When the South Carolina Department of Social Services office returned to a pre-pandemic work environment, 23-year-old William Robinson had had enough of the burnout.
What peace working from home three days a week brought to Robinson’s life was stripped away when he had to go back to the office full time. Robinson suddenly found himself unable to keep up with the pace, which ultimately led him to quit his job.
“It was just sitting in my office not knowing what to do. Completely disassociating from what
was going on because I couldn't get anything done. Because just the amount of work had tripled. And it was already overwhelming,” Robinson said.
Americans throughout the country are finding themselves in similar situations. Total nonfarm quit rates in November were at an all-time high — 3.0% — and more than 4.5 million people quit their jobs – numbers not seen since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking these figures in 2000.
A recent study showed that three in 10 workers are considering leaving their jobs. Economists are calling the current labor shortage, “The Great Resignation,” but that may be misleading.
While baby boomers have left the workforce completely, other workers are simply using their newfound power to land better opportunities. For recent college graduates, the job market is more promising than in recent years.
“I think that's another important message of the story about economic conditions that if you're if you're a worker right now, this is, again, a once-in-a-generation phenomenon that we're seeing right now,” said Joey Von Nessen, a research economist at Darla Moore School of Business. “It’s incredible.”
Baby boomers make up half of the quit rates, according to Von Nessen. Basically, older workers are retiring at higher than normal rates at the moment. The others who are quitting are simply changing jobs.
South Carolina has a few unique challenges when it comes to the current labor shortage. For one, the state has a slightly larger percentage of elderly than the national average, which means a smaller percentage of residents are of working age.
Also, one of the biggest industries in the state is manufacturing, which has struggled to accommodate demands of workers who may be reluctant to come back for a variety of reasons, including safety concerns pertaining to the pandemic, pay and other working conditions.
However, South Carolina businesses are still finding ways to incentivize workers to come back. One way is paying for workforce training.
“If they can identify workers that they need, the employers will subsidize the training of these workers so that they can acquire the skills that they need to, to move into the position,” Von Nessen said. “For many trades, particularly manufacturing and construction, one of the problems for attracting a workforce is getting them the skills that they need, they can't just hire anybody, they have to train them.”
Not all firms have responded to the needs of the workforce. While some big companies, such as Starbucks and Walmart, have increased minimum hourly wages, others have decided to wait and see if people will come back to their jobs in the long run.
USC Professor McKinley Blackburn explained that it’s unclear whether the firms that haven’t implemented a higher wage will survive.
“There may be other firms that are still trying to get by with the same kind of compensation that were being paid in the past. I think they're eventually going to have to adjust to the new level of wages... basically responding to the fact that prices have been going up recently,” Blackburn said.
In November, the BLS calculated there were about 0.7 job seekers for every job available, meaning there are more job openings than people looking for a position. That gives job seekers more power than usual. This is true for many Americans across different industries.
However, for college students still earning their degree, the types of jobs available are still limited.
Many look to the service industry for part-time jobs that fit with their class schedules and offer hours at night and on weekends. But those types of jobs don’t typically offer benefits like remote work or hiring bonuses. It’s changed the minds of some students who typically work during a semester. For some, they’ve simply chosen not to work at all rather than go back to a restaurant job.
Israa Robinson, a fourth-year psychology major, quit her job at Publix after six months because of the burnout she felt working in customer service. Robinson, who is Muslim, frequently dealt with customers asking uncomfortable questions about her attire.
The day she quit “was just another day with another bad conversation. I just couldn’t take it,” Robinson said.
Robinson is avoiding jobs in customer service and retail because of her past experience. However, this choice doesn’t leave her with many options.
“I can’t find my ideal job anywhere. Probably because it doesn’t exist,” Robinson said.
Many other young workers are taking this time to focus on school. William Robinson, the DSS worker who quit when the team returned to the office full time, went back to school to earn a master's degree. There are a limited number of jobs available for someone with a sociology degree that isn’t government work.
“I’m looking at other avenues, but really, it's go back to school so you can use the degree that you got,” Robinson said.