Just step inside the dining halls at Michigan State, and you’ll see a trend across the state: People aren’t returning to work. That’s despite a good economy.

EAST LANSING, Mich.—Students crowd the sidewalks of Michigan State’s futuristic campus, all in stride with eager, determined gaits en route to potential employers at a virtual career fair. In this graphically designed image, frozen in time, “virtual” is the operative word, as college students now enter chatrooms instead of employer booths when searching for a job.

While, clearly, business is not back to normal, it is booming. Employers are casting out openings, and MSU has opened the floodgates gates accordingly, with 14,000 jobs listed on its website. That jobs tally is about three and a half times greater than normal figures, and the university hosted 37 virtual career fairs in the spring just to draw students in.

“I don’t think we’ll ever have that many again,” said Karin Hanson, director of employer relations for MSU’s Career Services Network.

Hanson has been on campus since 2009, when she saw an economic collapse and job offers pried from students’ fingertips. 

Julia Wallace, a senior at MSU majoring in engineering, relived the experience, with internships and jobs flying off the website before her eyes when the pandemic struck. Desperate for a make-or-break internship in a cutthroat field, she turned on notifications for LinkedIn, Indeed, and MSU’s career service to alert her so that she could snap up an opportunity. All told, she applied to multiple jobs every morning for three months. 

“I had my lows there,” she said.

As of October 2021, the unemployment rate is down to 4.7% statewide, a mere percentage point above where it was leading up to the pandemic—when the economy was quite good, according to experts. Hanson says she can’t remember ever having so many jobs to advertise to students. 

Most didn’t expect this sort of economic rebound so quickly, said Donald Grimes, a senior research specialist at the University of Michigan.

Now that it’s here, the concern isn’t where the jobs are. But where are the jobseekers?

“We’ve worked very hard to have student turnout—harder than we would’ve expected,” Hanson said. “And something that we’re trying to figure out is we have a lot of opportunities and a lot of jobs, but the students aren’t as engaged as they were pre-pandemic.”

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The Missing Pieces to a Robust Economy

Down the road to fierce rivals University of Michigan, Grimes crunches the numbers on the state’s latest economic trends. He is quick to peel back the sticker 4.7% unemployment rate to reveal what it’s covering up.

In Michigan, some 200,000 people aren’t searching for jobs who would be working or looking if not for the pandemic. Because of the way the unemployment rate is calculated, they’re not included in the numerator or denominator. If they were, the unemployment rate would hike up to a grizzly 8.6%, almost doubling its current figure.

“The real question has been this huge drop in the labor force where people are now saying essentially that they’re not looking for work,” Grimes said.

The unemployment rate is calculated through household surveys that ask several questions on employment status, but the sweet and simple explanation is this: 19 of every 20 Michiganders who want a job are working. At the height of the pandemic, Michigan had a quarter of its labor force out of work. Back in those somber days, when economic uncertainty and fear crowded out the market, jobs weren’t there to meet the cries of people searching for work. Now, the jobs are there; the applications aren’t.

People who mysteriously aren’t searching or working fall into three main categories: young people, those in their prime working years, and people close to retirement. 

Young people have likely weighed the risks of working during a pandemic with what they’re being paid, and ultimately decided it’s not worth it. As activities reopen, they also might be trying to make up for lost time, at the expense of work.

Those in their prime working years, for fear of the virus, have often decided to turn their attention to their household and children, as opposed to going to work.

The final faction has likely opted to retire early. Workers near the end of their careers comprise the largest share of labor force deserters, the demographic accounting for 50%. As a country, US population bulges at the Baby Boomer generation.

More than likely, this last group isn’t coming back.

“This is, I’m afraid, not a situation that’s going to resolve itself,” Grimes said. “And it’s driven by the demographics.”

Now, the focus turns to how to get young people and those in prime working years back on the job market. They are the missing pieces of economic growth in the state and country, which despite boasting a first-rate unemployment statistic, speaks for itself that it’s not back to normal. 

