HARTFORD, Conn. — Valentina Diaz lost her job in 2020 when the woman for whom she was babysitting full time lost her job.
Diaz is one of the 114 million Americans who lost their jobs during the first year of the pandemic, and generous government benefits prompted many of them to stay home.
But Diaz went straight to an employment agency and got a new job right away.
"I really like to keep myself busy," she says. "And I like to feel productive." That was 2020.
In 2021, 47.4 million Americans quit their jobs, a record number, dubbed "the great quit."
The phenomenon has entire industries short-staffed and begging for workers.
"It's definitely different from the 2014-2018 times," says Jason Russell, who runs the recruiting firm that placed Valentina.
He says his business has done a 180 since the pandemic hit.
"Before employees would be knocking down our door, 'find me work, find me work, find me work!' a company would call and say find me five people. Done. Now it's literally the opposite. Companies are knocking down our door saying I need 20 workers, 30 workers, 40 workers... and we're waiting for them to come in."
But here's where things get fuzzy.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, despite that record number of "quits" in 2021, the year actually ended with a net gain of 6.4 million jobs.
And, according to University of New Haven economist Bryan Marks, the narrative that most of the quitters are sitting on the sidelines collecting pandemic supplemental unemployment insurance doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
"Those states that eliminated the supplemental insurance," he says. "Did not see any dramatic change in their unemployment rates."
2022 begins with a very low unemployment rate of four percent, a rate that many economists have historically believed is too low, because it limits the pool of workers available for new and expanding businesses.
So, what's causing the current worker shortage, are too few people willing to work, or are too many people already working?
Marks says nobody has a simple answer to that question.
He says the pandemic, the record number of quits, people retiring, changing careers, or starting up new businesses are all factors making up the current employment picture.
But the important thing to keep in mind, he says, is that all of it spells opportunity.
"I always tell people, with challenges there is significant opportunity. And in this environment, there is significant opportunity for someone who wants to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, learn, and will have the opportunity to move up the chain."
Which is exactly what Valentina Diaz did.
Diaz moved to the U.S. from Colombia five years ago and is studying to become a citizen.
HELP WANTED: These Connecticut businesses are hiring
She wants to build a life here, so she took advantage of the worker shortage twice; initially to get her new job at an auto parts manufacturing company called Nickson, and then, to get a promotion.
"I'm so grateful to Nickson because they gave me the opportunity to show what I can offer to the company," she says. "So now I'm supervising the whole shipping department."
Both Dr. Marks and Jason Russell agree that's the bottom line here.
It's not just about getting a new job, it can be about launching a new career.
With employers scrambling to hire new workers, employees are in the driver's seat for a change.
So, it's not just jobs that are available, it's also opportunities to learn new skills and climb the ladder of success.
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