Bah Humbug to Happy New Year: 2021 Hiring Trends

It is an understatement that the 2020 holiday season was radically different from any others in recent history—and definitely in the years since the end of the Great Recession. Due to COVID-19, companies are grappling with hiring and retaining talent, particularly for positions across the essential supply chains, in support of the consumer buying frenzy, which is often associated with the season of giving.

New Year
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Despite continued joblessness and economic uncertainty due to the negative impact of the pandemic, U.S. holiday spending in 2020 was relatively on par with previous years, according to the National Retail Federation. The thirst for goods and services—particularly delivered via e-commerce mechanisms—needs to be quenched.

An interesting dichotomy exists today. Millions of people are unemployed, yet there are also millions of unfilled jobs—6.6 million, according to the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) jobs report. Since the start of COVID-19, staffing agency executives have told me repeatedly that their greatest frustration continues to be having hundreds and, in many cases, thousands of job openings they are trying to fill for their clients, but they don’t have enough qualified candidates to fill them.

Many reasons exist for this paradox, including skills gaps that existed before the onset of COVID-19, but this challenge has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Other reasons contributing to the worker shortage include, but are certainly not limited to, adults withdrawing from the workforce to take care of loved ones, particularly to proctor young, school-aged children, the majority of whom are now learning in virtual environments.

For others, it’s staying on the sidelines due to fears of contracting the virus and potentially spreading it to loved ones. Finally, there are tens of thousands of workers who were furloughed but who are staying on the sidelines with the hope that their employers will bring them back, so they don’t want to take another job.

There are also millions of people who desperately want to return to the workforce but don’t know how to go about it. Many believe they lack the skills that are in demand today. Some were part of industries that were hit the hardest, such as travel and hospitality, that might not be back to pre-COVID-19 employment levels until 2022 or beyond, according to McKenzie & Co.

Gift of Transferrable Skills

One source of light and hope in times of darkness for too many unemployed jobseekers is that many have skill sets that could be transferable to different industries or occupations that are hiring now, including some of the new positions created as a result of COVID-19.

These newly created positions include temperature screeners, safety monitors, and contract tracers. And then, there are positions that are part of vitally important supply chains, including e-commerce customer service representatives, fulfillment/warehouse workers, CDL drivers, tech support professionals, and beyond.

In this period of change, volatility, and uncertainty, candidates and employers alike must look “outside the box.” For example, with some training, out-of-work flight attendants and travel agents can be effective e-commerce customer service or help desk representatives. Unemployed hospitality workers can be excellent candidates for fulfillment or retail worker openings. The sectors may be different, but the skills are similar and transferable.

This is where staffing agencies can play a major role in helping jobseekers and clients alike. One important service that staffing companies offer—particularly during this time of COVID-19—is candidate skills assessments.

For those individuals whose jobs have been eliminated at least for the near term due to the pandemic, staffing agencies can help them connect the dots, so to speak, between their existing qualifications/skills and the current needs of employers in today’s market. At the same time, staffing agencies are helping clients open their minds to the potential of filling job vacancies with a wider, more diverse pool of candidates.

’Tis the Season for Creative Hiring Tactics

To attract a wider net of candidates post-holiday season and beyond, employers must be creative in their recruitment tactics—particularly during the pandemic—for jobs that require working at a physical jobsite outside of their homes. Leveraging higher rates of pay helps companies stand out from their competitors.

Additional strategies like offering flexible schedules to help parents attend to their children’s virtual schooling needs but still work, attendance bonuses, productivity contests (e.g., to win gift cards, electronics, online streaming service subscriptions, and more), and employee referral compensation programs can be talent acquisition game-changers today and in the year ahead.

Most importantly, companies recruiting for jobs that cannot be performed remotely must do everything possible to communicate to candidates and employees that their work environments are prepared and safe during COVID-19, especially as more workplaces open up as vaccines become available in the year ahead.

Employers, including staffing agencies, are also increasing their focus on training, upskilling, and reskilling their current employees and candidates to grow their knowledge base and improve their marketability for jobs that are hiring now.

This training can be offered at no cost and is geared to the most in-demand skill sets of their clients to help ensure they have a stream of qualified talent to fill job openings. Many of these programs have gone into higher gear since the onset of the pandemic to help displaced workers transition into new roles and career paths and have brighter professional futures.

2021: Naughty or Nice?

So what does the future hold for hiring trends in 2021? There are so many variables at play—particularly regarding widespread availability and acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine—that it is very difficult to predict with any certainty.

However, we do know that industries associated with e-commerce and distribution have been steadily busy throughout the holidays and will continue to need great quantities of employees—temporary or permanent—after the winter season due to growing consumer appetite for online shopping.

The good news is that an increase in conversions from seasonal/temporary to permanent positions is anticipated in early 2021, as organizations will continue to grapple with the challenge of finding and retaining employees to meet operational demands, particularly in the light industrial sector. Likewise, we expect those increased 2020 compensation packages to remain in place in the weeks and months ahead as an important tool to help companies recruit and retain workers for in-demand positions.

Some of the industries and occupations with anticipated high talent acquisition demands in 2021 include IT—for instance, cybersecurity, which will be a growth industry for the foreseeable future, as well as healthcare-related occupations and positions that support online education,  positions, and online education roles, to name a few.

And hopefully with a vaccine, the industries that took the greatest hit during the pandemic—travel, hospitality, and events/entertainment—will experience a resurgence with associated large-scale hiring again but likely not until mid or late 2021 at the earliest.  

To be clear, while we are very optimistic about continued economic growth, we don’t expect the extraordinarily low U.S. unemployment rate before the onset of COVID-19 (3.5%, according to the BLS) to return anytime soon. A long road to recovery, with many twists and turns, still remains before the impact of COVID-19 on society, the economy, and the labor market is lessened.

2020 was, indeed, a year for the record books (and one that we were anxious to close), but right now, we believe that 2021 will be less naughty and much nicer for jobseekers, employers, and the U.S. economy overall.

Richard Wahlquist, is the president and chief executive officer of American Staffing Association. Wahlquist is the association’s primary spokesman and is responsible for the overall direction and performance of the association. Before joining ASA in 1989 as vice president, administration and government affairs, he led and coordinated government affairs activities on behalf of the staffing industry in all 50 states; Washington, DC; Puerto Rico; and Canada.

Wahlquist speaks regularly before business groups on employment issues and trends and has been a featured lecturer in Europe, South America, South Africa, and Japan. He was recognized by Human Resources Outsourcing Today magazine as one of the “100 Superstars of HR Outsourcing” and by Recruiter magazine as one of the 100 most influential individuals in the staffing and recruiting industry. Wahlquist also serves on the board of directors for the World Employment Confederation and Jobs for America’s Graduates.

Worker safety and welfare must be a top focus of organizations during this era of COVID-19 and beyond. The American Staffing Association offers a COVID-19 microsite for all employers—not just staffing agencies—with workplace protocols and other resources for companies to reference to ensure their employees can return back to worksites safely.