A Labor Shortage of Online Proportions

Will we base our lives and economy on human needs, or on distractions?

Welder (photo: Mostafa Meraji / Pixabay / CC0)

Among many challenges facing our country today, the labor shortage certainly looms as one of the largest.

Recent information from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce indicates that while not all industries are suffering from a lack of workers, a number have been hit particularly hard, both in regard to quit rates and challenges with recruiting. As it stands, there are anywhere from 35-70% unfilled job positions in durable goods manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, financial activities, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality.

While the pandemic (and the response to it) has been blamed for some of this, the reality is that even before COVID-19, a number of industries were already struggling to fill their work force. A survey in 2016 of human resources professionals found that 68% had difficulty recruiting candidates for full-time positions, compared to 50% in 2013. Low numbers of applicants was cited as the biggest obstacle. 

Over the past decade, there have been many theories and explanations about why the labor shortage exists — whether it be a push for higher pay, a desire for more flexible work environment, an increased demand for services (in certain industries), the financial compensation given to the unemployed, or a shifting of goals and ideals of the workforce itself. Regardless, I certainly do not have the expertise and knowledge to provide an in-depth analysis of this. 

But I do think it is worthwhile to provide one perspective to consider, especially since I have yet to see this broached in the public domain.

First, to do this, let’s go back to the pre-COVID numbers on the industries struggling the most to hire a workforce. The top four are:

  1. High-skilled medical, such as nurses, doctors, and specialists;
  2. Scientists and mathematicians
  3. Skilled trades, such as electricians, carpenters, machinists, mechanics, welders and plumbers
  4. Engineering and architecture

Recently, I was having a discussion with a child about schooling, as he was confused about just when college came in relation to high school and grade school. As I was clarifying the time for this occurring, he spontaneously said, “Oh, college is when you go to school, so you can drop out to become a YouTuber.” Needless to say, this led to a further, interesting discussion about the idea he had shared.

But as we were talking (and laughing) about this quote later in our department, one of my colleagues shared a link to a large, lavish home that had been recently purchased by an acquaintance who is a full-time YouTuber. While all of us discussing this recognized that only a small percentage of YouTubers really “make it big,” no doubt this little boy’s statement reflected a growing understanding (and desire) of his peer group. 

Currently, the video game industry in the U.S. employees almost 300,000 people. The number of people employed in this field has grown an average of 7.4% over the last five years. Google itself surpassed 100,000 employees in 2019, having grown 800% over the past decade. And according to a report published in October 2021, almost 400,000 people in the United States are working 40 hours or more as a YouTube creator (and getting paid for it). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is more than are currently employed as dentists, librarians or psychologists. Which, ironically (or not), are some of the positions that we need the most.

Which brings us to a seminal point. While I think almost all of us could agree that our world could (and did) function just fine without YouTube, video games and Google, the same can’t be said if I can’t find someone to fix my car, teach my kids or and my hernia. Yes, just like the rest of you, I do use Gmail and Google regularly, and I occasionally check out YouTube for various reasons. But let’s be honest — I, my family and our communities do not depend on these industries for our basic needs and desires. No matter where you find yourself with the online world, I think even a third-grader, like the one who mentioned dropping out of college to become a YouTuber, can understand that in life, there are necessities and there are luxuries (or distractions). 

While I realize that the migration to online jobs is far from the only explanation for our labor shortage, I would argue that it is increasingly part of the story. If I can (or think I can) make lots of money in my pajamas, and set my own schedule doing it, then what exactly is going to motivate me to clean people’s plaque-covered teeth for 8 hours a day (even though oral health is a really important need in our society)? This isn’t a rhetorical question, as just recently I learned that 15 offices in our modestly-sized city are currently looking for dental hygienists. 

Once again, amid all the promises that we have heard about online technology, we are at a crossroads. As we dive deeper and deeper into the virtual world, our real world is hollowing out from the inside. While part of me wants to congratulate the YouTubers for making a profit by tapping into the mystical, unconscious and sometimes embarrassing world of psychology, the other part of me wonders if they might still be interested in, well, a real job. No offense intended, but I think you know what I mean.