As a 2019 college graduate, Raquel Ellis thought she’d have plenty of options.
Ellis, who earned scholarships to cover tuition, had been assistant editor of Towson University’s literary magazine and hoped to land a business, technical or grant writing job. But dozens of applications have brought little response.
Since then, the East Baltimore resident and mother of two daughters has worked at a restaurant, delivered for DoorDash, taught as a substitute and spent months unemployed. For now, she’s working 12-hour night shifts at Amazon’s Broening Highway warehouse. She’s been there a year.
“I’ve applied to so many jobs, but no luck,” said Ellis, who has been told she lacked qualifications or experience. “I just kind of gave up.”
For the unemployed or underemployed, it might seem they would have their pick of jobs. The 10.8 million unfilled U.S. jobs as of January — the latest data available — adds up to nearly two openings for each job seeker, with 5.9 million people unemployed. The federal Department of Labor figures represent a shift from the 1.2 job openings for every unemployed person before the pandemic.
But while the math appears simple, the situation is complex. The labor market faces a mismatch in terms of the skills of workers, the locations of jobs and workers, and employer needs versus worker demands. The trends have persisted with little improvement for months, resulting in a shortage of labor.
“Employers are offering millions of jobs that nobody wants,” said Christopher Kayes, department of management chair at George Washington University School of Business. “People are no longer willing to make [the] huge sacrifices that they were for the sake of the company, for the sake of the job.”
For low-wage jobs, long commutes and stressful environments further deter workers, Kayes said.
And “the jobs are not always consistent with where people live,” he said. “Especially since the pandemic, people have been more and more reluctant to move for a job. I’m hearing this from across different industries.”
One job hunter, a 55-year-old Timonium resident, has applied for dozens of openings since August. Alan, who asked that his last name not be used because he is currently employed and dissatisfied, believes his extensive management experience at technology firms can translate into a variety of industries.
But so far, salaries have been too low. Or employers want him to relocate or work on site. He won’t budge in those areas and can be picky. He will job hunt “as long as it takes,” he said, if his current job conditions don’t improve.
Conflicting economic trends are in play. While some employers are expanding and adding jobs, others, particularly in technology, hospitality and retail, have resorted to layoffs. Meanwhile, wage inflation is rising, boosting labor costs for companies.
“It is sort of an unprecedented time,” said Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer of the Society for Human Resource Management. “We’ve got all these high indicators of inflation, we’ve got high wage inflation and at the same time, we are having real trouble filling jobs.”
More than half of human resource managers at medium and large companies say their firms are understaffed, especially in agriculture, construction, manufacturing and warehousing logistics, according to the group’s research.
Some employers are taking proactive steps, eliminating cognitive ability tests and other pre-screening reviews, offering “boomerang” bonuses to lure former employees back and doing away with degree requirements, Alonso said. According to one survey, human resource managers said degree requirements could be eliminated at one in four jobs at their companies with no effect on quality.
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Maryland became one of the first states to eliminate the four-year college degree requirement for many state jobs last March, under then-Gov. Larry Hogan. Other states have followed, with Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro last month eliminating the college degree requirement for more than 90% of state jobs.
“You don’t always need a bachelor’s degree for every single job,” said Debra Carr, CEO of Baltimore-based Job Opportunities Task Force, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that help low-wage workers advance to higher paying jobs.
“I would urge employers to take a critical look at what are the core or essential job skills or functions,” Carr said. “What we often find when people look at how they envision a job description is that it’s full of things that would oftentimes disqualify workers even if the worker can do the job.”
She said employers also should invest more in entry-level workers and plan for moving them up career ladders, a benefit for workers and employers. Her group, which already runs a pre-apprenticeship construction program, hopes to expand into working with employers to better align training programs with business needs.
To find workers as it opens new bank branches in the Baltimore region, JPMorgan Chase is looking beyond traditional job websites and methods. Regardless of whether they’re responsible for hiring, its Chase Bank employees are encouraged to scout for potential hires in the community.
