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Where are the workers? Taking a closer look at Utah’s shifting labor force

SALT LAKE CITY — The sign in the window of a pizza restaurant in Salt Lake City asks dinner guests for patience due to “low staff.” Many other restaurants simply state, “help wanted.”

But the real story of Utah’s labor shortage plays out among the staff.

Sarah Baes not only helps manage MidiCi restaurant at the Gateway, but she also tends bar, preps the pizza, cooks the pizza and even rings up customers.

“Right now, everyone is doing everything,” said Baes.

Sarah Baes does a little bit of everything at MidiCi in Salt Lake City due to staffing issues. (KSL TV)

MidiCi has openings in every position. The restaurant already closed for lunch, so their limited staff could handle dinner. Baes said she and her coworkers go home, “exhausted, really exhausted.”

Utah faces the fifth-largest labor shortage in the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for every Utahn who wants a job, there are 1.45 openings.

That gap is felt the most acutely in the service industry, where jobs disappeared during the early weeks of the pandemic and the workers have never come back.

“The workers were chased away during COVID,” said Mark Knold, chief economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “The labor force moved on to other things.”

So where are the workers?

Contrary to the common narrative, they’re not “living off stimulus and unemployment checks.”

Utah suspended stimulus checks two months early last June. And the DWS reports the number of Utahns collecting ongoing unemployment (8,925) is almost exactly where it was before the pandemic (8,856).

What has changed is thousands of Utah workers moved to different jobs.

  • High-growth industries like professional, business and computer tech attracted more than 20,000 new workers.
  • Trade, transportation, and warehouse jobs attracted nearly 17,000 new workers.
  • Construction, more than 13,000.

Renae Flores made the change. She worked graveyards for the U.S. Postal Service before the pandemic. Now, she works for an online education company.

“I’m just starting out and it’s amazing,” she said.

Her enthusiasm may have something to do with what the job does not demand: No graveyards, no overtime, no holidays, no physical labor. She works from home and doubled her pay.

“It’s been an all-around game-changer,” she said.

Shannon Franckel worked in lodging before the pandemic and is preparing to make the same jump.

“I can get a job that I enjoy, that pays me well, that has good benefits and I don’t have to choose it over my children,” she said.

She and dozens of other women are getting the tech skills they need through the program, “Utah Tech Moms.” Co-founder Trina Limpert saw a huge need.

“I get calls every day, every day, ‘There is a labor shortage. We can’t find talent, we can’t find talent,’” she said.

Now she is helping to train that talent pool and transforming not just careers, but the lives of Utah women.

That transformation comes at a cost for those in the food, hospitality and other minimum wage industries, which is why wages are going up.

The number of $15/hour jobs on ZipRecruiter has doubled since the pandemic. But it’s not just money. Microsoft WorkLab reports more than 70% of workers now want a flexible, hybrid work schedule. The pandemic and Utah’s red-hot economy have made workers more selective.

“These are the kinds of environments that will take slow-moving, long-term trends and turn them real quick,” said Knold.

So while this trend is empowering to those in the job market, it could create frustration for those who are in the market for a quick, inexpensive dinner out.

Did you change jobs during the pandemic? Are you thinking about it? NBC News wants to hear from you.

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