Oxbow Bend, Snake River

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Pursuit of (Employment) Happiness

Matt Moore

A New Year has arrived, the calendar has rolled forward, but the hiring challenges remain. Last week, the Labor Department reported that 4.5 million people voluntarily left their jobs in November 2021, the highest recording since the government began tracking the data twenty years ago.

As a self-confessed economics wonk, I rarely miss an episode of the Planet Money podcast, a program that covers a wide range of topics relating to business, finance, and economic trends. In one of their final episodes of 2021, No Shortage of Labor Stories, listeners heard from folks who were actively searching for jobs, people considering changing jobs, and hiring managers and recruiters attempting to fill positions. The episode successfully captured the complexities of the labor shortage by offering a broad swath of perspectives, but one bit particularly stuck out, a quote from a hiring manager at a software company discussing their company’s mindset when it came to retaining their staff: “We need everyone to be really happy to come to work because we have so much work ahead of us, and if we can [create that environment], we can make the pie bigger for everybody, but we need all hands on deck.”

That one word – happy – hung in the air like a falling feather, pausing at both ends of its arc just long enough to remind of elemental governing forces like gravity and friction. If one were to ask me to choose a word to describe the mood for today’s public-facing workers, I’d gravitate towards something like “malaise”, ”exhausted”, “undervalued” (not necessarily by their employers, but certainly by the general public); “happy” wouldn’t make the list today.

After almost two years now of flight attendants being accosted, retail workers being screamed at because items are out of stock or there aren’t enough cash registers open, or restaurant workers being spit on for trying to enforce mask mandates, all while having to go home from work every day wondering if they’ve contracted a deadly virus that they’re now taking home to their family and friends, now is an opportune moment to remember that the desire for happiness is as foundational to the human experience as gravity. In its absence, we start to float away.

With morale and working conditions in the service sector degrading sharply in the wake of the pandemic, people are seeking work opportunities that will provide happier environments and better quality of life. Until they see demonstrable evidence that labor conditions have improved, employers can expect hiring and retaining staff to continue to be a challenge.

As the push to attract and retain staff for the summer 2022 season begins – a season which by all estimates should be another blockbuster year for travel, tourism, and recreation – think about how you can create an environment of happiness for your team. Is your compensation package keeping up with your industry and the cost of living? Can you adapt your scheduling and business operations to provide time-off and recreation opportunities that will help staff from getting burnt out? Do you offer housing? Is it safe, clean, and affordable? Does your organization support causes that could provide staff an option for volunteering and giving back? Can your company offer end of season bonuses or 401(k) profit-sharing contributions as a way to reward the efforts of your team for a successful season?

This summer will likely be an opportunity to make the pie bigger, but you’ll need a full team, you’ll need a happy team, and the best way to achieve that is to make sure that those people who help you grow are able to enjoy the journey – and enjoy the pie.