McCOMB — Asked by the Mississippi Today website why more people in the state have not returned to work when plenty of jobs are available, a number of respondents who pay attention to the issue admit they don’t know.
Indeed, reduced workforce participation is one of many mysteries during this COVID-19 era. It’s a nationwide trend that is far from limited to Mississippi, but it is nevertheless one more frustration for those who are supposed to know a lot about the workplace.
“Mississippi gained back the bulk of jobs it lost during the pandemic but those gains stalled out over the last few months,” Mississippi Today reported. “The state is still about 2,000 jobs short of where it was before the pandemic began, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Mississippi employment market has remained relatively flat over the last six months.”
The most popular measure of working conditions is the monthly unemployment rate. Lately Mississippi’s has been below 4%, which means that for every 100 people in the work force, 96 have a job and four are looking.
The problem is that a significant number of people who were working before COVID-19 have left the work force even as the fears of the virus receded. Again, this is true for both Mississippi and the whole country.
These people have not returned to a job, nor are they looking for a job — and the experts aren’t quite sure why. One of the biggest complaints about Washington’s economic relief during the past two years was that it kept paying people to stay home. Those programs have ended, but jobs are still going unfilled.
State economist Corey Miller added that for every two people who get hired for jobs, both in Mississippi and across the nation, there are another three openings. This state typically has too many workers chasing too few jobs.
Many businesses have increased pay and offered other perks, but some still can’t find enough employees. Part of the problem surely is that Mississippi’s pay in many fields compares poorly to other states. But that doesn’t explain why the other states are still dealing with the same issue. Another element is the country’s high inflation rate — rising prices are soaking up a lot of those pay raises.
Here’s the one area that needs attention: The national “labor participation rate” for working-age adults is 62%. In Mississippi, it is significantly lower, at 55%.
Why the giant gap? And what do we do about it? Accelerate Mississippi, the state’s workforce development agency, is studying the problem. Agency director Ryan Miller said he wants to know more about any barriers, such as child care for single parents, that may keep people from entering the work force.
It must drive the experts nuts. They’ve been waiting for years for the gigantic Baby Boom generation to leave the work force. Now that it’s happening, fewer people from the younger generations are willing to work.
Ryan is editor and publisher of The Enterprise-Journal in McComb.