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Disengaged Workers: A Spotlight

Economic data experts are unnerved that despite low national unemployment rates and a remarkable increase in job openings, large numbers of the working population remain “disengaged”. A disengaged workforce is characterized as working-age community members that are unemployed and currently not looking for work. Understanding and addressing the reasons why this demographic population remains out of the workforce could direct community stakeholders to a future action plan. 

Studies that focus on causes of the low labor force have recently been published that may inform our region’s employers, educators and community members invested in developing and enhancing workforce livability. An analysis of the labor shortage crisis in “The Demographic Drought: Bridging the Gap in our Labor Force,” defines the workforce issue as the decline in qualified talent in the labor market. The article reports on the total number of working age people and the labor force participation rate (working-age people that are currently working or actively looking for work).  The report asserts that the working-age population will continue to increase, but at a historically low rate, which will not outpace the retiring generation.  In short, with birth rates and immigration rates declining, the numbers of working age or “entry-level” workers are not projected to replace the retiring-age workforce, thus “…a growing number of companies [will be] depending on a shrinking number of workers” (Lightcast). 

As reported in Bloomberg in January 2023 and in the Lightcast report, strategies to engage working-age populations include offering better benefits. In terms of offering improved benefits, these studies emphasize improved child care options or even cash subsidies because “child care expenses can undercut the economic benefits of returning to work, especially for lower-wage workers.”   In October 2022, the Centers of Excellence in conjunction with Valley Vision published a report on the early childhood education workforce in the Sacramento region including recommendations to address the deepening workforce shortage.  Local governments and businesses may need to work together to craft creative solutions for bringing workers back, including addressing the childcare gap.

Another strategy that yields fruit in both employee attraction and retention is ensuring career pathways within business and industries to provide workers both opportunities to advance and build additional skills.  Workers won’t advance if they don’t have the skills to do the more complex work that will increasingly be in demand in the future of work.  Employers have an important job, to inform programs that can prepare current and disengaged workers with the skills needed for the careers to come. Valley Vision works in this area, serving as the region’s intermediary, bringing together employers and industry leaders to inform education and workforce stakeholders on the current and changing demands of work.  

To create a vibrant and prosperous economy, our region must have a talented workforce – educated, trained, and ready. Long gone are the days when it was enough to put up a help wanted sign to fill a vacancy.  Collaborative efforts and solutions are the necessary components to bridging the gap between the disengaged labor market and the talent needs of our region’s employers.

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