Closing Range

Short End of the Staff

Montana’s retail and hospitality sectors need to understand the current labor shortage isn’t a blip, but a broad-based reaction to long-standing structural factors

By Dave Skinner

Near the end of Montana’s COVID shutdown last spring, I wrote a column that in part mentioned the shutdown was killing us economically in the short run. Dang near did. But I also felt much of our economy would feel major consequences in the long term, especially if “short term” wasn’t short.

So — 18 endless months since the first scary reports came out of Wuhan, and guess what? Our world has been fundamentally disrupted forever by the scourge of COVID-19 and its mutations. Doing business, no matter what it is, is no longer the same as before. Our lives, no matter who we are or where we live, will never again be ordinary. We are all improvising and adapting, and doing so might be our permanent state of affairs.

Why? Well, the pandemic brought about supply-chain issues never seen before, on a global scale, jamming parts of our production system near and far with blockages of one kind or another. These logistic ripples are still washing up and down literally every supply pipeline, even crossing over to other “pipelines” and back again.

How is that playing out individually? Personally, I’ve always “bought local,” OK with paying a little more in return for being able to find what I want, when I want (or need) it, and especially getting “hands-on” before I buy. The past year, I’ve had a heck of a time finding many products I want (and a few I need), no matter if generic or specialty; imported, American or local.

Have I improvised and adapted? Yep, da Big Brother, ever-microtargeting, ever-spying and prying, ever-phishing Innanets. Gosh, buy one thing (or just look) and get at least 100 follow-on pop-ups for related products? The KGB was never so snoopy. Every time I hit the “buy” button, I want a shower.

Nonetheless, the web is sometimes the “best” option. In a backward way, these remote businesses are now competing fang and claw with my preferred Flathead purveyors for not just my patronage, but for salable inventory. At some point, I’ll stop caring where the inventory I want now sits — and let’s remember the millions who quit caring long ago.

On the other hand, now the local story is, there’s no labor available, with our tourism and mercantile sectors feeling the bite the most, even though pent-up demand promises an epic, even ridiculous visitation year of cash galore.

Well, let’s think about why. When COVID hit, which jobs went first, and have been gone the longest? Retail and hospitality, fields not known for offering high pay, or even employment stability. Given that bitter reality, why would anyone come back, much less seek a “career” when other, better options exist (and I’m not talking the federal unemployment supplements)?

Even in sectors that pay better and are more “stable,” there are labor shortages. Why? Let’s consider manufacturing, which is increasingly robotic. Robots don’t need health care, “affordable housing,” pensions, don’t strike, and work 24/7 without overtime, just a little grease once a week. What’s the long-term trend? A vicious circle, of course. Humans don’t want to go into jobs where they’ll be obsoleted overnight, while employers who can’t hire muscle today will buy robots today. What happens when robots make the robots? I’m glad I’m too old to find out.

Think about trucking. Soon cars will self-drive safely, and soon after that, we’ll see autonomous trucks, at least on certain fixed routes to begin, but who knows where it will end? Then there are the commercials with the cute Dominos Pizza delivery road-bots? Not exactly a bright future there, ironically enough, in a craft where the best are best because they can look far enough down the road to see what’s coming — including the Dead End signs.

Bottom line is, Montana’s retail and hospitality sectors need to understand the current labor shortage isn’t a blip, but a broad-based reaction to long-standing structural factors I’ve hinted at above. COVID just sped up that reaction. Employers who don’t understand will get the short end of the staff.

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