Wave of Job-Switching Has Employers on a Training Treadmill

One after another, employees at the New Hampshire manufacturer W.H. Bagshaw said goodbye.

One went to a robotics company in nearby Boston. Another became an electrician’s apprentice. In all, 22 workers have left W.H. Bagshaw in the past two years — no small matter for a company that has a work force of fewer than 50. That level of departures was also far from normal: In 2019, the company lost just one or two employees; the turnover rate in 2022 was over 30 percent.

W.H. Bagshaw, which makes precision machined parts for the aerospace and medical industries, was mostly able to replace the workers who left — but at a cost. Hiring employees and bringing them up to speed could include teaching them how to operate complex, multi-axis turning machines. That took time and energy, preventing the company from running at full capacity.

Production slowed. The number of on-time deliveries to customers slipped.

“It’s taking longer to get stuff out the door,” said Adria Bagshaw, the company’s vice president.

A hallmark of the pandemic era has been the surge in employee turnover. Since 2021, an extraordinary number of Americans have been quitting their jobs — some flexing their power in a white-hot labor market, others re-evaluating their priorities amid a destabilizing pandemic.

In November 2021, more than 4.5 million workers voluntarily left their jobs, according to government data, the most in the two decades that the government has been keeping track. That number has slowly been declining in recent months, but it is still far higher than before the pandemic. The churn has been particularly high in low-wage sectors such as leisure and hospitality, where intense competition for labor led workers to pursue better-paying opportunities.

All that turnover has taken a toll on productivity — for individual companies, and perhaps for the economy as well.

Economists say the wave of job-switching could be one factor in the weak productivity growth that the U.S. economy has experienced in recent years. Early on, some experts expected the pandemic to unleash productivity by forcing companies to embrace new technologies and ways of working. Instead, productivity has fallen slightly over the past two years.

“All that turnover, all that hiring, all that training you have to do — that takes away from your day job,” said Sarah House, an economist at Wells Fargo. “So it’s essentially less output at the end of the day.”

At W.H. Bagshaw, the perpetual need to train employees has been a central reason for the production slowdown.

“Anytime we bring in a new hire, they’re not productive on Day 1 — usually they’re shadowing someone for a few weeks or months,” Ms. Bagshaw said. “You’re investing in someone for the future. Whoever is doing the training, they’re slowed down from their normal productivity.”

The State of Jobs in the United States

Economists have been surprised by recent strength in the labor market, as the Federal Reserve tries to engineer a slowdown and tame inflation.

  • Retirees: About 3.5 million people are missing from the U.S. labor force. A large number of them, roughly two million, have simply retired.
  • Delivery Workers: Food app services are warning that a proposed wage increase for New York City workers could mean higher delivery costs.
  • A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?: Employees seeking wage increases to cover their costs of living amid rising prices could set off a cycle in which fast inflation today begets fast inflation tomorrow.
  • Disabled Workers: With Covid prompting more employers to consider remote arrangements, employment has soared among adults with disabilities.

Productivity — in its simplest form, the value of the goods and services that a typical employee can produce in an hour of work — is notoriously difficult to measure accurately. But it is one of the most important measures of the health of an economy, particularly during a period of rapid inflation. Productivity is what allows the economic pie to grow: If workers can produce more in the same amount of time, then their employers can afford to pay them more per hour without either raising prices or cutting into profits.

When productivity stagnates, however, pay becomes a zero-sum game: If workers want to make more money, then the money has to come from somewhere else.

“Really the issue at the heart of everything — from inflation to growth to companies and head count — it’s about productivity, and that turnover concern is huge,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist for ADP, a payroll processing firm.

Sobeyda Rodriguez, a machine operator at W.H. Bagshaw in Nashua, N.H.Credit…M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

W.H. Bagshaw makes parts for the aerospace and medical industries.Credit…M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

In the past two years, 22 workers have left W.H. Bagshaw, which has a work force of fewer than 50.Credit…M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

Ordinarily, economists consider turnover good for productivity. A healthy amount of job-switching allows workers to find the most suitable jobs, and employers to find the employees who will be the best fit. Over time, the most productive firms — which can afford to pay the most — will tend to attract the most productive workers, lifting the economy as a whole. In the years before the pandemic, many economists fretted about the declining rate of turnover, which they worried was a sign of an increasingly stagnant, even ossifying labor market.

