OPINION: The ‘labor shortage’ is a myth

Julia Jackson  

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Most college students are probably familiar with the fast food and retail employment experience: overworked and underpaid. The pandemic has brought these problems into sharp relief, with hiring signs flying into windows — especially in the service sector — as workers quit and strike en masse. 

     Major media outlets have called this a “labor shortage,” but it would be more accurately described as a labor movement. The problem isn’t a shortage of labor but rather a shortage of livable wages and working conditions; calling it a labor shortage only allows employers to shift the blame onto workers. 

     The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 10.4 million job openings at the end of September compared to only 7.4 million people unemployed in October. While this technically fits the definition of a labor shortage, these numbers alone aren’t enough to explain the current market. 

     Wages in the U.S. have been stagnant for a long time. Although they have appeared to increase over decades, when adjusted for inflation and put into real terms of purchasing power, they fall flat.  

     According to Forbes, “To put things in perspective, in 1968, the federal minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. In 2021 dollars, the equivalent federal minimum wage would need to be $12.38. But instead, it’s only $7.25.” 

     It’s no coincidence that low-wage offering businesses are among those unable to fill positions. 

     Even at UCCS, the dining halls have struggled to recruit employees. While this is in part due to the difficulty of bouncing back amid changes caused by COVID-19, the campus minimum wage also remains below the CU standard, with CU Denver and CU Boulder having increased their minimums to $15 an hour this year.  

     UCCS will raise the campus minimum wage to just $12.95 on Jan. 1. 

     While it’s true that the current labor market is also affected by a discrepancy between the number of highly technical job openings and available workers’ skills, according to Business Insider, this fails to explain the flurry of openings in the hospitality and retail industries.  

     The fact is that workers across the country are approaching labor differently. 

     For many, the global pandemic has put into perspective what is worth living for, and thankless jobs don’t fit the bill. Workers want and deserve to be fairly compensated and protected. The past months’ wave of strikes demonstrates this. 

     Almost 10,000 workers seeking higher wages in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas striked against the John Deere company for five weeks, according to the Des Moines Register. An ongoing strike against Kellogg began on Oct. 5 in breakfast cereal plants across Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, with healthcare and holiday pay at stake according to Reuters

     Consumers have felt the effects of the labor movement locally as restaurants shorten their hours and deal with longer wait times, and grocery stores take longer to restock some products.  

     However, these are necessary and temporary consequences in the process of securing better working conditions.  

     We are expected to work for all our lives, and in the current labor market, our generation has very little chance of attaining the basic standard of living — much less a high quality of life — that was promised by those who told us to go to college to get a degree and secure a good job. Our future outlook won’t improve unless we invest in the cause of the workers of today. 

     In the meantime, remember to have patience with those who are working, as well as those who are fighting for their rights to improve the labor market long-term. 

“Help wanted” signs like these are popping up in businesses across the United States. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com.