Fewer waiters, more scientists if pandemic job trends stick, U.S. study shows

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By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy is reopening and confidence is coming back. But air travel is still stuck at roughly 60% of where it was before the coronavirus pandemic, and on many days restaurant dining is not faring much better.

That depressed level of business activity will likely improve if the COVID-19 health crisis eases as expected, but what if some of it sticks?

How that plays out may shape how the economic recovery from the pandemic proceeds, and may factor into whether the Federal Reserve meets its goal of guiding the economy back to “maximum employment.”

A team of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics economists recently looked at the implications for employment if the habits adopted during the pandemic become more permanent – eating out less, working more and even seeing doctors remotely – and the news is not good for less-skilled Americans.

By 2029 there may be 3 million fewer jobs than would otherwise be the case. Hundreds of thousands of them would be in the food service and retail sectors, traditionally dependable sources of work for those with less education and fewer skills – in effect embedding some of the past year’s employment losses into the structure of the post-pandemic economy.

For a graphic on A permanent job shock?

The retail industry, for example, was already expected to lose about 370,000 jobs in the coming years because of the shift to online shopping. That would triple to around 1.1 million jobs under the “strong” post-pandemic scenario of a 10% hit to in-store sales, according to the BLS research.

That would translate into nearly 300,000 fewer jobs for retail sales clerks.

Before the onset of COVID-19, BLS expected restaurants and bars would employ 876,000 more people in 2029 than projected in 2019, which served as the baseline for the pandemic impact study. With an assumed 12% hit to demand, the workforce in that sector would actually fall by 376,000.

For a graphic on Job shock by industry:

Jobs in grocery stores, by contrast, would grow by around 60,000. The professional and scientific areas would also be among the winners if pandemic trends endured, adding about 300,000 more jobs than under the baseline projection.

The BLS team characterized their analysis as illustrative, not a formal forecast of how the economy will change as much as an exploration of what different types of changes would mean for job growth.

But the question of what economy emerges in the coming years is at the center of the debate over the Biden administration’s massive infrastructure and job creation package. If nothing else, the BLS team wrote, the projections show which occupations are most at risk of permanent damage.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive short-term disruptions to the U.S. economy and labor market, but its long-term impacts remain unclear,” economists Lindsey Ice, Michael Rieley, and Samuel Rinde wrote. The projections are “a first attempt to identify industries and occupations subject to comparatively high uncertainty as a result of the pandemic.”

Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Reuters

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