Companies want to hire — but where are the workers?

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ST. LOUIS – The Pat Connolly Tavern, a staple in Dogtown, is closed for lunch these days due to a problem plaguing many business owners across the U.S.

“It is proving incredibly difficult to find people,” said Joe Jovanovich.

The third-generation restaurant owner is not talking about customers. He needs workers, but applicants are few and far between.  If they do apply, Jovanovich said many often skip interviews or worse.

“We’ve had numerous instances of this so-called ‘ghosting,’ where folks say they’re going to accept the job. We put them on the schedule, you could be communicating with them up until the day before or that morning…and they don’t show up,” said Jovanovich.

Jovanovich is trying to entice applicants. He’s raised wages, implemented a hiring bonus, and began offering health insurance benefits.

“These are all things we’ve always wanted to do, maybe we always should’ve been doing,” he said. “But at the same time, I don’t know how sustainable they are until we get to the other side of whatever this is.”

Jerome Katz, a professor at St. Louis University’s Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business, compared the worker shortage to “a game of chicken.”

“You have America’s workers on one side, and you’ve got the entrepreneurs and managers on the other,” said Katz. “It’s a question of who’s going to budge first.”

Katz said the pandemic has workers wanting more – more money, more flexibility, more balance, and for some, more safety.

“I think if we don’t fix this now, five years down the road, when my students are hitting the job market, they’re absolutely going to demand it or they’re just going to walk,” said Katz.

Katz said many lower-wage workers who lost jobs during the pandemic made more on unemployment than in the jobs they lost.

“In one sense, those enhanced benefits let them improve their financial situation,” said Katz. “All these people are still hoarding that money, holding on to it, and using it to keep them going until the workforce situation resolves in their favor.

Katz said that financial cushion spurred a record rise in self-employment.

“Those numbers have skyrocketed, which means people want to work,” said Katz. “They want to make money, but they’re not going to do it under the old rules.”

It’s a dilemma that business owners like Jovanovich are trying to solve.

“The one thing that always made it work was the fact that we’d settle on a labor dynamic of pay and availability of labor that was working for a long time but was built on a faulty foundation,” said Jovanovich. “That’s not any one person’s fault. I don’t think that’s independent business owners’ fault, but now that the foundation has been shaken to the point where it’s eroding, how do we fix it?”

To start, Katz said companies need to make work more worthwhile.

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