Tanzina Vega: It's The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. COVID-19 has wiped out millions of jobs in the United States. Economists say that many of them may never come back, and the ones that do could look really different. You told us about it.
Speaker 1: My husband and I have educational traveling animal programs and animals for events. It's been totally gone for a year. I'm working at Walmart to keep the 60 plus animals fed and cared for while we wait. I'm not sure what we were waiting for. We can't go forever like this. I may find a real job elsewhere and also live off my husband's Social Security. Before this, I hadn't worked for someone else since the 1980s.
Speaker 2: My job has definitely changed since the onset of COVID-19. I'm a sexual and domestic violence counselor and we made a rapid transition within my agency to telehealth service provision, coincidentally on my first day in this new part-time job.
On a larger scale, with the world essentially shutting down, my ability to find full-time employment shut down along with it. Post-COVID, I hope to return to a world of providing in-person services. However, with severe underlying health conditions that have kept me completely isolated for almost a year, I will continue to be vigilant and cautious for the foreseeable future.
Speaker 3: I was the manager of a medical Marijuana clinic in Oregon for the last almost 10 years. Unfortunately, it looks as if our business is not going to survive. Social Work is my field. I'm hoping to get back into advocacy sometime in the near future, but I just turned 60 in December. So my prospects look kind of grim.
Speaker 4: Yes, I own a head lice treatment company. As soon as schools went virtual, my business came to a screeching halt. I don't like when people get head lice, but I do truly enjoy rescuing families from it. I also have a three part-time employees that I have not been able to bring into work since March of 2020.
Tanzina Vega: The Washington Post's Heather Long has been writing about the jobs that will permanently disappear in our new economy, and what that will mean for workers. Heather, thanks so much for being with us.
Heather Long: Hi, Tanzina.
Tanzina Vega: How many jobs have been eliminated by the pandemic that are just not coming back?
Heather Long: Wow. That's the big question. What we know right now everyone would like a precise figure, but the estimates are that it will be in the millions. Now whether that's 2 million, 3 million, 5 million, that's where there's a lot of debate, but there's basically three big trends that are going on that are driving this change in the workforce.
Number one is, there's almost certainly going to be less business travel going forward. Bill Gates says it could fall by as much as half. The McKinsey Global Institute is out with a new report, they say it could fall 20%. Those are big, big numbers, big changes.
The second one is working from home. A lot of people have been experiencing that during this pandemic. The numbers there look-- let's say 20% to 30% of jobs never returned to the office. If that happens, again, you think about who's needed in these downturns, we need fewer restaurants, fewer limos, these types of things.
The third one that I think often gets overlooked during downturns is we are seeing a rise in automation. Automation usually picks up during downturns. When that happens, that also means we're starting to see jobs like meatpacking facilities are now using more robots, so fewer workers are needed there.
Tanzina Vega: Heather, those jobs I'm always thinking about inequality and the jobs that you mentioned, meatpacking being automated, those are jobs that are often held by people who are making low wages, people who may not be documented. Is what you're describing here really going to affect certain demographics more than others?
Heather Long: Hugely, that's really the heart of this issue. Obviously, people who are out of work right now are overwhelmingly low-wage workers. There's a lot more women, there's a lot more people of color who are out of work right now, immigrants as you mentioned, and a lot of moms.
All of these groups, they don't have a ton of savings. They're not able to just enroll in a community college and easily find switch to a new job, or getting different types of skills, that's why this is something that economists and policymakers really need to be focusing more on.
Yes, jobs will ultimately come back, they almost always do, but they won't be the same jobs and how can we help these people who are least able and have the fewest resources to be able to transition from one industry to another or even from working?
A lot of economists say to me, "Well, okay, the Chipotle might close in Manhattan, but there'll be more that will open in suburban New Jersey or suburban New York," and I say, "Well, that's fine if the worker can get there. Does the metro run there? Does the subway go there? Do they have transportation? The person who would have worked downtown to be able to get to that suburban job?"
Tanzina Vega: This sounds like something that's going to require multiple agencies, multiple city planners to transportation authorities to economists to really grapple with. Given what you just laid out, ultimately, yes, there will be jobs that are coming back, but for right now, is there a plan?
Has the Biden administration figured out that this is going to be an issue, and do they have a plan of sorts to catch the workers who will not be able to get that type of training, or who aren't going to be able to travel an additional 25 miles to a new job?
Heather Long: There could be a lot more planning, let's put it that way. This is $1.9 trillion, the big stimulus package that should pass in a matter of days, hopefully, this week in the House, that bill is really focused on just-- it's a band-aid, plugging the holes we see now. So getting more money out for vaccines, getting another round of those $1400 stimulus checks out to most American families.
Yes, that's going to help people pay their bills, keep food on the table, but there's actually no money in that bill for retraining. There is a little bit for transportation, but that's not going to solve these problems of if somebody doesn't have a car and they used to take the subway to work downtown, what public transportation is available for them to maybe move to a suburban job?
Tanzina Vega: Heather, what about people who are close to retirement, older workers who are looking at this next 5 to 10 years as what they were expecting to be potentially their last in the workforce?
