Anthony Geraci’s life changed overnight.
The 32-year-old Virginia Beach resident was one of more than 100,000 Hampton Roads workers who lost their jobs in April 2020 — the month after the coronavirus pandemic took hold and Gov. Ralph Northam’s social distancing measures began to affect businesses.
Rather than look for another position, Geraci did something more workers are doing — he switched careers.
It’s one of the reasons why employers in fields such as hospitality, restaurants and other entry-level industries say they are in dire need of workers. For reasons economists are still researching, the pool of available applicants has shrunk dramatically.
“I’m hearing more and more economists saying that the pandemic must have nudged people toward reevaluating their priorities in life,” said Peter McHenry, a William & Mary associate professor of economics who researches labor issues.
After spending time at home with family, McHenry said workers realized perhaps they didn’t like their jobs as much as they thought and reconsidered their options.
“That could be a delay, or it could be a career change,” he said.
Around 20% of workers have changed careers since the pandemic began, according to an April survey conducted by Prudential Financial.
For Geraci, that opportunity came when his mother clued him into a new job training program called the Virginia Ready Initiative. After being laid off from doing customer tax support for Liberty Tax, he began to realize his real passion was in technology. The program provides a $1,000 incentive for people who pursue job certificates in high-demand fields.
Geraci used the program to obtain a key information technology support certificate. Better yet, the jobs program paid for the classes in full and he was able to pocket the $1,000 incentive upon completion.
“I always loved computers and loved tech but needed the skills on the resume,” Geraci said.
A few things are certain about the current worker shortage. For example, the Hampton Roads civilian labor force — the total number of people either looking for work or currently employed — has declined by more than 33,000 workers, or around 4%, since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those people have left the labor force entirely. They are neither employed nor looking for a job.
Many of those workers are women. Nationally, 309,000 women left the labor force in September, and women have accounted for 57.5% of total job losses since February 2020, according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of jobs data. To McHenry and other economists, that indicates continuing issues around child care, and remote schooling may be pushing women out of the workforce to care for children learning at home.
Additionally, expanded unemployment benefits have afforded lower and middle-income families an unprecedented level of financial savings. Bolstered by expanded unemployment benefits, decreased consumer spending and multiple stimulus checks, the personal saving rate — the amount of monthly income remaining after taxes and spending — swelled to a record 33.8% in April 2020, and remained above 10% for the next year, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis graph.
Several theories about the labor shortage have been disproved, McHenry said. For instance, states that ended expanded unemployment benefits early did not see a boost in hiring, disproving a common theory among conservative politicians that the benefits were keeping people home. Additionally, fewer people are getting sick from COVID, so McHenry said it’s unlikely people are staying away from work out of fear or illness.
Getting people back to work
The Virginia Ready Initiative, founded in June 2020 by businessman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, pairs an existing workforce development program run by community colleges with 24 major Virginia employers, including Newport News Shipbuilding and Sentara Healthcare. Along with technology careers, the program provides incentives for credentials to nursing assistants, truck drivers, pharmacy technicians and other in-demand fields.
Virginia Ready Initiative CEO Caren Merrick said most of the program’s 3,000 participants are in their early 20s to 50s, have work experience and are taking a risk by going back to school during a pandemic.
“I think we should celebrate them,” Merrick said.
That risk paid off for Geraci. A few months after completing his course, he landed a job handling tech support for InMotion Hosting, a Virginia Beach website hosting and design company. He now makes about 12% more than before the pandemic, is able to work remotely and has room for professional growth in a field he enjoys.
McHenry expects the larger employment picture to improve somewhat for employers and workers in the near future. He thinks workers will return to jobs in fields such as hospitality and restaurants as their savings dry up, and many employers have already boosted wages in those positions.
Trevor Metcalfe, 757-222-5345, firstname.lastname@example.org