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U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO: The labor crunch is ‘one of the biggest problems threatening the country’

October 13, 2021, 8:00 PM UTC

Corporate America has long relied on a tried-and-true set of tools to address worker shortages.

In the past, higher wages, better benefits, and clearer pathways to promotion have all proved attractive enough to woo workers to join companies. But the labor crunch taking place in the U.S. today strikes differently, and it’s bound to force executives and business leaders to think differently—if they aren’t doing so already—about what will persuade employees to sign on with them, says U.S. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Suzanne Clark.

“It is one of the biggest problems threatening the country,” Clark said on Wednesday at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C. “We all took economics. When demand outpaces supply, then any CEO has got to think about what they’re doing to retain workers, to be sympathetic to their workforce, to be a best-in-class employer—whether that’s wages, benefits, flexible schedules, access to childcare, better training.”

Over the course of 2021, the U.S. labor market has gone through a massive shift, one that has disproportionately hit women and Black Americans in particular.

Prospective employees—facing a surplus of new questions resulting from COVID-19, such as whether going back to the office is safe and who will take care of their unvaccinated children not in school yet—have proved to be resilient in their search for new jobs.

In August, there were 10.4 million job postings, which, though down from July, is still well in excess of normal levels, according to the Labor Department’s latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Meanwhile, the number of people quitting their jobs in the month, as a percentage of total employment, hit a record level in August.

For Black workers, the Labor Department has reported that the unemployment rate in the U.S. still sits at 7.9%. The overall unemployment rate, by comparison, is 4.8%. Clark says businesses need to be thinking about how to reach prospective employees in underrepresented communities and about where they are funneling their training and recruiting efforts.

And it’s not just about reaching those who were put out of work by the pandemic. Workers who have stayed employed, especially women, are voluntarily leaving their positions in droves, too. A September report from consultancy McKinsey found that one in three women has considered scaling back her career or leaving the workforce altogether in 2021. Part of the reason behind that phenomenon is the fact that childcare remains a question for many working mothers, McKinsey noted.

“One of the things that this country needs to decide is how we remove barriers for women to work, and one of them is access to childcare,” Clark said on Wednesday. “We are going to have to do more to subsidize childcare.”

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