Reinventing Workers for the Post-Covid Economy

Monday, December 14, 2020
Rob Siminoski has been in the theater, in one way or another, since he graduated from college. But after 10 years at the Universal Studios theme park in California, he is only No. 13 on the stage-managing roster. Even if the park, closed since March, reopens some attractions — the WaterWorld stunt show, say, or the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle — he is unlikely to be among the first to get the call.

His luck is that his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, offers an apprenticeship program for on-set movie electricians. It takes five years, and Mr. Siminoski, 33, is going to have to brush up his high school algebra to get in. Still, it offers a good balance of risk and reward.

“Everyone needs electricity,” he said. “You pull down six figures.”

The nation’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic will hinge to some extent on how quickly show managers can become electricians, whether taxi drivers can become plumbers, and how many cooks can manage software for a bank.

The labor market has recovered 12 million of the 22 million jobs lost from February to April. But many positions may not return any time soon, even when a vaccine is deployed.

This is likely to prove especially problematic for millions of low-paid workers in service industries like retailing, hospitality, building maintenance and transportation, which may be permanently impaired or fundamentally transformed. What will janitors do if fewer people work in offices? What will waiters do if the urban restaurant ecosystem never recovers its density?

Their prognosis is bleak. Marcela Escobari, an economist at the Brookings Institution, warns that even if the economy adds jobs as the coronavirus risk fades, “the rebound won’t help the people that have been hurt the most.”

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