It has been called the Great Resignation. The Big Quit. The Great Reshuffle.
Whatever the name, it's a stunning transformation in the American workforce as workers quit in unprecedented numbers — some retiring, some retreating until the pandemic is over, some forging a new path.
In that last category is Elizabeth Uhlrich of Littleton. She spent more than 20 years going to the office performing auditing work for large companies like Ernst & Young, CH2M Hill (now Jacobs Engineering Group Inc.) and, most recently, UCHealth. Though Uhlrich had worked from home occasionally, it wasn’t until the COVID-19 outbreak shut her company’s offices in 2020 that she did it full time.
And she loved it.
“I liked the autonomy and found I was more productive,” Uhlrich said. “I didn’t know I could work from home as effectively as I did, or that I would like it as much as I did. … When my employer said we were going back to the office, I had a very strong reaction. I didn’t want to go.”
So she didn't. Instead, she decided to start her own CPA business. She had watched her boyfriend, a small business owner, struggle with finding a good accountant for years and knew she could help others like him.
Uhlrich got all her licenses in place from the Colorado Board of Accountancy, launched a website and started her own LLC. She started networking as much as pandemic shutdowns would allow and slowly began picking up referrals.
“I never owned a business before, so I’m learning," she said. "I had to figure out all this IT stuff, software, budgeting time. Lots of learning — but it’s all good learning. I’m building for myself.”
She acknowledges she would not be on this path if it weren't for the pandemic upending her entire world.
“It was the right choice. I love it,” she said. “I’ve been in the corporate environment all this time and there’s an entrepreneurial world out here I didn’t even know existed.”
Uhlrich is part of a record wave of new business owners in Colorado this year.
While the state’s new business filings dropped slightly in quarter three, that was down from historic highs in quarters one and two, according to the Quarterly Business and Economic Indicators for Q3, prepared by the Leeds Business Research Division at CU Boulder in conjunction with the Secretary of State’s Office.
“Some of that may have been really enhanced by some of the fiscal stimulus that was out there encouraging new businesses to form at the state and national level,” said Richard L. Wobbekind, associate dean for business and government relations, senior economist and faculty director of the Business Research Division. “The third quarter always has a seasonal effect, a downturn that’s related to seasonality.”
A total of 39,252 new entities were filed in the second quarter, up 25.7%% year-over-year, and 157,300 in the 12 months ending in that quarter, according to the report.
“The 12-month total posted the largest absolute and percentage gains year-over-year, reaching a new record level,” the report says of new business filings, most of which were LLCs.
Fleeing their jobs
Uhlrich is among a record number of Colorado residents who have left their jobs this year. Nearly 120,000 in the state quit their jobs in September; that's up from around 90,000 in July and August and nearly double the 67,000 of Coloradans who quit their jobs in September 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, a record 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September; that's about 3% of the country's workforce.
There are several factors in play, said Tatiana Bailey, director of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Economic Forum. Some older workers are retiring rather than take the chance of getting the COVID-19 virus; others have started their own businessesor switched to contract or "gig" work, and some couples have decided they can get by on one income, at least for now.
"I believe we have a lot of people on the sidelines, and it isn't all retirees, lazy people or those who are having difficulty finding child care. It is all of the above. Some are thinking they can postpone going back to work, believing they can find a job in January," Bailey said. "Income inequality is also an issue, especially for millennials. They don't want to work for $12-$15 an hour. They want to have a living wage with benefits and retirement accounts."
Indeed, the pandemic seems to have given many people a new perspective on life, work and the balance between them.
For some, it's time to leave the workforce entirely.
Colorado Department of Labor and Employment senior economist Ryan Gedney said it’s too early to look at hard numbers from 2021 — that won’t happen until mid 2022 — but there are some numbers available telling the story of older folks choosing to retire.
“Why labor force participation may not be returning could be a very simple approach: The older groups who may decide at that point life’s too short, and go enjoy retirement,” Gedney said. “Unlike the Great Recession, retirement funds are doing pretty well. The market has rebounded well, and housing prices have appreciated greatly here. Those are two possible examples.”
The age 65+ workers group continues to dwindle, he said. In 2019, that level stood at 24.4%, said Gedney. it has dropped to 20.8% over the past 12 months.
Others simply don't want the jobs they had pre-pandemic.
"We are hearing from people that they want a quality job with a flexible schedule, professional development and a healthy corporate culture," said Traci Marques, executive director and CEO of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center in Colorado Springs. "The quality of the job is the No. 1 priority," Marques said.
