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From Home Furnishing Business

Stat Speak: Companies Look to Technology to Help Solve Nationwide Worker Shortage

Imagine a customer walks into a furniture store, takes out her cell phone, opens the store app, and strolls leisurely down the aisle. She stops in front of an interesting sofa and hits “Info” on her phone. The app then gives her the kind of information and “sales pitch” that would normally be provided by a trained salesperson. She also has the option of selecting “Ask a salesperson to join me” at any time.

The brick and mortar home furnishings industry is not immune to the worker shortage crisis facing American businesses. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics supports the growing need facing companies to attract and retain employees, while adapting their training methods and introducing technology that fills the gap of a smaller workforce.

Successful companies are also looking at ways for technology to enhance the customer experience. Conversational “Live Chat” options are now widespread for online retailers. But technology is also creeping on to the sales floor. For example, home improvement retailers Lowe’s and Home Depot already have apps that can direct you within their stores to the exact location of a product.  In addition, for the past year and a half Lowe’s has tested its second generation in-store robot fleet in the San Francisco area to assist customers as they walk in the door.  The robots answer questions, are bilingual, and can physically guide a customer to a specific product. Lowe’s claims the robots are not meant to replace the human worker, but rather assist with the more mundane sales information functions leaving more complex questions to the sales personnel.

Labor shortages throughout the U.S. are fast becoming a real issue across all major industries. From farms to factories, employers are having a hard time finding both unskilled and skilled workers. In healthcare, hospitality, and retail industries, companies are struggling to find qualified and available employees.

According to the latest data, the U.S. has 6.3 million job openings and 6.7 million unemployed workers (Table A). In many cases, the skill sets required for the job and/or the wages required by the worker for these open positions do not match with the available unemployed labor force pool in the required geographic area.

Job Openings by Industry

Accommodation (hospitality) and food services is the hardest hit industry with 5.5 percent job vacancy – increasing from 4.6 percent last year (Table B). According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism accounts for over 14 million jobs in the United States and a continued rise in job openings could impede economic growth for the hospitality sector.

Healthcare and social assistance had 1.03 million jobs open in January 2018, the most of any sector, and was among the highest with an open job rate of five percent. Job openings among transportation, warehousing, and utilities jumped 63.1 percent over a year – from 187,000 to 305,000. Retail trade, which includes all furniture and home furnishing stores, had 711,000 jobs opens and a job opening rate of 4.3 percent– up 28.6 percent from the same period last year.

Table C shows the five industries with the lowest rate of job openings. Government jobs – Federal, State, and Local – had the lowest rate of job openings at 2.1 percent. With rates under 4 percent (3.5 percent and 3.1 percent), job vacancies among Construction and Educational Services still rose 57.2 percent and 42.9 percent respectively from 2017 to 2018.

With 711,000 job openings in January, Retail Trade is struggling to hire and keep sales people. This accounts for 11.3 percent of total job openings – up from 10.2 percent last year. Both Healthcare and Social Assistance and Professional and Business Services make up 34 percent of all job openings – a total of 2.1 million jobs. 12.7 percent of job openings in 2018 (Jan) belong to the Hospitality industry (Accommodation and Food Services) as shown in Table D.

Job Openings by Region

While the South leads the way in total job openings (2.2 million), openings in the Midwest soared in one year to a rate of 4.6 percent – up from 3.7 percent (Table E). As many farms struggle to find workers, job openings in the West jumped 26 percent to 1.5 million jobs from 2017 to 2018 and finished January with a rate of 4.3 percent, while the Northeast has both the lowest rate (3.6 percent) and number of vacancies (1 million).

Civilian Labor Force

The Civilian Labor Force includes persons employed and those unemployed, but actively looking for work. Down 3.2 percentage points from 2006, the current work force (February 2018) makes up 63 percent of the total civilian population over the age of 16 (Table F). Roughly 37 percent of the population over 16 is not considered part of the labor force. This segment – Not in the Labor Force – consists of people who are in school and do not work, those who have grown disillusioned searching for work and not actively looking, and those who choose not to work for various reasons.

As shown in Table G, the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.1 percent in February of this year – the lowest since 2000. Unfortunately, this has not translated into big gains for the employed population. At 63.0 percent, the percent of the population employed continues to stay well below pre-recession levels, while people not in the labor force climbs further, growing 3.2 percentage points from 2006 to 2018 (February).

The labor force historically includes teenagers, ages 16 to 19, as they make up a large portion of the part-time labor market. This year, ages 16 to 19 account for 6.5 percent of the total civilian population over the age of 16, but only 3.7 percent of the workforce. In addition to an unemployment rate of 14.4 percent among teens, many are opting out of summer jobs and represent 11.3 percent of the total persons “not in the labor force.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teenagers opting out of summer work is not due to laziness, but rather education taking its place. In addition to many school districts either lengthening the school day or academic year, many students are taking summer classes to “get ahead “ – cutting into time for a job.

Not in the Labor Force

Of the 37 percent of the civilian population over age 16 that are not in the labor force, only 5.4 percent actually want a job, but are just not actively looking for one (Table I). This figure represents 5.2 million Americans, down from 6.6 million in 2012, that want a job, but are not in the workforce.

The number of men not in the labor force as a percent of the total labor force has slowly increased over the last decade and beyond. In 2006, only 37.9 percent of those not in the labor force were men. Since then, the number has grown yearly – up to 40.3 percent in February (2018). Conversely, the number of Women as a percent of those not in the labor force is declining. They represent 59.7 percent of those not in the labor force, down from 62.1 percent in 2006. Table J depicts how the percent of the civilian population not in the labor force by sex has shifted over time.

Adding to the worker shortage is that the desire for a job is falling as those not in the labor force keeps climbing. Table K shows the percent of people not in the labor force but still would like a job fell 6.6 percent last year, with women growing slightly more interested in working than men.

With many companies having a difficult time finding qualified employees, real concern is growing over worker shortage. Many older workers are retiring or choosing not to work and there are less young, not as qualified, workers to replace them. As a remedy, some industries are turning to robots, automation, and artificial intelligence to adapt to labor shortages. Through education, training, and pairing human skills with technology, companies may find ways to cope with a smaller labor force.

 







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