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The Pandemic Will Likely Bring Long-Term Changes in How We Work

This article was published in the Richmond Times Dispatch on September 7, 2020

 

This Labor Day is unlike any other we have experienced in our lifetime.

Millions of Americans remain out of work because of a pandemic that has thrown virtually every country into a recession.

The U.S. recession started in February, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the arbiter of recessions.

Based on forecasts from most economists, the recession will end sometime in the third quarter 2020 when real gross domestic product advances at more than a 20% annualized pace.

This recession will go down in the history books as sharp and short.

Yet the path of the labor market recovery is not as clear because it is dependent on people feeling safe enough to travel by plane, stay at a hotel or eat in a restaurant in close proximity to other people.

Since a widely distributed vaccine for COVID-19 is needed for people to be protected from the virus, economists have become dependent on estimates coming from pharmaceutical firms about the arrival of the vaccine.

As noted in last month’s column, returning to pre-COVID employment levels ranges from an optimistic view of it taking place sometime in the second quarter of 2021 to a pessimistic scenario of it happening in mid-2024.

Regardless of when the vaccine is widely distributed, the type of people most affected are those with less education. This is because jobs linked to the retail, recreation and hospitality sectors typically require in-person work and often only require a high school degree.

On the other hand, people working at company headquarters, information technology firms, and professional and business services can often complete work remotely.

There also are demographic implications. Some group of employees are not as prevalent in remote work occupations and therefore not best positioned to take advantage of these jobs.

For example, Blacks account for 12.7% of all workers, but just 7.4% of workers within remote work occupations. Hispanic or Latinos are under-represented as well, accounting for 17.3% of all workers compared to 9.0% within remote work occupations. Asians, in contrast, make up 6.5% of the workforce overall, but 13.7% of workers in remote work occupations.

A strong pathway to remote jobs is higher education.

About 35% of all jobs are estimated to typically require a two-year college degree or higher for entry. In contrast, 87% of remote work jobs typically require a two-year degree or higher.

As schools grapple with opening in person, totally virtual or a hybrid approach, the implications can be significant for the ability of these students to compete for highly compensated jobs in the future.

As we reflect on Labor Day, these are challenging times for everyone, especially for unemployed workers.

It is important not to lose sight of the long-term changes this pandemic may bring to the way we work. Many expect remote working will become more popular in the future.

If so, so goes the skills required to communicate, integrate and innovate within the workplace ecosystem. This incubator of ideas is maximized when people have access to each other — their chemistry of creating meaningful work will not go away unnoticed.

At some point, workers need to heal together, build together and rise again together.

Christine Chmura is CEO and Chief Economist at Chmura Economics & Analytics. She can be reached at (804) 649-3640 or receive e-mail at chris.chmura@chmuraecon.com.

 

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