Worker Shortage Continues, Holding Economy Back : Consider This from NPR School districts can't find bus drivers. The TSA is short on security screeners. Ports can't find enough workers to load and unload shipping containers. Across many different sectors, the unavailability of workers is holding the economy back, and sending prices even higher. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

Fuel truckers are another critical job that employers can't fill fast enough, explains NPR's Camila Domonoske.

Also in this episode: reporting from NPR's Andrea Hsu on why millions of older workers have decided to retire early during the pandemic.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Why Are Millions Of U.S. Workers Still On The Sidelines?

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One school in Delaware is offering to pay parents to drive their own kids to school.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: That's the incentive EastSide Charter School in Wilmington is offering. Parents will get $700 for each child they drop off and pick up.

SHAPIRO: That's for the whole year. It's an incentive designed to solve a problem many school districts around the country are facing.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: They simply do not have enough bus drivers.

SHAPIRO: Pittsburgh public schools are putting sixth graders on Port Authority buses. The city already delayed the start date.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Administrators say they needed extra time to adjust to a school bus driver shortage of more than 400 drivers.

SHAPIRO: One industry survey found 81% of school districts are having trouble finding drivers. And that's just one example of how the pandemic is still being felt in all kinds of economic sectors. Mining companies are struggling to hire underground machine operators. The TSA is short on security screeners, and ports don't have enough workers to load and unload shipping containers.

GENE SEROKA: We feel the importer and exporter pain, no doubt about it.

SHAPIRO: Gene Seroka is executive director of America's busiest cargo port in Los Angeles, where today vessels are waiting a week just to get into port.

SEROKA: The impacts that all of this has had is noticeably hurtful to these men and women who are trying to do their jobs in the supply chain.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - it's not just bars and restaurants. All sorts of businesses are still struggling to hire workers. And the delta surge may slow the recovery even more. From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Monday, August 23.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Earlier this summer dozens of states cut off some federal pandemic unemployment benefits. Governors hope that would push people back into the workforce. But economists say those states have only had modest employment gains since the benefits stopped in June. So where are the workers?

NORMA JASSO: With the stock going well, I mean, all of a sudden, I looked at my 401k, and it was like, oh, wow, I have a bunch of money.

SHAPIRO: Sixty-two-year-old Norma Jasso retired from her job with San Diego Gas and Electric. She told NPR she wasn't planning on it at first, but working from home just got old, and she had a new grandchild she wanted to spend time with.

JASSO: You know, at this point, I have lived two-thirds of my life. I have one-third to go. What do I want to do with that one-third? I want to prioritize family and friends and my community.

SHAPIRO: During the pandemic, many people made the same decision. Two million workers retired earlier than they'd planned, according to researchers at The New School. Some made the call on their own. Others lost their jobs and didn't get new ones. And some left the workforce out of fear.

YVONNE GRACE ANDERSON: I quit. I just quit.

SHAPIRO: Seventy-four-year-old Yvonne Grace Anderson told NPR she didn't feel safe at her job as a cashier in a Florida grocery store. Now she's living with a nephew in rural Alabama, getting by on Social Security.

ANDERSON: I wish I could say that I could embrace retirement, but it scares me not being a part of something.

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SHAPIRO: Early retirement only explains a fraction of the worker shortage. Another reality of today's economy is that workers can be pickier now, and that's made it difficult to fill some jobs that are hard, dangerous or lonely. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports on one critical job that is all three of those things.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Something unusual has been happening this year. Across the country - Colorado, Iowa, the Pacific Northwest - scattered gas stations have run out of gasoline. They weren't big shortages or long shortages, but a hiccup in something so essential can be worrying, not to mention odd.

BRIAN MILNE: Why would there be a shortage? We have ample amount of gasoline.

DOMONOSKE: That's Brian Milne, who tracks refined fuels for the data analysis company DTN. To find the answer, look behind the wheel of a big, silver tanker truck. This is a job that requires special training, and a lot of qualified drivers left the industry when demand for gasoline dropped last year. There wasn't work for them. Now companies have been scrambling as demand roared back.

DAVE SAMUELSON: All these companies - you know, we can't get enough people in seats. It's just people just don't want to do it.

DOMONOSKE: Dave Samuelson lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. He's relatively new to fuel hauling, and he knows exactly how much demand there is for workers like him. Just last fall, he went to school to get his commercial driver's license.

SAMUELSON: When I was going through school, I had 10 or 11 job offers before I graduated.

DOMONOSKE: And right away he was hired to haul fuel. That's almost unheard of. Companies typically look for experienced truck drivers to train for this specialized work. Then there's what happened with his pay.

SAMUELSON: It has really, really jumped. I know our pay, where I'm at, has gone up about 40% since January.

DOMONOSKE: Forty percent. Now he's guaranteed at least 78 grand a year. And other companies are also offering big raises and incentives. That's remarkable because for years now, companies have struggled to attract and retain drivers, but they mostly didn't raise pay, certainly not like this. At this point, you might be wondering, wait; is that going to push gas prices up? Patrick De Haan is the head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, and he says not by much, but it does have an impact.

PATRICK DE HAAN: We're talking about, you know, something that would be negligible, less than a two-cent-a-gallon impact. But certainly.

