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Where have all the workers gone?

Recently, in discussing our local economy, a person versed in that subject told me that “all businesses in the area are facing a declining labor force. They just can’t find people to hire.”

In asking around with a few business people that I know, this was confirmed. Then it struck me how now, in many places, you see signs that say “We Are Hiring!” It doesn’t seem to be just a problem for manufacturing — you see such signs in front of factories, fast-food outlets and also from those in the healthcare field.

Thus, it was with interest that I read an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago which had the headline: “Suddenly There Aren’t Enough Babies. The Whole World is Alarmed.” The sub-headline read: “Birth rates are falling fast across countries, with economic, social and political consequences.”

Statistics world-wide indicate that this is a growing problem almost everywhere. Statisticians estimate that the fertility rate (the average number of children that are born to a woman) needs to be 2.2 to just stay even with population growth. The United States now has a rate of 1.62…the “lowest on record.” The fertility rate in Japan is 1.26. Even China and India are falling behind.

There is no single answer as to why this is happening, but one researcher said that as economic conditions improve in a culture, people “have a preference for spending time building a career, on leisure, relationships outside the home, that are more likely to come in conflict with childbearing.”

That, to me, describes a bit of what is happening in our family. My kids mostly were married in their mid-twenties and soon thereafter started having children. However, most of our older grandchildren, who are either married or in solid relationships, may well not have kids until they are in their 30s. They are enjoying their lives and their careers.

What this all means, of course, is that school enrollments are declining. Fewer kids means fewer students. In checking state records on my old alma mater, Jamestown High School, the graduating senior class has dropped about 15% in enrollment over the past 20 years. At Southwestern it is down more like 30%.

That means not only that there are fewer kids going into college (think enrollment declines at JCC and SUNY Fredonia,) it also means that there are fewer of them available to fill the factory jobs and employment needs of our community.

There is really no easy answer to any of this except to keep working to be sure that there are good, well-paying jobs around so that future generations can fill them and keep our community here going.

Throughout my lifetime, Western New York has always struggled to maintain a strong labor force and job market. Yet, even on a national basis, since 2020, though jobs have grown by 3.8% the labor pool has only grown by 1.8% – so, what we have is really a national problem.

For a rural county, we still have a strong and diverse economy. Just think of the various companies and institutions that employ people here. But, right now, there are more job openings than there are people to fill them.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident and a former member of the New York State Assembly.

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