Five takeaways for work after COVID-19
Supported by a generous grant from the ECMC Foundation, Colorado Center on Law and Policy set out to track how the experiences of unemployed Coloradans have changed since February 2020. By analyzing economic and labor force data, as well as conducting interviews with state agencies, non-profit organizations, and unemployed Coloradans, we discovered intriguing patterns of who and where the effects of the pandemic hit hardest, as well as how these effects evolved over time.
Using these discoveries as our guide, our report Ready for work after COVID-19 identifies opportunities to modernize the state’s workforce development systems, particularly as they interact with one another and with employers, to better meet the post-COVID-19 needs of unemployed Coloradans.
Here are five key takeaways you need to know:
Takeaway 1: The pandemic affected employment unequally
How an individual weathered the pandemic varied tremendously based on occupation, industry, educational attainment, flexibility of the job in working from home, and geographic location within the state. For example, we found that:
- Rates of unemployment in April 2020 were highest among non-white Coloradans, Coloradans living in urban and tourism-dependent parts of the state (such as the Rural Resort region), and Coloradans who had previously worked in the accommodation and food services sector.
- Coloradans with lower levels of educational attainment tended to experience higher rates of unemployment, while many Coloradans with a bachelor’s degree or more or relevant digital skills were able to work remotely from home.
- Waiters and waitresses, retail salespersons, fast food and counter workers, and restaurant cooks were among the occupations that saw the greatest loss of jobs during the early months of the pandemic.
Based on this, it should come as no surprise that low-wage jobs saw the greatest decline in employment. As of June 2021, employment among those with annual wages below $27,000 still lagged 23.4 percent below January 2020 employment. Employment for other wages levels had by then recovered to pre-pandemic levels (or, in the case of high-wage employment, exceeded them.)
Takeaway 2: Digital access—and the ability to use it effectively—is now more important than ever
During the peak of the pandemic, many of the services unemployed Coloradans depend upon—including applying for unemployment insurance benefits–became only accessible online.
Across our state, 14.3% of Coloradans did not have access to broadband internet in their homes in 2019. 11.9% did not have access to a computer. Pre-pandemic, a household might have been able to get by without access to the internet. However, operational changes due to COVID-19—among government agencies, nonprofits, educational institutions, and private businesses—placed these Coloradans at distinct new disadvantages as operations and services moved online.
In many interviews, stakeholders noted that trends toward remote work, services and learning are unlikely to reverse in the future. This new normal highlights Colorado’s pressing need to not only expand access to computers and broadband internet to all Coloradans, but also to equip our workforce with the skills and comfort needed to work in digital environments.
Takeaway 3: Workers need help in transitioning to other industries or occupations
From the end of the Great Recession until the start of the pandemic, most job growth seen in Colorado had been in low-wage service sector jobs. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on these jobs, however, has led pundits to frame the crisis as an “opportunity” for low-wage workers to transition to other, higher-paying industries or occupations.
However, our research shows that many Coloradans cannot do so without assistance.
For workers interested in transitioning to new jobs, knowing where to begin can itself be a challenge. Many opportunities require additional education, but workers may not have the luxury to attend. Workers looking to change occupations need options to “earn while they learn,” to earn income while attending classes or courses of training.
Many workers require preliminary preparation for the retraining opportunities themselves. Some need options beyond traditional classroom experiences. We encourage future workforce development initiatives to take these needs into account.
Takeaway 4: Unemployed workers do not just need jobs—they need “good” jobs
Based on those limitations, our report concludes that re-skilling, up-skilling, and next-skilling is simply out of reach for many Coloradans. Therefore, our research suggests that increased pressure should be placed on employers, as well as consumers, to ensure that jobs across all sectors are “good” jobs.
But what do we mean by “good” jobs?
- Wages that allow workers to support themselves and their families
- Benefits, including health care and paid sick leave
- Transparent and well-defined opportunities for growth and promotion
- Flexible and predictable scheduling
- Safe working environments
Stakeholders indicated that their clients and participants seek jobs with these qualities, and that many are willing to stay out of the workforce as they look for the types of jobs that better balance personal and professional responsibilities, while meeting their financial needs.
As an example, several organizations and agencies reported that jobs offering reasonable options for childcare and transportation costs are vastly preferable to those without. Though the financial challenges for unemployed workers have risen as pandemic-related unemployment insurance programs have expired, the importance of practical working arrangements has also increased.
Takeaway 5: COVID-19 accelerated the structural transformations already underway
Finally, our research shows that COVID-19 has caused many ongoing trends in our economy to accelerate—shifting toward more remote work, automation, and the migration of many services to a digital environment.
Combining employment projections with different COVID-19 scenarios developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the sectors and occupations estimated to see the greatest increases over the next ten years are also those that, on average, require greater levels of educational attainment, credentialing, or greater skills—such as knowledge of computer programing languages, or paraprofessional dental and medical skills.
For example, pre-pandemic, employment in computer and mathematical occupations was already projected to experience the fastest rate of growth over the next ten years, growing by over 20 percent. This rate only accelerates under moderate and severe COVID-19 scenarios.
On the other hand, the growth of jobs in food preparation and serving are expected to slow over the next decade. These sectors will slow or even see a net loss of jobs if COVID-19 trends continue unabated. Overall, the data suggests that the longer the pandemic continues, the fewer low-wage service opportunities we should expect to see in the future.
Findings related to these key takeaways (and more!) may be found in the full version of our report. Download the report here.