DOMONOSKE: There are a lot of other factors keeping gas prices high right now, especially the price of crude oil. But there's another question, too. Will these pay raises be enough to attract new drivers? Samuelson is very happy with his new gig. He says the pay is great, and he loves that he's back home on his farm every night. But hauling fuel is dangerous. Getting licensed is a hassle, and the hours can be rough. So even with higher pay, some experienced drivers just don't think it's worth it.

BRAD ZEILINGER: I wouldn't even consider it. No. They couldn't afford me. Let's put it that way.

DOMONOSKE: Brad Zeilinger has been trucking for more than 30 years. He's hauled fuel before but never again, he says. Frozen food is more his style now and, pretty soon, retirement.

ZEILINGER: Young people don't want to do this job any more than my generation. My generation is on their way out the door right now.

DOMONOSKE: This is a challenge for the entire trucking industry, not just fuel hauling. And the question now is whether higher pay can attract a new generation of drivers.

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SHAPIRO: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Despite all these challenges, the job market is improving overall. The latest monthly jobs report reveal that the U.S. has now regained almost three quarters of the 22 million jobs that were lost last year. But the recovery might be faster if there were more workers to fill the open jobs. And now the delta surge could affect hiring, too. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Like a lot of employers, Dean Burrows is looking for help these days. Burrows runs a precision gear manufacturing business in Syracuse, N.Y. Over the last year and a half, a number of his experienced machinists have walked out the door.

DEAN BURROWS: Many of our employee owners have decided through the pandemic that life is too short and it would be better for them to retire earlier than they had planned.

HORSLEY: Finding replacements has not been easy. A lot of other factories in Syracuse are also trying to hire right now. And Amazon's about to open a giant new warehouse nearby.

BURROWS: We're not just competing against other manufacturers. We're competing against the McDonald's, the Amazon. So it becomes challenging to try to position yourself as a company that people want to come to work for.

HORSLEY: Burrows has boosted wages by about 20%, and he's offering to train less experienced workers. Still, it's a struggle to find people, especially for the second shift, which stretches till 3 a.m. Because of that, Burrows has been telling customers they might have to wait longer for the specialty gears his company makes for cars, oil field pumps and medical devices. He's even turned down some orders out of concern he won't be able to deliver.

BURROWS: We don't want to risk our reputation because we can't find employees to be able to produce the product.

HORSLEY: Anne Boninsegna knows the feeling. She's the co-owner of an eating and event space in Columbus, Ohio. And she's had to say no to some wedding parties and bridal showers because she can't hire enough servers and bartenders.

ANNE BONINSEGNA: It's sad, and it's disappointing, especially, you know, after sitting empty for so long.

HORSLEY: Before the pandemic, Boninsegna says she used to have lots of job applicants to choose from. Now the few people who do apply often don't show up for an interview.

BONINSEGNA: I've had lots of conversations with colleagues, and we just say, you know, where did they go? Like, did they become independently wealthy during the pandemic? People who would normally function as bartenders - it feels to me like they're all out there going to, like, festivals and traveling the country and, you know, living out their passions and stuff.

HORSLEY: That's probably a stretch. But the pandemic has changed the way a lot of people think about work. A Washington Post poll this summer found nearly one out of three workers under the age of 40 are reconsidering their careers. People have been quitting low-wage jobs in restaurants and retail at especially high rates. Some economists are not bothered by that. They say eventually those workers are likely to find better jobs where they're happier and more productive. In the meantime, though, the large number of unfilled jobs is weighing on the broader economy.

SARAH HOUSE: Businesses can't sell as much if they don't have workers to either make those goods, provide those services.

HORSLEY: Economist Sarah House of Wells Fargo says if short staffing forces one restaurant to close its doors on Mondays, for example, customers might just go down the street to another dining spot. But when labor shortages are widespread, some spending is lost for good.

HOUSE: I'll give you a personal example. I was going to take my kid to the local amusement park until I talked to a friend and heard that the lines were so long because they had one worker operating two rides because they couldn't find enough staff. So we skipped that trip, and that's money that we didn't spend elsewhere.

HORSLEY: The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimates staffing shortages are costing U.S. businesses more than $60 billion a month in lost sales. Some of that business could be recovered once more people come back to work. And many forecasters were expecting that to happen this fall as vaccination rates rise, supplemental unemployment benefits run out and schools reopen, offering relief to working parents. Unfortunately, White House economist Cecilia Rouse says the latest jump in coronavirus infections could jeopardize that timeline.

CECILIA ROUSE: I'm particularly worried about schools. If schools are not able to open robustly and to stay open, it'll make it very difficult for caretakers to rejoin the workforce.

HORSLEY: In the meantime, small businesses in particular will continue to struggle. Anne Boninsegna worries about burnout for her stretched-thin kitchen staff in Columbus. She's pleading with her customers to be patient.

BONINSEGNA: Staffing levels are not what they were at. So if it takes a little longer to get something, there's a good reason behind it. It's not just people being lazy and not doing their job.

SHAPIRO: That report from NPR's Scott Horsley. Earlier this episode, you heard about some workers choosing to retire early instead of going back to work. That reporting came from NPR's labor and workplace correspondent Andrea Hsu. It's CONSDIER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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