I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Labor's New Deal

The pandemic has created a lot of interesting labor market dynamics, hasn’t it? Week after week brings a new wave of employee survey results that make it clear a lot of workers want to retain a great deal of the location independence they have experienced over the past year. Multiple studies report roughly the same results among knowledge workers, globally: 75% want flexibility in where they work, 30% don’t want to return to an office, and 1 in 3 won’t work for an employer that requires them to be on site full time. In addition, 1 in 5 workers expect to be with a different company in the next year, as many as 40% are thinking about quitting and over half are willing to listen to offers.

This isn’t just sentiment: employees are voting with their feet. The Wall Street Journal reported a few weeks ago that the share of the workforce leaving their jobs is the highest it has been in over twenty years.

Labor wants a new pact.

The post-COVID recovery is a once-in-a-decade economic recovery. To the extent that a company’s growth is indexed to the growth of its labor force (where near-term automation is not an option), a company has to hire. If it doesn’t, it’s going to sit out this recovery. That means businesses are motivated buyers of labor.

The American economy is surging, but employers are struggling to fill skilled and unskilled positions alike. One factor is the absence of slack in the labor market. Curiously, the labor participation rate is plumbing levels not seen since the 1970s. The number of 18 to 65 year olds actively working has been in steady decline since the mid-2000s, a few years before the 2008 financial crisis. It dropped significantly again with the pandemic, and has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Statistically, there should be labor market slack, but there is no slack as quite a few working age people are electing not to rejoin the workforce. Another factor is that with every company hiring it’s hard for any one employer to achieve visibility among job seekers. A simple search for “product manager” positions in Chicago yields over 6,300 openings; in New York over 6,800 openings; and in Dallas over 5,800 openings. Social media banners announcing “we’re hiring” are useless when every company is hiring.

Labor market tightness and difficulty in differentiating is forcing companies to raise wages. Large, deep-pocketed employers of unskilled labor including WalMart, McDonalds and Amazon have raised their entry level labor wages. Mid-tier and mom-and-pop competitors will be forced to do the same. And, many employers are responding to their own captive surveys yielding results like those mentioned above, offering greater workplace and working hour flexibility to existing staff and recruits. Average wages are going up, and workplace policies are changing to be more accommodative to labor.

With labor tight and economic expansion all around, employers will become increasingly competitive for labor. They will have to be aggressive just to stay in place. Imagine a company with, say, 100 experienced software engineers, project managers, QA engineers and the like that expects to add a dozen more people to the team in the next year. If they lose 20% of this knowledge workforce per the survey results, and assuming 10% of the people they put on the payroll are dud hires, they’ll have to hire upwards of 35 people to achieve a net gain of just 12.

All of this means that labor is having a once-in-a-generation moment.

Labor's power in America arguably peaked in the 1960s and has been on the wane since, the striking Air Traffic Controllers getting fired in the early 80s often held out as a seminal moment in labor's multi-decade decline. But some of you may recall that in the late 1990s, labor briefly had a moment. That was not only the go-go days of the dot-com era, but domestic US call centers were going up in all kinds of American cities, big box retailers wanted their customers to know they were "always open" and kept stores open for 24 hours a day (somebody just might be itching to buy a circular saw at 2a), and fast food drive thrus were kept open 2 hours longer than the dining rooms (conveniently, 'til after the pubs closed). For a brief period, "Sales Associate" positions came with medical and retirement benefits. Well, labor is back. The WSJ made the point last week that labor has power today that it has not enjoyed in decades. And, per the aforementioned statistics, labor is exercising that power.

With so much agitation among workers and demand for labor high, conditions are ripe for labor market “disruptors”. Some employers will simply become very aggressive recruiters of employees of other firms. If disruptive recruiting, employment and retention practices prove successful, we will see winners and losers emerge in “the war for talent.” And it isn’t start up or fringe firms taking aggressive postures. According to the WSJ, Allstate has determined that 75% of the positions they employ can be done remotely, while another 24% can be done in a hybrid fashion. That’s 99% of a traditional employer’s workforce that will have location flexibility. This means location independence may not be a worker bonus as much as it may simply be the new norm. It also means that a company may not simply struggle to hire, but that a failure to adequately adjust to the future of work will make a company vulnerable to disruption as its work force is an easy target for other employers.

History tells us that labor’s moment may not last for very long. But the longer that labor shortages last, and particularly with so much competition for knowledge workers, labor won’t come away empty handed.