Ben Gallegos-Pardo, 35, had a good job at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs and his career seemed to be on the fast track — he was a finalist this year for four high-level posts in large educational institutions that would have quadrupled his salary. But at the end of each selection process, the result was the same — he finished second.
“It was a crushing blow. I had worked 14 years in education, working my way up to middle management and got my master’s (degree in public administration)," he said.
So he decided to take control of his own destiny. He left the college in August to become managing partner and executive chef at Epiphany, a new downtown Colorado Springs restaurant and entertainment venue. He previously had owned another downtown eatery, Café Corto, for four years before closing it in 2014, and he missed the creativity that job had offered.
“I have to have an outlet for my energy and creativity. I had that in college, but once I was in administration, I had no outlet for it,” Gallegos-Pardo said. “To take a leap of faith like this, you are never fully ready, but at some point you have to do it. I don’t want to be in my 50s or 60s and think that I should have done this earlier. When the door opens, you have to go through it.”
The Denver and state economies were slammed early on in the pandemic as stay-at-home orders and other restrictions triggered widespread job losses.
The recovery from those losses is ongoing. Colorado's unemployment rate fell to 5.4% in October, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment; that was the fourth consecutive monthly drop and was down from 6.9% in October 2020. That rate, however was just 2.5% in October 2019.
The state agency also reported that the Colorado Springs area has recovered the jobs it lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming the state's first metro to reach that milestone. Colorado Springs payrolls in October totaled 305,500, or 900 more people than held such jobs in February 2020. Denver and the state as a whole, meanwhile, are not far from recovering those lost jobs as well, the department said.
But that's just one measurement of the job market. It doesn't factor in, for example, a continually growing population, which adds to the potential labor force, or changes in the number of people wanting to work. The ratio of working people to the population 16 and older in October in the state was 64.5%, down 2.5 percentage points from the peak level in late 2019.
While some expected a flood of people to return to the workforce following the expiration of extended jobless benefits at the end of summer, that doesn't appear to have happened; in one report, economists Peter McCrory and Daniel Silver of J.P. Morgan found “zero correlation” between job growth and state decisions to drop the expanded federal unemployment aid. That was as other factors, such as women who dropped out of the job market to care for children due to a lack of child care, remained in play, economists said.
And, of course, the jobs "recovered" doesn't mean everyone returned to their old jobs or that all of those jobs even exist anymore. Thus the name the Great Reshuffle — and the reason so many employees are desperate for workers even as the economic recovery moves forward.
Employers both in Colorado and nationwide have posted record number of job openings in recent months — 228,000 in July in Colorado and 11.1 million nationwide in the same month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But employers have only been able to fill about two-thirds of those openings in Colorado and just 61% nationwide. That is down sharply from the 87% of openings filled in Colorado in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result of staff shortages, some employers are reducing operating hours, closing locations or even shutting down entirely. Dirk Draper, CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, said many of the group's members say they are rebuilding their staffs after waves of resignations, especially among employees in midcareer positions who are using a tight labor market to move to higher-paying jobs with more responsibilities.
"We are seeing two years of normal turnover compressed into about six months. Early on in the pandemic, people were not moving on to new jobs, but now the dam has broken," Draper said. "People are evaluating the conditions under which they are willing to work under and their work-life balance. What we are seeing (with the wave of resignations) is a reaction to that. We are also seeing a lasting change of (more people) working remotely, especially in the technology and aerospace industries."
Jim Johnson, who heads GE Johnson of Colorado Springs, one of the Rocky Mountain region’s largest general contractors, said the company has lost 15 to 20 employees from its administrative offices since the beginning of the pandemic.
GE Johnson continues to collect data from departing employees to better understand their thinking, he said. But, in general, many of the employees wanted a lifestyle change and their careers moved down the pecking order of what was important in their lives.
One employee sought to be closer to family, Johnson said. Another employee moved to Texas. Another didn’t care for the Denver area, where GE Johnson also has an office. Another moved to Cody, Wyo., to work remotely. And still another retired and was determined to enjoy life after watching their retired father suffer through COVID.
“The conversations we’ve had with some people that have left our industry, it’s just, ‘hey this is no longer a priority to me,’” Johnson said.
