In summary

There are multiple forces that could encourage people to go back to work. Here are three ways to fill jobs in California:

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By David M. Smith, Special to CalMatters

David M. Smith is a professor of economics at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School.

Employers say they can’t find workers while job seekers say they can’t find work. According to the California Employment Development Department, July’s unemployment rate is 5.7% lower than the same time last year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Labor Department reported a record high 10.9 million job openings in early August. So why aren’t Californians filling them?

Multiple factors are discouraging would-be job seekers from filling open positions. Extended unemployment benefits from the federal government and justifiable concern over COVID-19 exposure in a workplace are two main drivers. In addition, a large number of would-be workers chose to retire – with 2020 seeing a 50% increase in those choosing to hang up the spikes. 

Just as there is no one reason jobs are going unfilled, there are multiple forces that could encourage workers off the sideline. Here are three ways to fill unfilled positions in California:  

First, pay people to return to work. 

Over the past year, the state of California and the federal government extended benefits to those who are unemployed, providing a small cushion for benefit recipients to consider their next move. In an era of uncertainty, why not extend payments for a period of time to newly employed persons?  

Unlike a guaranteed income program, return-to-work pay could take the place of expiring benefits, pay a cash supplement and help Californians establish themselves in a new position. Over the longer term, it could also help raise people out of poverty. Already promising pilot programs are putting cash in the hands of Central Valley farmworkers who are famously underemployed. This and other programs like it should be tested and expanded. 

Second, fix childcare for working parents.

School closures and child-care shortages are cited by job seekers as the primary hurdle to accepting work. Schools and parents form a critical, if not formal, contract in which parents entrust the education system for six to eight hours a day, five days a week. Therefore, a disruption to the education schedule is a disruption to a work schedule. To be certain, a balance between safety risks and open schools needs to be maintained, however, reopening schools doesn’t appear to meaningfully increase the level of risk faced by teachers or students.

And while government officials should take more steps to open classrooms, companies should also allow flexible work schedules to accommodate potential employees who are parents.

Third, expanding training opportunities for high-wage, long-term jobs.

According to consulting firm McKinsey & Co., to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, companies need to immediately reskill their workforce. Already individuals are seeking to enhance skills on their own accord. 

Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, for example, experienced a 55% increase in applications across all MBA programs during the 2020-21 admissions cycle compared with the previous year. 

California companies are also doing their part. Google’s online Career Certificate program – which equips people for in-demand jobs with no experience or degree required – is available in select community colleges and high schools across the state. More than 50% of certificate graduates are Black, Latino, women or veterans.  

With a staggering $75.7 billion surplus, the state of California has the opportunity to make significant investments in workforce training and public-private partnerships. 

At the heart of getting California back to work is creativity.  

Businesses, especially small businesses, can give paid time off for vaccinations and offer flexible schedules for parent-employees. State legislators can focus on policies that help businesses such as Assembly Bill 80, a $6.2 billion tax cut signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in April. And state legislators should abandon policies that hurt businesses such as the restaurant-job killer Assembly Bill 257. Congress’ infrastructure plan could also produce a massive number of higher-wage jobs. 

I’m optimistic these forces can help make California the job-creating, opportunity-providing machine it is for employers and employees with long-term benefits.


David M. Smith has also written about policy traps that imperil California’s job market.

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