But the impact of the Great Resignation is complicated: Too much turnover all at once can create its own problems.

For nearly two years, companies have complained that they are caught in an unending cycle of hiring and training workers, only to see them leave in a matter of weeks or months. Constant recruiting and training drains management resources, and new hires often do not stick around long enough for that investment to pay off. Veteran employees are often asked to pick up the slack, leading to burnout.

These challenges have been on vivid display in the hospitality industry, which experienced much-higher-than-normal turnover rates in this period.

“A lot of restaurants are in survival mode, and survival mode creates a vicious circle,” said Dominic Benvenuti, an owner of Boston Pie, which owns more than two dozen Domino’s locations in New England.

Store managers can’t hire enough workers, Mr. Benvenuti said, so they demand too much from new employees too quickly, sending them out on deliveries or putting them to work in the kitchen without sufficient training. When those workers inevitably fail, they quit, compounding the labor shortage and continuing the cycle.

“They are thrown into such chaos and stress that it overwhelms them, and they leave,” he said. “It is never-ending if someone doesn’t end it.”

The solution, Mr. Benvenuti said, is to focus on training and to recognize that new hires won’t be as productive as 10-year veterans right away. But that is easier said than done when customers are calling to ask why their pizzas are late.

There may be some relief in sight for businesses. The turnover rate has declined somewhat since its peak at the end of 2021, and many employers, both public and private, expect that trend to continue this year. That could give companies a chance to focus on tasks neglected during the pandemic chaos, like training employees and updating business processes.

But some workplace experts say higher-than-normal turnover rates are likely to persist, particularly in white-collar industries where remote work has become more common. For employees who work from home some or all of the time, job hunting no longer requires manufacturing an excuse to be out of the office or worrying about a boss finding a résumé on the office printer.

“It’s just easier to switch jobs now,” Ms. Richardson said. “Back in the old days, you had to meet at a Starbucks, and if you ran into another employee who was at that same Starbucks that was five blocks away from the closer Starbucks, you knew they were on a job interview.”

Now, she said, “if you’re working from home, you can do a whole day’s interview from the comfort of your living room and no one’s the wiser.”

Many economists say it is still possible that the pandemic-era increase in turnover will be beneficial for productivity, even if that isn’t the case yet. People who thrive working from home will gravitate toward companies that embrace remote work; people who do better in person will be snapped up by companies that require employees to come into the office. Industries that remade themselves to survive the pandemic — like restaurants, retailers and hotels — will figure out which changes will work in the long term, and which employees are well-suited to the new way of doing business.

“You’re investing in someone for the future,” said Adria Bagshaw, W.H. Bagshaw’s vice president.Credit…M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

The pandemic’s disruption contributed to a surge in entrepreneurial activity, a key driver of the kind of innovation that could lead to a more productive economy. The dynamics have also spurred many companies to re-evaluate or adapt long-held practices to increase efficiency.

“There’s an enormous amount of experimentation going on right now, and it’s showing up in so many different ways,” said John Haltiwanger, a University of Maryland economist who studies job turnover.

“I think it will be healthy, but not immediately,” he added. “There’s a long-term payoff to this, but it could literally take years, not months, for this to kick in.”

When Rahkeem Morris started the company HourWork several years ago, his goal was to help fast-food companies and other businesses hire more efficiently. But last year, the company pivoted to a new focus: retention.

A fast-food worker typically takes six months to reach full productivity, Mr. Morris said, but at many companies, the typical employee in the industry leaves after just 75 days. HourWork now offers a service to help store owners keep in touch with staff members by text message and to analyze their responses to identify issues that could be causing employees to quit — an approach the company says can reduce turnover, particularly among new hires.

Mr. Morris, who worked in fast food as a teenager before getting degrees from Cornell and Harvard Business School, said companies had long tried to deal with staffing shortages by focusing on recruitment. He likened that approach to trying to fill a leaky bucket — if companies do not also try to keep their workers, no amount of recruiting will solve their problem.

The Great Resignation, however, may finally have led companies to rethink that approach.

“We’re starting to see the tide shift and the sentiment around that change,” Mr. Morris said. “Fixing the leaky-bucket problem will get these restaurants to full productivity.”

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