You don’t need to check results of the latest business survey to know many retailers and restaurants in the region are understaffed, but not by choice.

The “help wanted” signs went up throughout the Merrimack Valley and North Shore, as the pandemic restrictions loosened and hiring starting picking up. But, rather than streaming back to the same jobs they held before, many people are changing fields or seeking jobs that pay more than before.

A CNBC poll in the third quarter of 2021 found that half of small-business owners queried said it had gotten harder to find qualified people to hire, compared to the same time in 2020. And 31% told pollsters they had open jobs they hadn’t been able to fill for at least three months – up from 24% last quarter.

As Statehouse reporter Christian Wade found this week, results of the latest National Federation of Independent Businesses survey show 51% of all employers couldn’t hire enough staff in September, while more than 28% of available positions went unfilled. That’s slightly higher than what a similar survey revealed in August, Wade reported.

The difficulty in filling jobs shows a deepening problem that’s hurting the economy, according to business leaders in Massachusetts.

“This is an unfortunate trend developing in Massachusetts month after month. Employers are struggling to adequately staff their business,” said Christopher Carlozzi, the NFIB’s Massachusetts state director.

Some business owners say temporarily enhanced unemployment benefits and lingering fears about the COVID-19 variant contribute to the number of job openings without applicants. But the enhanced federal unemployment benefits ended in early September, so other factors have to be at play.

“The fundamentals of the economy remain strong,” Sara L. Johnson, chair of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts board of economic advisers, said in a statement. “At the same time, materials shortages, e-shipping delays, a tight labor market, and the ongoing pandemic make it difficult for employers to concentrate on long-term growth.”

To attract employees, the NFIB said, some business owners are raising compensation and more plan to follow suit, according to the survey.

Nationally, big retailers and chains such as Walmart, Target and CVS have boosted wages and introduced signing bonuses and other perks. CVS Health said it would no longer require a high school diploma for some entry-level jobs, which opens the door to more candidates.

These moves were inevitable as the economy pulls out of the pandemic malaise.

Earlier this year, NPR noted that retail workers were quitting at a record rate, with 632,000 exiting retail jobs in June alone.

“In fact, for most of the year, every month, roughly 4% of the retail workforce has quit – part of a nationwide wave of workers reconsidering their careers post-pandemic,” the radio network reported.

Historically, when workers quit retail jobs, they did it to take another retail job. But now, labor experts say some workers might be jumping ship from one store to another to take advantage of the sign-on bonuses and other perks.

To make matters more challenging, holiday hiring is heating up, which will put an even bigger squeeze on the limited applicant pool to fill seasonal full-time and part-time jobs.

No one should expect the labor market to settle down soon with so many moving parts – not the least of which are those potential employees who are increasingly mobile and selective about where they work.

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