Reinventing workers for the post-COVID economy

Rob Siminoski has been in the theatre, in one way or another, since he graduated from college. But after 10 years at the Universal Studios theme park in California, he is only No. 13 on the stage-managing roster.

Even if the park, closed since March, reopens some attractions – the WaterWorld stunt show, say, or the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle – he is unlikely to be among the first to get the call.

His luck is that his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, offers an apprenticeship program for on-set movie electricians. It takes five years, and Siminoski, 33, is going to have to brush up his high school algebra to get in. Still, it offers a good balance of risk and reward.

“Everyone needs electricity,” he said. “You pull down six figures.”

The nation’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will hinge to some extent on how quickly show managers can become electricians, whether taxi drivers can become plumbers, and how many cooks can manage software for a bank.

Workers in specialist industries may need to transfer their skills to suit new jobs in the pandemic recovery.
Workers in specialist industries may need to transfer their skills to suit new jobs in the pandemic recovery.Credit:Bloomberg

The US labour market has recovered 12 million of the 22 million jobs lost from February to April. But many positions may not return any time soon, even when a vaccine is deployed.

This is likely to prove especially problematic for millions of low-paid workers in service industries like retailing, hospitality, building maintenance and transportation, which may be permanently impaired or fundamentally transformed. What will janitors do if fewer people work in offices? What will waiters do if the urban restaurant ecosystem never recovers its density?

Their prognosis is bleak. Marcela Escobari, an economist at the Brookings Institution, warns that even if the economy adds jobs as the coronavirus risk fades, “the rebound won’t help the people that have been hurt the most”.

Looking back over 16 years of data, Escobari finds that workers in the occupations most heavily hit since the spring will have a difficult time reinventing themselves. Taxi drivers, dancers and front-desk clerks have poor track records moving to jobs as, say, registered nurses, pipe layers or instrumentation technicians.

“Many of today’s unemployed workers may find it harder than in the past to find new jobs and advance through the labour market,” Escobari wrote.

COVID is abruptly taking out a swath of jobs that were thought to be comparatively resilient, in services that require personal contact with customers. And the jolt has landed squarely on workers with little or no education beyond high school, toiling in the low-wage service economy.

“The damage to the economy and particularly to workers will probably be longer lasting than we think it is going to be,” said Peter Beard, senior vice president for regional workforce development at the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development group.

What’s more, he said, COVID will intensify underlying dynamics that were already transforming the workplace. Automation, for one, will most likely accelerate as employers seek to protect their businesses from future pandemics.

The challenge is not insurmountable. Stephanie Brown, who spent 11 years in the Air Force, found her footing relatively quickly after losing her job as a cook at a hotel in Rochester, Michigan, in March. She took advantage of a training program offered by Salesforce, the big software platform for businesses, and got a full-time job in October as a Salesforce administrator for the New York software company Pymetrics from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Yet despite scattered success stories, moving millions of workers into new occupations remains an enormous challenge.

Jared Sooper is also looking for a change after losing his job in March managing a restaurant in the North Park neighbourhood of San Diego. Fleeing San Diego’s rents, he and his fiancée packed their things in a U-Haul trailer and relocated to a converted storage space under the deck of her parents’ house near Providence, Rhode Island.

Once there, Sooper, 37, learnt of an initiative financed by the state government to train workers displaced by the pandemic and connect them to job opportunities. In November, he finished a five-week program run by Local 51 of the union for the plumbing and pipe fitting trades to become a welder.

“2020 seems to be turning around,” Sooper said. “I’m feeling pretty confident. If they don’t take me for this one, there are others I can apply to.”

Still, he couldn’t immediately find a union job as a welder, so for the time being he took a job doing body work for a company that makes eco-friendly bus frames.

Derrius Gosha, 30, had been in Los Angeles for only a few months when the pandemic ended his job on the sales floor of Bath and Body Works in February. He is now back at home in Birmingham, Alabama, living with his mother and grandmother. John Restrepo, 25, furloughed in March from his job as a server at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant in Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, is sticking it out in an apartment with his two roommates. Barbara Xocoyotl, 57, furloughed in March from her cleaning job at the Omni hotel in New Haven, Connecticut, had to give up her apartment and is living with a daughter in New York.

All are waiting for the economy to restore the jobs they have known.

“If there are no retail jobs, I could work at a warehouse, and I’m OK on a conveyor belt,” Gosha said. “The only thing I wouldn’t want to do is put on a hard hat and go dig a ditch.”

After weeks of hunting, he landed a seasonal position in the lawn and garden section at Lowe’s.

Often, the old jobs just don’t return at all. As he searches for an opening at CVS, or Walgreens, or another restaurant in town, Restrepo pins his hope on a deal that his UNITE HERE union local struck with Disney to offer the workers it let go a first crack at jobs once business returns, and retrain them for other Disney jobs if their old positions are terminated.

“Thinking optimistically, by the summer of 2022, the majority of us will be able to go back,” he said.

Xocoyotl has a doomsday plan in case the old jobs don’t return: to return to her hometown in central Mexico to be close to her mother.

“I’ve been looking for a job, but nobody calls me back, nobody tells me anything,” she said. At her age, she added, “people don’t even ask what one is good for anymore”.

Training has always been a challenge for policymakers, and the pandemic complicates matching new skills with jobs. Austin Urick, 31, went back to school after he lost his job last year selling equipment for the oil and gas industry. He enrolled at San Jacinto College near Houston to learn instrumentation and electrical systems. He expects to graduate this month, certified to calibrate and replace gauges and pumps used by oil and gas companies.

The industry, however, has suffered during the pandemic. While he has some good leads, his job hunt hasn’t yielded any offers. “It is worrisome,” Urick said. “But my Plan B is not just oil and gas.”

The instrumentation degree can be taken in different directions.

“I can work in an elevator company or in a hospital, anywhere that has gauges,” he added. “I can go down the street to Budweiser.”

Harris County, where much of Houston sits, lost about 160,000 jobs in the year through September. Using emergency money approved by Congress in the CARES Act, it has enlisted community colleges and nonprofit groups to develop training programs to move 3000 workers whose jobs were hit by the pandemic into more resilient occupations: plumbing or accounting, nursing or coding.

“Workforce development was a major priority when I came into the office,” said Adrian Garcia, a county commissioner whose district is among the poorest there. “Now, with the pandemic in our midst, it is critical.”

With the training program filling up, he is counting on the county to find money to expand it. And yet at scale, it will be a considerable challenge to assist workers in the transition to a new economy in which many jobs are gone for good and those available often require proficiency in sophisticated digital tools.

“We need a New Deal for skills,” said Amit Sevak, president of Revature, a company that hires workers, trains them to use digital tools and helps place them in jobs. “President Roosevelt deployed the massive number of workers unemployed in the Great Depression on projects that created many of the dams and roads and bridges we have. We need something like that.”

New York Times

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