OPINION: 2 Things You Need To Know About The ‘Tight Labor Market’

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Joanne Butler Contributor
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I recently encountered two important factors about the so-called “tight labor market.” First, it’s tighter where the jobs are (yes, this is obvious, but it needs to be said). Second, if employers are flexible, they’ll fill those jobs.

To put it another way, if firms build the right human resources structure, they (job seekers) will come. Plus, a tighter labor market means more volunteer opportunities for ex-offenders and others.

When I’m in a de-junking mood, I take my stuff to a hospital-related thrift store. But this month, something was different. It was taking longer to meet with a volunteer, and there was a whiff of panic from behind the reception desk wall.

The reason: a group of retirees who were regular volunteers had left to take paying jobs.

As an economist, I think this is terrific. It’s a challenge for the thrift store (more about that later), but having people return to the workforce is very good news.

For these newly-employed seniors, their work at the thrift store was useful for their job applications. Thrift store work involves organizing clothing and household goods, monitoring inventory, assisting customers, working the cash register and so on The store uses a bar-code inventory system that automatically reduces the price of a product after a couple of weeks.

It’s a hugely popular place. And a volunteer with experience would fit in smoothly in a retail store, or a front-of-house job, such as a receptionist.

The thrift store is located in west suburban Philadelphia. The region is home to office parks crammed with biotech, medical and financial services companies such as Vanguard. They need employees. Department stores are hiring seasonal workers, too.

Clearly, some of these firms have adapted their work practices to accommodate seniors. Incidentally, this population constitutes a legal workforce that can pass an E-Verify immigration status check.

Workplace flexibility: no standing on the sales floor for eight hours (think: knee replacement surgery). Part-time work is fine. Work at a desk is fine (perhaps not for a full eight hours; but part-time is feasible).

None of this happens if the regional economy is weak. If the thrift store was located in upper northeastern Pennsylvania, their volunteers would be going nowhere, as there are few jobs in that region.

Thus, a robust economy can push firms to become more flexible about their hiring and work practices — to attract people who have been out of the labor market to return to work. But the key is a robust economy; firms are not going to change their human resources practices due to sheer benevolence.

Who will replace the volunteers? One source (listen up, Jared Kushner) involves people with court-mandated community service requirements. People charged with non-violent crimes, who receive a community service order instead of jail time could collect plenty of hours by volunteering at thrift shops.

Having checked out lots of thrift shops in the western Philadelphia area; I believe one that’s managed well would benefit an ex-offender. (Some shops are like crammed storage lockers with funky smells.)

The store I patronize and described above doesn’t have a funky smell! It is clean, well-organized, etc. — factors that can give an ex-offender some real-world job experience.

Let’s review: a region with a robust economy will cause firms (out of necessity) to be more flexible in their workplace arrangements, thus encouraging people to enter or re-enter the workforce. Organizations in the region that once relied on volunteers (e.g., thrift stores) will need to be more flexible too. This presents an opportunity for ex-offenders with community service orders.

The secret sauce to these good things: a robust economy, not federal programs!

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School at Harvard, was a professional staff member (Republican) at the House Ways and Means Committee, and served in President George W. Bush’s administration. The Ghanaian poet, Kwesi Brew, has described her as ‘vibrant.’

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.