It’s not the pandemic anymore — it’s the economy. And the U.S. economy is teetering precariously as a range of structural challenges confront an administration that still seems to be feeling its way through managing a durable recovery. As the secretary of labor who oversaw releasing the most-watched economic indicator on Wall Street and in Washington, I guarantee that this week was nerve-wracking as all eyes awaited September’s job numbers.
The truth is that for America’s economy to work, we’ll need America’s world-class labor force to lead us back to strength. As unemployment benefits and a federal moratorium on evictions expire, experts are watching carefully to see the effects on the workforce. So far, the jury is still out. But if the United States has any hope of a critical near-term rebound, it will be breadwinners, not politicians, who will lead the recovery. And right now, the recovery faces some serious headwinds – the supply chain chief among them.
There are few things more frustrating for American families than a delay in delivery of essential items or running to the store to find empty shelves. Unfortunately, this has become commonplace in recent months as the labor shortage exacerbates the global supply chain mess. People can’t get the groceries they want because there aren’t enough truck drivers, port workers, laborers and other essential personnel. A recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce study found that more than 90 percent of state and local chambers of commerce say worker shortages are holding back their economies, and more than 90 percent of industry association economists say employers in their sectors are struggling to find qualified workers for open jobs.
For context, the uptick in product shortages grows all the more alarming when contrasted with the significant surplus of more than 10 million vacant jobs across America. The labor force participation rate – that is, the number of people in the labor force – is stuck at a paltry 61.7 percent, which is a full 1.6 points lower than the pre-pandemic level of 63.3 percent. Roughly 5 percent of the labor force appears to have left in perpetuity precisely when these workers are needed most. Businesses of all sizes cannot get the workers they need, and as such, the top concern expressed by employers right now is the inability to recruit and retain enough employees.
The labor shortage and supply chain disruptions, meanwhile, are closely linked crises. “If goods do arrive at the destined ports, there are too few truck drivers to transport them to retailers,” writes Andrea Felsted from Bloomberg in a recent piece regarding empty shelves in supermarkets. “Shortages of workers to harvest and prepare foods are also adding to the pressures.”
When industries do not have enough workers to satisfy demand, supply chains for a wide web of interconnected industries grind to a halt. Consequently, when supply chains fail to meet demand, problematic protocols such as purchase limits and rations threaten to drain the resources required for a full recovery. Taken to its logical end, this is an untenable course on the heels of the worst economic disaster of our lifetimes. And though the effects of these shortages may presently feel like minor inconveniences to the consumer, they will soon have deeper, more drastic effects on our everyday lives.
Above all, the keystone of our recovery hinges on the peerless resilience and resolve of the American worker. Work provides people with purpose, dignity and a higher sense of self-esteem. And workers, of course, provide our economy with the lifeblood it needs to rebuild. Government should not compete with the private sector when it comes to compensation – whether in the form of monetary benefits, debt forgiveness, rent relief or other subsidies. If it does, the labor shortage we see today could become tomorrow’s new normal. And that would be devastating for the quality of life that Americans have come to expect, as well as for our standing in the world and ability to compete globally.
We need good people to come back into the workforce. The strength and speed of our recovery depend on it.
Elaine Chao was the 18th secretary of transportation, 24th secretary of labor and the first Asian American woman to be appointed to a president’s Cabinet in U.S. history; she now serves on the boards of several American corporations.