Where Are the Workers?

Jobs are back, but workers aren’t — and despite increasing wages, young people remain slow to engage. Carolina researchers uncover why.

a "help wanted" sign in a business window as people walk byphoto by Megan Mendenhall
June 26th, 2023

At the beginning of 2020, 23-year-old Danny Braddy had his dream job. He worked for a Michelin-star chef and was well on his way to becoming one. But after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, his path was completely derailed.

His story is one of thousands.

The pandemic led to a historic drop in job opportunities, disrupting workers of all ages. Now, as the world continues its journey out of the pandemic, the U.S. has seen an unprecedented rebound in job availability.

This national trend holds true in North Carolina. Between February and April 2020, employment dropped 12%, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. But by November 2022, the state had 218,000 more jobs than it did pre-pandemic.

As the economy’s wheels keep turning, businesses are struggling to find enough employees to meet their labor demands. While many young adults like Danny have returned to work, employment participation rates remain below pre-2020 levels. Labor shortages have led to increased service errors, employee burnout, and reduced profit and production.

Such economic issues have been the focus of UNC School of Government professor Anita Brown-Graham, who directs a statewide effort using research and data to inform policy called ncIMPACT. In 2021, Brown-Graham found a strong collaborator across campus at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise: NCGrowth. This national center provides technical assistance to businesses, governments, and other organizations to create jobs and new wealth in economically distressed communities.

The groups quickly realized how well they complement one another. ncIMPACT helps state and local leaders explore state systems, while NCGrowth focuses on creating and sustaining jobs. Together, they launched a new project: “Where are the Workers?”

“That project reflected the need to examine both the demand and supply side of labor and how they meet in a place of mutual benefit in communities,” Brown-Graham says.

A new generation

Before the onset of the pandemic, the economy was reaching a junction, as a new generation of workers began to age into the labor force. Just as this group of young adults finished high school and college or began their journey in the business hierarchy, the world shut down. As a result, Brown-Graham and her partners at NCGrowth decided to focus on the 18-24 age group.

“Our motivation behind this research goes back to our core values: Creating new wealth in economically distressed areas,” emphasizes Carolyn Fryberger, assistant director of economic development at NCGrowth. “We believe this research informs the work we do for communities and businesses.”

The one-year project began in Fall 2022 and will wrap later this year. To understand the motivations behind the gap in the labor market, the researchers conducted focus groups with un- and under-employed youth, employers, and employment support organizations within eight economic regions across the state.

The questions: What was preventing this age group from taking the jobs available to them? What were employers and employment support groups doing to encourage and prepare young adults to participate?

Talking to prospective employees directly revealed a set of barriers to employment beyond job availability. Lack of transportation, unaffordable or unavailable childcare, and inadequate training prevent people from working, according to Fryberger.

“One theme that has become apparent is how much housing is a barrier to job access,” she says. “Whether someone can even afford to live in a community can be a deciding factor in whether they can take a job there.”

“Ultimately, all of the issues come down to a cost-benefit analysis for potential workers,” Brown-Graham adds. “If someone needs to pay more for childcare than they would gain from working, that’s an easy calculation.”

Driven by connection

Over the past year, the project has illuminated an increasing difference in perspective between employers and potential employees, with the latter bringing more questions to the table about what a job should look like. Significant themes included flexibility in place and time, meaningfulness, and personal connection to the work.

“Many higher wage jobs have always had this kind of flexibility: benefits, vacation time, shift flexibility, and even lack of drug testing,” says NCGrowth Executive Director Mark Little. “Previously, there was no conversation about what that would look like for lower-wage jobs. After COVID, there is an increasing willingness to talk about these things.”

To him, the labor force participation issue isn’t a reflection on the reluctance to work but an extension of workplace equality discourse. What some employers may see as laziness, the 18-24 age group sees as a desire for connection, value, and meaning in the work they do.

“Employers are convinced that it is hard to employ young people across the generation because they think the work ethic is not the same,” Little shares. “We don’t hear that from young people. They say they are willing to work very hard, but they want their voices to be heard.”

Fryberger uncovered a similar message.

“They want to work, and they want to be engaged, but they are feeling a strong sense of disconnection and need companies to take more interest in them as individuals rather than a cog in the machine,” she says.

One Bertie County participant shared: “My ideal work environment is to work with people that are loving, respectful, caring [and] who are also doing their jobs. Yes, we’re here to make money, but we also respect each other and care about each other.”

To Brown-Graham, one of the more interesting findings is the struggle employment support groups experience when reaching their audience. Many of the organizations interviewed have more training and financial resources than ever — but identifying and retaining deserving employees is difficult.

“Some of this, I think, comes down to the noise we experience in the world we live in today,” Brown-Graham says. “Having a message that penetrates through all of that is a challenge.”

The future of work

While a tight labor market has created some problems in the present, the project has illuminated hope for the future. Legislation recently passed in North Carolina with the goal to equip 2 million people with post-secondary education by 2030, whether a university degree, associate degree, or high-value certificate. This is a sign that organizations across the state are focused on preparing workers for an economy that rewards education, according to Brown-Graham.

Fryberger also noticed some employers restructuring their business models to fit employee values. This included changing shift structures from five eight-hour days to four 10-hour shifts throughout the week and implementing rolling start times instead of a few major shift changes, allowing for greater flexibility for employees.

Brown-Graham has emerged from the project with optimism.

“I have seen a massive amount of creativity in these communities throughout the state,” she says. “They are committed to finding new pathways for their people, and the level of innovation happening at the local level is breathtaking. The entire team looks forward to sharing these insights with employers and workforce development leaders.”

Anita Brown-Graham is the Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government, associate dean for strategic initiatives, and director of ncIMPACT within the UNC School of Government.

Carolyn Fryberger is the assistant director of economic development for NCGrowth within the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

Mark Little is the executive director of NCGrowth within the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

Where Are the Workers is funded by the North Carolina Collaboratory.