Some sectors hit hard
The struggle to find workers is felt across many sectors. School districts across Colorado are wrestling with severe substitute teacher shortages. Nearly 1 in 5 health care workers have quit their jobs since the onset of the pandemic, many citing burnout or insufficient pay, according to Morning Consult, a survey research company. A survey released in October by Axonify, a computer software company that provides training for frontline workers, found nearly 50% of frontline workers in industries including retail, grocery, professional sales and more are preparing to leave their current jobs, with burnout as the top reason.
The restaurant industry, which had to cope with dining room shutdowns and capacity limits during the pandemic, has been hit particularly hard by the Great Resignation. The quit rate for hospitality workers (accommodation and food services) hit 6.8% in August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; that's more than double the overall average quit rate of 2.9%.
For Eric Brenner, managing owner of Red Gravy, an Italian restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs, the pandemic has caused him to toss out “the rule book” and embrace new ways.
“Everyone is taught in this industry, that there's a certain operating procedure,” Brenner said. “I think, in a very positive way, everybody kind of had a blank slate.”
Brenner managed to avoid layoffs during some of the worst months of the pandemic. But he lost some staff anyway as they decided to pivot their careers away from the service industry.
“So we had a lot of people leave,” Brenner said. “We had one became a banker, one went into real estate, one went into med school, one came back a vet tech.”
When some of the busiest months of the year rolled around this summer, he was short on wait staff, and bartenders as well as cooks and dishwashers, Brenner said.
Hiring became difficult as the pool of applicants dried up during those months. That struggle meant Brenner needed to increase wages to stay competitive with other industries.
Everyone in the restaurant now makes at least $15 an hour, he said.
The pandemic also “crystallized” Brenner’s priority to put his workers first.
“There's a lot of places say they put their employees first, but they generally, if they're being honest, they put profit first,” Brenner said. “And then they put the guests first and then everything else. Then they have vendors, and they have their landlords and then the employee is usually the last person.”
Even as employers hunger for workers, there are still plenty of people in need of jobs. As of October, 170,000 statewide were unemployed and looking for work, the state Department of Labor and Employment reports.
That contradiction is due at least in part to "the skills gap," said Bailey, of the UCCS Economic Forum. "What businesses want and what they (unemployed persons) are qualified to do are two different things. A lot of kids coming out of school are working at Starbucks because they don't have the training to be nurses or engineers, truck drivers or automotive technicians. Some of those jobs don't require a college degree."
Staff shortages are not just a problem for the businesses themselves; from longer waits at your favorite fast-food restaurant to prices being hiked to compensate for increased ways, consumers — and the economy as a whole — feel the impact.
American Furniture Warehouse, based in suburban Denver and one of the state’s largest furniture retailers, has several hundred drivers and its own fleet of more than 800 tractors and trailers and 250 delivery trucks, said Nolan Morrison, who heads real estate development for the company. The combination of those vehicles pick up furniture from distributors, haul it to company warehouses and deliver it to customers.
The size of its fleet and staff make American Furniture Warehouse possibly one of the state’s largest privately held trucking companies, Morrison said.
But at any given time of late, American Furniture Warehouse might be 30 to 40 drivers short, which has been the retailer’s biggest labor struggle, he said.
Without those drivers, deliveries that traditionally have taken two days might take five to seven days, though the company has done better of late getting purchases to customers faster, Morrison said.
“It does affect business,” he said. “It affects our consumers. Our goal is to be able to get the consumer their product in the fastest time that we can possibly do that. Without that labor, that does start to affect our ability to take care of the customers, which is our No. 1 focus.”
American Furniture Warehouse has experienced the driver shortage over the last three to four years, but it’s gotten worse over the last 1 to 1 ½ years, Morrison said.
He’s not sure why the company hasn’t found the drivers it needs. Drivers are paid on commission and can earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year and even more, he said.
The company has boosted commissions over the last few years, enhanced its driver training and operates newer and nicer vehicles, Morrison said.
But picking up and delivering furniture is a physically demanding job, he acknowledged. The trucking industry and its drivers also are heavily regulated when it comes to how long someone works, while some potential employees might not want to be on the road and away from home, he said.
“There’s other jobs out there, so someone has to kind of choose to do that,” Morrison said.
The retailer also has struggled to find employees in some skilled positions — mechanics to maintain its fleet of vehicles, along with furniture upholstery and wood repair.
“Even though we do teach that, that’s another one where we struggle finding people that want to do that,” Morrison said.
Gazette reporters Rich Laden and Jessica Snouwaert contributed to this report, as well as the Associated Press.