Kristin Stoller, Forbes Staff
One year ago, the country was celebrating a record-breaking stretch of job gains and an unemployment rate at a 50-year low. Few could have predicted the pandemic, and the devastating toll it’s taken on American workers.
In November, roughly 10.7 million people were unemployed—trending down from October, but still 4.9 million higher than in February, one month before the coronavirus crisis was declared a pandemic. How does this bode for the job market next year? It can only get better, says Michael Stull, senior vice president of Milwaukee-based global staffing firm ManpowerGroup North America.
“We expect the momentum, especially at the beginning of the year, to pick back up in the job markets,” Stull says. “While we see high unemployment, we also see a lot of job openings.”
ManpowerGroup conducts an Employment Outlook Survey each quarter to get a sense of the hiring plans of employers in America’s 100 most populated metropolitan areas. The report reveals a net employment outlook of 17% for the first quarter of 2021, when seasonally adjusted to remove the influences of recurring events like holidays and school schedules. Though this represents a 3% increase from the fourth quarter of 2020, it’s a 2% decrease from the first.
Even more depressing: Just 13% of employers surveyed say they expect pre-pandemic hiring to return before July 2021, down from 54% when asked the same question in the second quarter of this year.
But Stull isn’t overly concerned. “For many employers that we are talking to, everyone feels like [July] is when we will be fully back up and running and the pandemic will be behind us,” he says. “Early on, we saw a lot more optimism that it would happen faster. I think these are just realistic assumptions.”
Those looking for jobs in the new year would be wise to focus on the Midwest, where ManpowerGroup forecasts a seasonally adjusted net employment outlook of 20%—the highest of any region. Stull says the Midwest’s comeback is related to the area’s manufacturing rebound, which has seen supply chains recover after having been pushed beyond their limits earlier in the pandemic. The rest of the country isn’t far behind: The South has an outlook of 17%, followed by the Northeast at 16% and the West at 15%.
Unsurprisingly, many Midwestern cities saw net employment outlooks well above the national average. With an employment outlook of 34%, Grand Rapids, Michigan—tying with El Paso, Texas, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina—claims the No. 2 on the list of cities with the most promising hiring forecasts, just ahead of Des Moines, Iowa, at 31%.
But the top spot goes to Cape Coral, Florida, which has a 42% employment outlook. With more than 400 miles of canals and close proximity to Gulf Coast beaches, Cape Coral is ripe for tourism—in non-Covid times. It’s no surprise, then, that the leisure and hospitality industry is one of seven sectors in the South that can expect slightly stronger labor markets in the first quarter of 2021, with a seasonally adjusted employment outlook of 27%.
In fact, the sector with the strongest labor market outlook is leisure and hospitality at 26%. Stull says the numbers are strong because the industry has been hurt so badly. He expects it to experience some recovery in the first quarter thanks, in part, to the positive news surrounding the Covid-19 vaccines.
The second strongest labor market is forecast for the transportation and utilities sector, with a 22% employment outlook. This is followed by the wholesale and retail trade industry at 20%.
On a state-by-state basis, New England’s small-but-mighty Vermont is expected to see the country’s highest net employment outlook at 56%, followed by Montana at 38% and Iowa at 31%. The states with the weakest outlooks are Nevada at 1% and Kentucky at 2%.
One positive trend for workers is the lowering of requirements for open jobs, as 72% of roles today have lower requirements than January. Stull says this is an acceleration of a trend he’s been tracking for some time. For example, customer service representative jobs used to require three years experience, and 40% of employers required applicants to have a college degree, he says. Now, they require one to two years of experience, if any, and only 12% of companies require a degree.
Stull says he’s most surprised that more than 50% of employers surveyed say their top concern is the health and well-being of their employees, followed by the development of leaders and managers.
“Early on in the pandemic, whole plants would shut down. Today, it’s just a small subset. The workers are being less impacted,“ he says. “I took a lot of positivity from that. We have learned a lot around how to work during the pandemic.”