Parks and Recreation Feels Impact of Labor Shortage

December 16, 2021, Department, by Kevin Roth

2022 January Research Parks and Recreation Feels Impact of Labor Shortage 410

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It is not just your agency. Employers across the United States are struggling from a labor shortage not seen in many decades. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that there were more than 10 million open jobs this past fall. As bad as that sounds, it represented an improvement from the summer when there were a record 11 million unfilled jobs. As a comparison, the number of open jobs averaged slightly more than 7 million in 2019 and 3.5 million as recently as 2011.

Local and state government employers are facing a particularly acute problem in finding workers. Back in July, there were 523,000 open local and state government jobs (excluding education). By comparison, there were 364,000 open jobs in a pre-pandemic July 2019, which was double the 180,000 unfilled jobs back in the summer of 2011.

Park and recreation agencies are competing with private-sector employers for enthusiastic and qualified workers. Those employers, too, have been unable to fill their many employment opportunities. In July, private-sector employers in the healthcare and social assistance space had 1.762 million unfilled jobs, while there were 1.672 million open positions in accommodation and food services. The combined total was 30 percent greater than the number of open jobs in July 2019 and more than triple the number of employment opportunities during the same month in 2011.

Exacerbating the issue is what some people refer to as The Great Resignation. Abundant job opportunities, shifting life priorities and growing caregiving needs at home have led people to leave their current jobs at a record pace. More than 4 million people quit their jobs in both July and August 2021, a 15 percent increase from the comparable months in 2019 and more than double that of the same months back in 2011. In August 2021 alone, 86,000 non-education state and local government workers quit their jobs.

Also weighing heavily on park and recreation agencies’ hiring is the number of people who are able and willing to work. More than 8 million workers left the labor force during the first months of the pandemic in spring 2020. Not all of them have come back. Increased caregiving needs at home (caused in part by a lack of availability of childcare), changing life priorities resulting from the pandemic and early retirements all have left the United States with fewer workers than before the start of the pandemic.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there were 161.458 million people in the U.S. labor force this past October. This was a decrease of 3 million people compared to February 2020. Viewed a different way, the labor force participation rate for people ages 16 and older was at 61.6 percent in October, down from 63.3 percent from February 2020 and 64.2 percent from 10 years earlier. The labor force participation rate has not been this low since the mid-1970s.

What these numbers signal is that the U.S. labor market is as tight as ever seen in the modern era, adding to the already long list of challenges felt by park and recreation agencies across the nation. Park and recreation leaders find themselves competing with better-funded employers that can offer higher wages and benefits. Agencies that faced sharp budget cuts during the pandemic and resulting recession are simply unable to keep up with rising labor costs. As a result, parks and recreation must entice workers with non-financial benefits that come with their jobs, including the ability to serve their community.

Parks and recreation is a people business, where 165,000 full-time employees and hundreds of thousands of part-time workers deliver programming, provide services and maintain the essential infrastructure of more than 10,000 agencies across the United States. For example, there is no substitute for skilled people in delivering out-of-school time and youth sports programming to millions of children each day. And, it takes consummate professionals to maintain the parklands, trails, buildings, aquatic facilities and sports fields that make up the typical agency. An inability to find qualified, enthusiastic workers will hamper many agencies from delivering on their missions.

Next month, we will look at some of the broader labor market trends, with a particular focus on the struggles surrounding hiring younger seasonal workers.

Kevin Roth is NRPA’s Vice President of Research, Evaluation and Technology.