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Employers are suffering from ‘pandemic paranoia’ and they’re scared to let go of workers, according to a global staffing firm

Howard Schnapp—Newsday RM/Getty Images

The U.S. economy added 517,000 jobs in January, blowing economists’ estimates out of the water and pushing the unemployment rate to a 53-year low of 3.4%.

Despite rising interest rates, high inflation, and consistent announcements of tech sector layoffs, the labor market as a whole has remained incredibly resilient—and Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup, the third largest staffing firm in the world, thinks she knows why.

“Pandemic paranoia has set in with employers who remember how hard it was to bring back workers,” she told Fortune. “So it makes sense that despite what we are seeing in headlines regarding layoffs, they are still well below historical norms—with fewer than 1% of the population laid off in December 2022 and an unemployment rate of 1.8% in tech.”

After millions of workers lost their jobs during the initial stages of the pandemic in early 2020, stimulus checks and the rise of remote work helped spur consumer demand more than many economists had initially anticipated.

That left employers scrambling to rehire lost talent throughout the pandemic, but it was easier said than done. Worker shortages persisted across the economy because of a growing “skills gap” and quit rates that soared in a phenomenon now known as “The Great Resignation.”

By October of 2021, 73% of CEOs said that a labor and skills shortage was their company’s biggest challenge, Fortune found in a survey done in collaboration with Deloitte. And in some sectors, labor shortages continue even now—the metal fabrication industry, for example, expects a 400,000-worker shortage by next year. This lack of talent has helped keep the labor market running “like a bullet train,” Frankiewicz said.

“From ManpowerGroup’s real-time data, we know that employers are actively adding to their workforces, particularly for permanent in-demand skills like registered nurses, software developers, retail workers, and hospitality workers,” she said, adding that many companies are also looking to entice “boomerang workers who made sector switches during the pandemic to come back.”

Frankiewicz also argued that historically low labor force participation (62.4%)—which measures the percentage of the population that is working or actively looking for work—has exacerbated the worker shortage in the U.S., helping lower the unemployment rate.

“We still have a participation problem in our country,” she said. “We are still in a jobs market where labor demand far outpaces supply, with 3 million fewer workers than before the pandemic.”

And while the latest layoffs in the tech sector, which included over 70,000 lost jobs in the past year, have spooked some investors and captured headlines, Frankiewicz believes that they “are simply pandemic hiring coming full circle.”

During the pandemic, tech firms went on a hiring spree like never before. Between 2019 and 2022, Google’s parent company Alphabet, for example, increased its headcount by 64%, while Amazon and Facebook-parent Meta both more than doubled theirs.

Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, used the analogy of a war to explain the tech industries’ latest hiring patterns.

“The pandemic was tech companies’ war—they were right on the front lines. Everyone was stuck at home on a computer, and they suddenly saw this surge in demand for what they were offering. So they pulled up the reservists; they surged manpower,” she told Fortune. “Now that moment’s over and things are calming down, so they are just getting back to normal with these layoffs…It’s the natural response to demand rising and demand falling.”

As far as where the labor market goes from here, Pollak said that conflicting data makes it difficult to tell, but she sees two potential outcomes.

“Year-to-date hiring plans are pretty dismal right now. So it’s possible that companies are very worried about recession and they’re going to be more conservative when it comes to hiring,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s possible that employer demand for workers is still very high, and that the main constraint is supply. The widening gap between job openings and hires could reflect that companies just can’t hire enough right now, because so many people left the labor market.”

As former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers put it in a Bloomberg interview on Friday:

“It’s a pretty confused picture…I think it’s as difficult an economy to read as I can remember.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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