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Are women the answer to America’s labor shortage?

The solution to the labor shortage may seem simple — hire the skilled women that meet the qualifications for hard-to-fill roles.

June 01, 2018

The latest jobs numbers show the massive labor shortage in the United States is getting worse before it gets any better.

There were 6.6 million positions sitting vacant without qualified people to fill them as of March 2018 – an increase of roughly 300,000 in two months.

Some of the most qualified people to fill these skilled roles have one thing in common: X chromosomes. A look at the pool of unemployed workers of “prime age” – between 25 and 45 – reveals a much higher percentage of educated women than educated men.

There were 1.4 million prime-age American women with master’s or other advanced degrees that weren’t in the workforce as of 2017, compared to less than 473,000 prime-age men, according to United States Census data. More than 3.3 million prime-age unemployed women had bachelor’s degrees, compared to less than 1.3 million prime-age unemployed men.

Given this data, the solution may seem simple — hire the skilled women that meet the qualifications for hard-to-fill roles.

But in order to do that, employers will have to convince them to rejoin the workforce. Paid parental leave in America lags far behind the family-friendly workplace policies of other developed nations, and many women have left work to raise children.

With wages still not equal between men and women for the same work, the higher earner can often, though not always, be the male partner. That frequently leads to the calculation that the female partner stays at home.

The participation rate of women in the workforce peaked in 2000, at 60.3 percent. It now sits at 56.7 percent.

“The data is beginning to show that the lack of the kinds of benefits that would retain qualified women is a drag on the economy,” says JLL’s chief economist Ryan Severino.

“We have no guaranteed paid maternity or paternity leave. There are equal pay disparities between men and women. There’s a lack of affordable daycare. Many employers insist on inflexible working schedules.”

On the flip side, providing these benefits would all but solve the labor shortage, Severino believes.

Creating workplaces that attract mothers

While some of the reasons women leave the workforce are biological and emotional, others, namely the lack of mother-friendly policies and amenities, are “pretty easy to solve for,” says Julia Georgules, Director of Research at JLL.

A dedicated women’s room with a mini fridge, an outlet and a comfortable chair is a relatively easy thing for a company to provide, but it goes a long way in making breastfeeding mothers who need to pump comfortable at work.

“A friend at a big company told me she had to sit in the filing closet to pump at her office,” Georgules says. “That’s not sanitary, it’s unpleasant and it’s demoralizing. Despite the size of the company, that was not a benefit.”

Parents also need the flexibility to care for a sick child or to make it to their doctor’s appointments. In a super-connected world, flexible hours or work-from-home days are relatively easy ways to retain top producers that are juggling the demands of career and family life.

Other fixes take a lot more work. Onsite childcare is a huge benefit for employees, who can nix that extra morning and evening stop, and have easy access to check on their child.  It does, however, require a huge buy-in from employers.

“It’s not feasible for every company to offer childcare,” Georgules says. “If you have 30 people working in your office, it doesn’t make sense. There’s a greater opportunity for larger companies to offer it.”

Many Central Business District buildings are multi-tenant, which would make onsite childcare the landlord’s prerogative – and those struggling to fill their space could offer it as a way to attract tenants. Employers can also give stipends to employees to find and secure their own childcare.

The bigger picture

When thinking about what office benefits will provide the highest return on investment in terms of securing and retaining employees, not all perks are created equal.

“The average working mom would care more about access to affordable childcare and less about whether or not everything in the cafeteria is organic,” Severino says. “One of those things can make or break decision about whether or not to return to the workforce.”

But the cost of these incentives also should not fall entirely on an individual company or landlord, Georgules says.

“If cities and communities are committed to a strong workforce, governments need to think about access to quality education, childcare options, and open public space,” Georgules says. “That needs to be part of the infrastructure.”

With the labor shortage problem becoming more serious, plans to meaningfully address the concerns of working parents will help the country’s economy grow.

“There are 18 million women out of work, and half of those women are educated. If we had the ability to better manage their concerns and make those things better for them, I think there would be a really high probability that some of those educated women would be back in the labor force,” Severino says. “If the country were a different place in terms of policy and behavior, there is a pool of labor that could be filling empty positions and improving the overall economy.”

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