The latest data report from the York County Economic Alliance reveals a “mix of good news, silver linings and remaining obstacles,” said its CEO and president, Kevin Schreiber.
While unemployment is falling in the county as the recovery continues, the labor pool is down and consumer confidence has weakened.
In partnership with the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County and its Center for Regional Analysis, the alliance releases data reports every other month.
Schreiber said the decline in consumer confidence is the biggest change from the previous report. That’s “no surprise to anyone,” he said, given concerns about inflation, the worsening pandemic and other issues.
York County entrepreneurs, however, are more optimistic.
Surveys last month showed this disparity. “Business attitudes remain positive, as they anticipate solid demand, but they are also fatigued from being stretched too thin in navigating operational and economic challenges with no foreseeable end,” the report said. “In contrast, consumer sentiment remains dim as households report weakening financial conditions and waning optimism about the health of the local and national economies over the next 12 months.”
York County’s economy shrank 3.8% in 2020. Total gross domestic product was $21.46 billion, down almost $856 million from 2019. “In real terms, the GDP loss walked back nearly five years of York County’s economic growth,” the report noted.
There are no York County GDP numbers yet for 2021, but the economy there is rebounding along with the nation.
Still, “COVID-driven headwinds fueled by rising cases and the emergence of variants are interjecting uncertainty around 2022 economic growth,” the report said. Labor shortages are expected to continue, and the ongoing pandemic will delay supply chain normalization.
In York County, consumer spending remained positive, according to the report, though it softened in the fall.
The unemployment rate in the county fell to 4.1% in October, with 9,460 unemployed and 221,760 employed persons. That rate is approaching pre-pandemic levels, Schreiber said. The unintended consequence of that, he said, is difficulty in hiring.
As of November, the York County labor pool was down nearly 7,400 people compared to 2019. “For some businesses, this meant difficulties expanding their workforce to meet demand that exceeded 2019 levels,” the report said. “For others, the labor shortage meant stunted progress towards pre-pandemic levels.”
Manufacturing is among the few sectors exhibiting signs of recovery. Its workforce has exceeded 2019 levels for five straight months, but “many manufacturers still have significant unmet labor needs as they try to meet customer demand,” the report said.
Based on 2020, GDP, retail trade had among the smallest losses. “Employment data shows its workforce expanded in the first half of this year in the face of strong consumer demand,” the report said. “However, some of the gains in workforce have been walked back in the fall months.”
In contrast, leisure and hospitality were two of the hardest hit sectors since the pandemic started, losing nearly a quarter of their GDP and a fifth of their workforce in 2020, according to the report. A recovery started this summer, but employment was still 12.5% below 2019 levels.
A result of this workforce contraction is rising wages, though the increase lags behind inflation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average hourly earnings in York County for the first 11 months of 2021 were nearly $26.30, around 3% higher than the year preceding the pandemic. The state average was up 8% for the same period ($28.25).
“We need a baby boom that will solve this (labor shortage) in 20 years,” Schreiber joked.
On a more serious note, barriers to employment, such as lack of child care, must be reduced to get more people into the workforce, he said. Employers also need to be creative in attracting applicants in this hyper-competitive environment, whether its bonuses or some other incentives.
The labor shortage was a challenge before the pandemic, Schreiber said, and now the problem is exponentially greater. People are leaving their jobs to stay home or retire. “It’s been a stressful two years,” he said.
Many employees who are close to retirement age are deciding to quit, Schreiber said. “I can’t fault someone for choosing to exit the workforce,” he said. Others are re-evaluating their employment situation and reprioritizing “what’s important in life.”