“I have coached my team, the branch managers, to think outside the box and not necessarily wait for candidates to apply for our openings,” said Melvin Collins, a Chase executive director who heads branches in Baltimore and Baltimore County.
Chase employees are encouraged and given incentives to pass along information about careers at the bank if “there’s someone there that has truly wowed them,” Collins said.
It has been effective, he said. One local branch manager was recruited from a hotel, while a “private client banker” on his team had been a chef. In his former role as a branch manger, Collins recruited a Target store manager who impressed him after calming an irate customer.
“You don’t have to have banking experience in order to be successful in the banking industry,” Collins said. “It’s having a client-centric mind set.”
Some industries are struggling more than others. The U.S. construction industry needs an estimated 546,000 additional qualified, skilled workers beyond the normal pace of hiring this year to meet demand, Associated Builders and Contractors said last month.
“Too few younger workers are entering the skilled trades, meaning this is not only a construction labor shortage, but also a skills shortage,” said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore-based economist who led the trade group’s market study.
It’s become more difficult for construction trades employers to attract workers in the post-COVID world of remote, flexible and work-from-home jobs, especially for jobs requiring demanding hours in sometimes challenging conditions, said Adam Hirsch, vice president of Baltimore-based Hirsch Electric. And with fewer trade schools around, the commercial electrical contractor has responded by boosting its internal training for workers, he said.
“The hardest aspect about hiring right now is just the shortage in the pipeline,” Hirsch said. “There’s just not as many people coming into the trades. ... There’s a lot of people leaving the trades for different positions.”
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In Baltimore, efforts to build a construction jobs pipeline are underway, with workforce training programs run by groups such as Job Opportunities Task Force and Project JumpStart.
Elaine Farmer, a 32-year-old West Baltimore resident, credits the task force’s 14-week pre-apprenticeship program, BetterU Construction Training, with leading her to a career. Farmer has been homeless, sometimes sleeping on the streets, and bounced around in low-wage, mostly temporary, cooking jobs.
“A lot of companies say they need workers, but if you don’t have the right experience for them, they’re not even going to look your way,” she said.
Farmer heard about BetterU from a therapist and applied. Soon, she found herself engrossed in learning hands-on plumbing, carpentry and construction skills.
After graduating in December, Farmer got a job renovating houses in the city. She learned how to install insulation in the first week. Besides steady wages, the job allows her to rent an apartment and gives her confidence in her future. Someday, she hopes to start a transition home for homeless people.
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Anthony Johnson, a 44-year-old Midtown Baltimore resident, found no shortage of openings last year when he needed a job. But none were available to him. Johnson had served 28 years in prison on charges he faced as a 14-year-old during an armed robbery.
He was released in 2021 and got work as a janitor. He soon realized he would always struggle without skills. When that job ended, he made the rounds to businesses asking for work, but with a criminal background, no experience and no one to vouch for him, he got nowhere.
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“There are all these jobs ... and I had a few interviews, and face-to-face, it always went well,” said Johnson, who said he worked to turn his life around while incarcerated. “If you just walk off the street and you’re not connected with anyone, it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to give you a job.”
That changed when he was accepted into Project JumpStart, which offered not only job training and a stipend, but advocacy and connections to employers. He benefited from the Baltimore-based nonprofit expanding its construction training program last year with financial backing from Sagamore Ventures and other developers of Baltimore Peninsula.
Developers of the massive mixed-use community in South Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood said they hoped to help feed a jobs pipeline for city projects in a tight labor market.
Johnson completed a 15-week construction pre-apprenticeship program in January and was hired immediately as a sprinkler installation apprentice with Anderson Fire Protection.
“That’s my dream, to make a career of this,” Johnson said. “I just want to be able to literally earn a living, that’s all.”
Ellis, meanwhile, still is waiting to start the writing career she envisions. For now, she’s focused on paying bills and taking on extra warehouse shifts.
“I feel almost empty when I’m there,” she said. “I don’t want to keep having to live like that. I do want to have a job I enjoy doing.”