CACHE COUNTY – Despite a booming economy, Cache County’s economic development director says that some local businesses are “starving.”
“But (those businesses are) starving in a non-traditional sense,” said Shawn Milne during a brief economic overview for members of the Cache County Council on Nov. 23. “That is, not for consumers, but for workers and production capacity.”
State officials are inclined to share that view with Milne. The Department of Workforce Services credits Cache County with having one of the strongest economies in Utah and the nation.
As recently as October 2021, Cache County’s unemployment rate was 1.3 percent, compared to a 2.2 percent jobless rate for Utah and 4.6 percent nationwide.
Since 2019, the number of non-farm jobs in Cache County grew by 7.4 percent regardless of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. By comparison, Utah’s non-farm jobs grew by only 3.7 percent in the same period while non-farm jobs declined nationally by 3.4 percent.
Milne acknowledged that Utah is the fastest growing state in the nation and most economists draw a link between population growth and prosperity.
“But how does that get us to the point where we’re leading the pack here in Cache County?” Milne asked. “I think there are some factors that push us ahead.
“One of those is Utah State University. Another is the entrepreneurial spirit that exists here in Cache Valley, where we have so many start-ups that have begun here and thrived in our community. Another part of it is our agricultural heritage. That’s not only part of our economy, but also part of our work ethic.
“So, I think there are multiple factors that come together to create a perfect storm in terms of our recovery here.”
While it appears that Cache County has shrugged off the worst effects of the pandemic, Milne predicted challenges ahead due to “an exodus from the workforce of a couple of very important demographics.”
The first of those are women who left their jobs during the pandemic in what personal managers are calling the Pink Collar Recession.
An estimated 5 million jobs held by women — primarily working mothers — were lost nationwide in 2020. With public schools closed due to the pandemic, the primary reason for that exodus of women from the workplace was to provide full-time care for their children.
So-called “pink collar” professions that are dominated by women include preschool teachers; dental hygienists/assistants; speech pathologists; childcare workers; secretaries and administrative assistants; medical records technicians; dietitians and nutritionists; medical assistants; and hair stylists and cosmetologists.
Milne said that the other demographic leaving the workplace is 3 million older employees who opted for early retirement in 2020.
“The timing was right (for early retirees),” Milne explained. “Companies were looking for a way to downsize because they were negatively affected by COVID-19 and falling consumer demand.
“Some (early retirees) might be willing to come back to work when they feel that conditions are right for them in terms of health,” he added. “Nothing we can do is, meanwhile, likely to induce them to return other than just looking at the metrics of COVID-19 with regard to vaccinations, infections and other factors influencing their personal choice.”
Milne suggested that another concern might also play havoc with Cache County’s red-hot economy.
“Something very interesting that Gov. (Spencer) Cox mentioned just last week is that young people in the 16 to 24 age bracket … have the lowest participation rate in our workforce of any age group in the state’s history.”
Slightly more than 1.67 million people make up Utah’s workforce. All but about 37,000 are currently employed.
Teenagers and young adults make up about 20 percent of the state’s workforce. In 2020, about 6,800 jobs in the Leisure/Hospitality sector were lost due to the pandemic along with about 1,800 other service sector positions.
Many of those service workers then qualified for generous federal unemployment benefits that actually exceeded their former salaries.
“As blessed as we are as a culture,” Milne observed, “we seem to have created an environment where our children in that 16 to 24 age bracket don’t perceive that they need to work.”
Given that overview from Milne, County Council Chair Gina Worthen offered an “out of the box” suggestion to address the current shortage of restaurant workers.
“People (on social media) are concerned in particular that restaurants can’t find workers,” she explained. “I mentioned that we had an idea – and I emphasized that it was just ‘an idea’ — of having child care on site.
“People like that idea,” Worthen added, “because they definitely see the need for something like that.”