data from the Labor Department this month, for example, showed job openings at a five-month high. Meanwhile, job search site Indeed said recently that job postings are back to pre-pandemic levels.

The problem is that a lot of those openings are in industries that require in-person work, like construction, delivery services or warehousing — exactly the types of jobs now being shunned by many Americans in the midst of a fearful pandemic.

Martin says he has tried it all to hire workers. His company has offered higher wages and even posted good old-fashioned "We're Hiring" signs.

Julia Pollak, a labor economist at employment recruitment site ZipRecruiter, says Martin is not alone in struggling to find workers.

Most job seekers, she says, are looking for remote work. The problem is that those are not the jobs available right now.

In fact, only 1 in 10 job postings in the ZipRecruiter marketplace offers remote work as an option, she says.

"There's this huge gap between the kinds of conditions under which people are prepared to work and the kinds of conditions that they actually find in the jobs that are available," Pollak says.

That is leading to a mismatch in filling jobs, and it's contributing to the painful, slow recovery in jobs.

"We are 10 million jobs in the hole," she points out. "So ideally what you'd want to see is the number of job openings to be much higher to compensate."

For many workers, there's an understandable fear of getting sick and then infecting kids or other family members at home.

"A pandemic is a shock both to labor demand and to labor supply, and it's a really significant shock to labor supply," Pollak says. "There are many, many people who have pulled back and are deciding to sort of wait out this year and come back to work when the conditions are right."

That could continue to leave Martin from M.A. Industries in a bind, especially because his company's products could make a difference in the fight against the pandemic.

"We talk about job growth," he says. "But if no one wants to do it, it gets to be a problem."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 15, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Bill Martin is the owner of M.A. Industries.