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Not so fast. Many prospective employees aren’t ready to upend their lives a second time.

The COVID-19 vaccine boom is in full swing. States and cities around the country are starting to announce the end of pandemic restrictions. The upcoming summer season also means more time spent outside, which can impact the transmission rate of the virus.  However, despite what feels like a clear path out of the pandemic, many people, whose lives and working situations have changed dramatically over the past fifteen months aren’t ready to go back to their pre-pandemic lives.

While many industries, like healthcare and logistics have thrived during the pandemic, others are just beginning to open again. Companies are struggling to fill retail, hospitality, and customer-facing positions.  The promise of increased wages, time off, or other incentives don’t seem to be moving the needle on filling jobs quickly. And this wave of unfilled positions impacts beyond your local restaurant server.  Restaurants given the green light to open at full capacity are struggling to hire enough staff – making the uncapped capacity restrictions moot as they cannot serve customer demand. And this ripples outward to operations, suppliers, farmers, and even technical talent.

In Q4 of last year, most of the country hunkered down for the winter; bracing for the biggest surge in COVID-19 cases to date. The routine of virtual school, childcare, and family roles were solidified as we waited for a vaccine, better weather, and a drop in infections.  Aggressive job hunters who had been able to take advantage of the unemployment benefits and the stimulus earlier in the year applied vigorously to jobs in a market that hadn’t yet embraced the idea of a post COVID world.

As the vaccination boom continues and restrictions are loosened, businesses are ready to move forward, but many people are not willing or able to do the same. Personal and professional lives were upended a year ago. People scrambled to find solutions. Now, many aren’t eager to go back to their pre-pandemic lives.

High school and college students who do not need to work summer jobs to support their families are opting out. Parents don’t see the value in risking their children’s health, particularly as the vaccine roll out for adolescents is only starting to get underway. But even as fear of contracting the virus starts to take a back seat, the fear of instability and upending their lives again is taking its place.

On a dime, families were asked to upset their lives. Asking them to make these changes quickly (again) creates chaos in their lives again. Change is risky. Do we ask people to change their childcare arrangements without a vaccine timeline for pre-school or elementary students? Without any clear insight about the upcoming school year, is it worth starting a new job now with the prospect of quitting in a few months?  What should families do who have taken in the elderly to avoid placing them in nursing homes?

We have become accustomed to flexibility in our lives – that which was either forced upon us or has become a daily convenience. We’ve adapted to online grocery orders, working from home, running errands at off-peak times, and juggling half days of virtual and in-person schooling. This chaos became the newest version of normal.  Asking people to go back to the old normal won’t work.  

Now, employers are competing to hire and retain talent across the board.  Many companies have been successful with a remote workforce over the past year. However, as they build return-to-office plans, companies will struggle to hire and retain talent that have adopted the remote lifestyle as their new normal.  Flexible hours and working from home have afforded parents the opportunity to spend more time with their families as well as save money and time on commuting.  Unless employers are willing to be openly flexible in their job descriptions, jobs will remain unfilled and competitors will snatch up talent who are not looking to jump back into the in-office culture.

In the current market, candidates hold all of the cards. Companies are going to need to sell more than a job to candidates. They’ll need to entice new employees through benefits, incentives, clear health & safety initiatives, and long-term job stability.  Candidates are in a position to critically evaluate how organizations reacted and performed over the past year; including how they managed the crisis with their own employees.

The floodgate of job opportunities has opened, and the trickle of applicants will become a steady flow as the summer rolls in and vaccinated individuals become the norm rather than the exception.  But for those companies who have critical hiring demands now, they will need to seek out talent more aggressively and ensure they are clear about what additional perks they are offering and their intentions for remote work and return-to-office plans.

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