The nation’s economic recovery from the pandemic will hinge to some extent on how quickly people can change jobs: whether show managers can become electricians, whether taxi drivers can become plumbers, how many cooks can manage software for a bank.
The labor market has recovered 12 million of the 22 million jobs lost from February to April. But many positions may not return any time soon, even when a vaccine is deployed.
This is likely to prove especially problematic for millions of low-paid workers in service industries like retailing, hospitality, building maintenance and transportation, which may be permanently impaired. What will janitors do if fewer people work in offices? What will waiters do if the urban restaurant ecosystem never recovers its density?
The prognosis is bleak. Marcela Escobari, an economist at the Brookings Institution, warns that even if the economy adds jobs as the coronavirus risk fades, “the rebound won’t help the people that have been hurt the most.”
Looking back over 16 years of data, Ms. Escobari finds that workers in the occupations most heavily hit since the spring will have a difficult time reinventing themselves. Taxi drivers, dancers and front-desk clerks have poor track records moving to jobs as, say, registered nurses, pipe layers or instrumentation technicians.
The virus is abruptly taking out a swath of jobs that were thought to be comparatively resilient, in services that require personal contact with customers. And the jolt has landed on workers with little or no education beyond high school, toiling in the low-wage service economy.
“The damage to the economy and particularly to workers will probably be longer lasting than we think it is going to be,” said Peter Beard, senior vice president for regional work force development at the Greater Houston Partnership.
What’s more, he said, the effects of the pandemic will intensify underlying dynamics that were already transforming the workplace. Automation, for one, will most likely accelerate as employers seek to protect their businesses from future pandemics.
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