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July 9, 2022, 9:29 a.m. EDT

The real labor shortage is looming, and everything we’re doing is making it worse

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By Rex Nutting

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Some solutions

Here are some things we could do but aren’t:

Increase immigration. Far from being a danger to our prosperity, immigrants could be its salvation. If we don’t have enough doctors, teachers, airline pilots, baristas or Uber drivers, let’s import them.

This country was built by immigrants (including millions of miserable enslaved souls now known as “involuntarily relocated.”) But legal immigration has been declining since Donald Trump’s first year in office. We need to turn the faucet back on.

Make work more attractive. The pandemic exposed an ugly truth: Lots of jobs are unpleasant if not deadly. We can make them better by improving working conditions, raising wages, and providing more support for a decent work-life balance (such as making child care more available and affordable).

Workers who take care of other people (teachers, health-care providers, and people who care for children and the elderly) are especially prone to burnout, and these are the very jobs that will be needed most in the coming decades.

More: Tell workers their schedule earlier — and 2 more cheap but effective ways to hold on to part-timers amid the Great Resignation

Make it easier for women to work: Women need pro-family policies if they are going to add to the pool of workers and have productive careers. They need flexible and predictable work schedules, paid time off, and support from their employer, their family and their communities to have a sane work-life balance. And, yes, they also need control over their own reproductive lives.

Make it easier for older people to work as well. We must strengthen and enforce age-discrimination laws and reduce the punitive taxes levied on retirees’ earnings. Training for second careers should be affordable, easy to access and targeted at needed skills. And companies must figure out how to better take advantage of the knowledge and experience that older workers possess.

Invest more in automation and artificial intelligence technologies. Business investment has been very weak over the past decade, but we need more machines to offset the loss of abundant labor. We’ve got to make the service sector more productive, especially industries that are particularly labor-intensive, such as healthcare and education.

If labor is scarce, maybe the Luddite fears that machines will take all the jobs won’t feel so real.

Increase fair trade. The developed world is aging rapidly, but much of Africa, Asia and Latin America is still relatively young, with a growing labor force. The next round of globalization is likely to be more equitable and sustainable than the one that just ended, if only because the young will have learned the lessons of the old. Increased fair trade could be a win-win for both young and old countries.

Change the culture of impatience. In a slow-growth world, maybe we can slow down our lives as well. If labor is scarce, maybe stores like 7-Eleven won’t find it profitable to be open 24-7. Maybe same-day delivery will be seen as a needless luxury and not a necessity. Yeah, I know, maybe pigs will fly.

Rex Nutting is a columnist for MarketWatch who has written about the economy for more than 25 years.

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Rex Nutting: The U.S. economy needs more immigrants

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