“I guess it’s good for workers; they’ll be able to demand pay raises,” Grimes said. “But employers are going to have to get creative.”

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A Taste of Labor Shortages

Just walk into the storied and historically premier dining halls of Michigan State University and that much is clear. Though they might not all be majoring in economics, MSU students have gotten a taste for what a labor force shortage means.

Dining halls throughout campus are operating on limited hours and with limited menus, serving on paper plates because there aren’t enough dishwashers.

The shortstaffing is difficult to overstate. The nine dining halls, which usually employ 4,000 people a year, are down to one-tenth of their previous staffing. Of the 400 employees there, some spend 60 to 80 hours on their feet every week, FOX 47 reports.

It’s not for a lack of effort. Michigan State has advertised heavily. The school increased wages, from $10 to up to $15 dollars an hour. In a last-ditch entreaty, it asked faculty and staff to volunteer for shifts. 

The cafeteria crisis is in Code Red, but off-campus, the same goes on. Longer wait times at restaurants and supply chain holdups can also be attributed to a lack of employees in person and on the line across the country. Nationally, 5 million otherwise-working Americans have chosen not to work due to the pandemic and its side effects.

Students are not applying for well-paying, career-targeted internships. They’re not working. And they’re not filling that void with classes, Hanson said.

Despite having more jobs than ever on their employer pipeline website, MSU just isn’t getting bites, though jobseekers have the pick of the litter.

It’s not just an MSU problem either; throughout the Midwest, other schools are facing the same brain-boggling conundrum.

Labor force participation is at a record low for people ages 16 to 24, even though they’re getting hired, with unemployment rates the lowest in the age bracket for decades. Grimes said that young people are missing out, and it could catch up to them further down the road.

“It’s good to have that first work experience when you’re young,” Grimes said. “It’s good to have when you’re older and looking for work, but it sort of lets you learn what working for someone else entails and the requirements to make you a good employee. It’s sad that we have so many young people who aren’t used to working.”

The trillion-dollar question is how to get these people back into the workforce. Until then, Grimes said, restaurants are likely to remain short-staffed and the supply chain is likely to lag.

MSU is trying new forms of advertising. Hanson, a mother of two Gen-Z boys, has tapped into their knowledge to try to appeal to students.

The Career Services Network is even meeting students where they live, with job ads on TikTok, a new video-streaming platform made for the scrolling era. Of course, the school is paying more too.

Beyond closing an employer-employee gap, Grimes said that increasing vaccination rates is the sharpest tool the state has to attract more people into the labor force. Many who have the option of staying home, like younger people and people whose partners bring home a sizable income, are choosing to do so for fear of health.

Parents are also giving up their jobs to provide childcare in a contained environment at cut costs, even at the expense of income. Providing affordable childcare is one policy experts believe could draw prime working age people out of the shadows.

But people shouldn’t hold their breath, Grimes said. As young people and parents re-enter the labor force, more of the Baby Boomer generation will exit for retirement, offsetting the difference.

Upon graduating from college, Wallace, the senior from Fraser, Michigan, will step into the labor force, as her internship turns to a full-time job at Granger. A first-generation college student, she’s passionate about sustainability and applied engineering.

She also missed being with other people, in person at work.

“I really wanted to get back out there,” she said.

Deep down, Hanson has that same lingering thought: Maybe virtual experiences just aren’t the same. Her son, who graduated from Michigan State and now works at Rocket Mortgage in Detroit, came home during the pandemic while working virtually. Now he’s back in person three days a week, and gosh, he missed it.

Other people missed important moments in their lives too, Hanson said. And while employers are desperate to fill positions, many people are trying to fill the void of missed weddings, funerals, parties, vacations, and life experiences before they get back to the grind.

“While employers have gone through a very different year and a half, students have gone through a very different year and a half as well,” Hanson said.

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