Heather Long: This is the number one issue that I worry about, and I've gone back and forth with some Biden administration folks about it. The research shows and my own reporting shows that you can generally make job transitions up until about age 45, give or take.
Certainly, some people have done it in their 50s or 60s, and that's wonderful, but most people, they get to a point and I think about a man I interviewed in Lordstown, Ohio, who had lost his job at a General Motors plant. He worked for years in one of those great union jobs building cars, and then the factory closed. He was a really smart guy, very knowledgeable, but he was about 50. He said, "I went back to the advanced machinery class."
We're not even talking about coding, we're talking about trying to get these more advanced machinery jobs at a local community college. He said, "I didn't last a week, I had to drop out. The teacher is talking about things like thumb drives, and I didn't even know what a thumb drive was."
He just felt so behind being back in a classroom. That's really what you struggle with, with workers who are over about that 45 age mark, it's a lot harder for them to jump into a different industry.
Tanzina Vega: If people are essentially too old to be feeling that they can be retrained just late in the game, not able to take part in these programs we're looking at a pretty significant level of unemployment, aren't we?
Heather Long: Yes, and it's certainly what we saw after the Great Recession, where people who were over 50 really struggled to get back into the labor force. Even if they did, I think that first woman who was speaking really resonated with me, the woman who had run sounded like some sort of neat animal care facility and now is working at Walmart. That's probably making a good bit less money, and certainly, not that dream job and career that she had going before.
That's what we saw a lot of when we were coming out of the Great Recession, people having to downgrade their dreams if you will, not to mention downgrade their paycheck. That worries me a lot right now too. We talked about how we have about 16 million unemployed people, but we have another almost 7 million people who we know yes, they have a job but they're currently earning a lot less because their hours are cut back or they've had to take a lower-paying job.
Tanzina Vega: Heather, a lot of folks I think buy into the idea that we should all just lift ourselves up by our bootstraps and manage, but these type of large-scale job losses and large-scale unemployment or employment that's lower paid, they do have broader economic consequences. We end up paying in some way shape or form for people who are not contributing to the economy as much as they would want to.
Heather Long: In so many ways, I mean, obviously, when people aren't earning the money they were before, they're not going out and spending as much as they used to spend, and that has effects on the economy, particularly in certain communities, and how fast then some communities will be able to recover.
It's also-- and we've learned this in the past 20 years, we talked about those deaths of despair that when people do not feel that they have the fulfillment, and the goal that they're able to work towards, and a job that makes them feel pretty good the suicides rise, that alcoholism and drug abuse rise.
There's these types of effects that really drag down families and communities and lives in such a sad way. We don't want to see a repeat of that kind of scarring that we saw after the Great Recession.
Tanzina Vega: Lots was made and continues to be made about people that we call essential workers in this pandemic. I'm thinking more about the health care professionals, of course, doctors and nurses, but there are also people who clean facilities, people who deliver our food, people who work in grocery stores, taxi drivers, these are all relatively low wage jobs, jobs that often don't require a college degree or if they do, it's still pretty low-wage work.
There are people who don't want a college degree, who don't need a college degree, and yet are those folks going to be affected by this as well, if we look at increasing automation? Are the people who we held up as essential workers and heroes also looking at potential to lose their jobs in the future?
Heather Long: Definitely, and you could see in some of the examples you played earlier, where one woman was speaking about telehealth picking up and so fewer people are going to hospitals or going to physical doctors' offices. What does that mean? That means fewer need for things like those nurse's aide jobs, those entry-level jobs that gets you on that first rung of the healthcare ladder, and with a hope that you can move up later.
Those are the first jobs that begin to go in a situation like this. I was particularly struck in the article as I was calling around, where are people going for retraining. Somebody told me about the program in Michigan, the retraining for frontliners, they did a program that they offered last year for anybody who is "on the front lines", who did not have a college degree, just the population you're saying and they would give them free money for about two years to either earn some certificate or to earn an associate's degree or finish an associate's degree in a community college.
Tanzina, over 100,000 people applied by December last year, that tells you there is demand and I keep telling people are not stupid. They see these changes. They don't need to wait for a Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell to be out there saying we're recovering but to a different economy. They see it with their own eyes. Who's having a job right now, where's the stability, they can see those trends from where they sit.
Tanzina Vega: More programs, Heather, like the one in Michigan, you think?
Heather Long: I would certainly like to see that. I have long been a big fan of free community college. It's very low cost. It's such a good entry point, and so many community colleges and programs like that really have connections to the local businesses, they can see these shifts coming.
A lot of places-- I spent a lot of time in Apple HR. I was in West Virginia just before the pandemic hit, and I visited an amazing training center for advanced machinery. Those are the manufacturing jobs of the future, but it does require a little bit of classroom training.
Tanzina Vega: Well, let's hope that federal and local and state officials are really honing in on this because this is a serious issue for so many Americans and we can only hope that we have the support that we need to move forward.
Heather Long is an economics correspondent for The Washington Post. Heather, thanks so much as always.
Heather Long: Thank you.
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