Upgrade Your Job: How the Labor Shortage May Benefit You

As employers struggle to fill vacancies in many sectors, it's a great time to consider changing jobs.

Profile photo of Elizabeth Renter
Written by Elizabeth Renter
Senior Economist
Profile photo of Kathy Hinson
Edited by Kathy Hinson
Lead Assigning Editor
Fact Checked

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There are 10.4 million job openings in the United States and just 7.7 million unemployed people in the workforce. The imbalance is creating opportunities for career advancement across industries and giving workers cause to dust off their resumes.

The deluge of job openings across industries — from real estate to restaurants — is motivating employers to raise pay and benefits. Because of that, many workers could find ample opportunities to upgrade their careers, whether or not they’re unhappy where they are.

Having the option to consider a career change is a luxury, to be sure. Over the past 19 months, many have been forced out of jobs and unable to nail down a new one. The longer you’re without a job, the harder it can be to get hired, so folks currently in a position are certainly at an advantage, albeit a slightly unfair one. That doesn’t mean they have to be content with their current station just because they’re employed. Considering advancement is an important part of professional development, no matter what the labor market is doing.

In August, 4.3 million workers — the most ever recorded — quit their jobs, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Great Reshuffle is here, and you’d be remiss to not at least examine your options.

What’s happening in the labor market

The labor force has shrunk by nearly 3 million people since February 2020, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. The pandemic and related economic effects spurred some parents to quit their jobs and stay at home long-term, whether due to necessity in the midst of school and child care closings, or a rethinking of life priorities. It also forced early retirements for many older workers. During that same period, the number of job openings across nonfarm sectors grew by a similar amount: 3.4 million.

For employers, these seats have proven difficult to fill. The imbalance between the number of openings (10.4 million) and the number of unemployed members of the labor force (7.7 million) represents a labor shortage, something that encourages employers to voluntarily offer more money and better benefits in an effort to entice new employees. Since February 2020, average hourly wages have risen 8% across the private sector, and as much as 12% in the leisure and hospitality industry.

Where the jobs are

The unmet demand for labor is being felt across industries. There are more job openings available in the professional services sector than in any other: 1.8 million vacancies, accounting for a shortfall of 8%. This large sector includes accountants, lawyers, scientists, design professionals, consultants and more — not the people one thinks of as most greatly affected by pandemic fallout.

As of August, nearly 7% of all nonfarm positions are unfilled. Out of 16 industries analyzed, 12 experienced higher job vacancy rates in 2021 than they had in at least 10 years, most of them in June and July.

From February 2020 to August 2021, openings grew 50% or more in nine of 16 industries analyzed, including growth of 116% in manufacturing and 85% in accommodation and food services.

There is some evidence of a mismatch between the unemployed and skills needed for the jobs being offered, signaling a potentially even greater opportunity for the currently employed.

Using the numbers to your advantage

You could easily shortchange yourself by looking at job opportunities only when you’re jobless or miserable in your current position. While being content in your current job is good, who’s to say you couldn’t be happy (and better compensated) in another position?

1. Update your resume and all professional platforms

You might not want to change your Twitter bio to “seeking employment” if you’re unsure how your current employer would react to your shopping around. But you should certainly make sure your resume, LinkedIn profile, website and any other professional assets are updated to reflect your current skills and recent work history. Recruiters are on the prowl; make it easy for them to find you.

2. Gauge the demand for your skills and strengths

Whether you want the same job with better pay or to change your career trajectory entirely, start by seeing what’s out there. Don’t just surf formal job ads; check LinkedIn and network with professionals in your desired field to get a sense of the needs in your target industry. Also, searching by skills rather than job titles could introduce you to potential new roles you hadn’t previously considered.

3. Consider internal moves

Maybe you really like the culture or people at your current job and would rather not leave. Well, there’s a good chance your employer is hiring too. Chat with your manager — or human resources department, if that’s more comfortable — about internal moves. A supportive company generally wants employees to stick around, especially if it’s having difficulty filling seats.

4. Don’t be afraid to apply

If you spot something that piques your interest, reach out to the hiring manager or pull the trigger and apply. Starting down that road can be scary, but investigating a position is not the same as deciding to leave your current employer. And exploring such opportunities when you’re already in a decent job can give you the upper hand when it comes to negotiations.

A job change can be the right financial move, and an opportunity to find a position that is the best fit for your lifestyle, values and long-term professional goals. It can feel a bit strange to look for a job when you’re not currently unhappy. But ensuring your employer — your current one or a new one — is properly valuing your work should be a semiregular practice, no matter the market.

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