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The Split-Screen Job Market: Low Unemployment, High Turnover, Plenty of Openings – And More Layoffs Ahead

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By amanda

June 22, 2022

Every day seems to bring a tale of two job markets. On the one hand, data, like Friday’s better-than-expected jobs number, shows a labor market where unemployment remains low and the economy continues adding jobs, even beating economists’ forecasts. Earlier this week, the Labor Department reported that job openings slipped but hiring demand remained strong, while the turnover rate stayed high.

Yet on the other hand, the news cycle seems to bring near-daily stories of hiring freezes and layoffs, particularly in the technology sector and among startups. Tesla’s Elon Musk, Reuters reported Friday, wants to cut jobs and pause hiring amid what he reportedly called a “super bad feeling” about the economy. Other big tech companies, like Meta and Microsoft, have said they will slow hiring in certain parts of their business. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in early May it would treat hiring “as a privilege.”

Meanwhile, job cuts tracked by the aggregator site Layoffs.fyi found that at least 15,000 tech workers lost their jobs in May, with cuts at companies like Bolt (25% of its workforce), Klarna (10%) and Carvana (12%), as well as many smaller startups shedding workers.

Headhunters say they’re seeing a drastic shift in how people are responding to inquiries in recent weeks, especially in sectors or at job levels where stock equity plays a role.

“Even a month ago we were going through hoops, doing everything we could to get people to respond to us—multiple messages on LinkedIn platforms, multiple social media platforms, text messaging,” says Jeff Christian. “Now we’re seeing a 70% increase in response rates. People are curious. And they’re afraid.”

Higher interest rates, geopolitical turmoil and a continued global pandemic—combined with a punishing stock market—have made investors pump the brakes, leading more venture-backed companies to slow or cut hiring. In May, Forbes reported that an internal poll of Andreessen Horowitz’s portfolio companies showed that more than half were pulling back on 2022 hiring.

“It’s about companies not being able to access funding or at least get the valuations that they’re hoping to achieve—that’s very much the driver for some of these layoffs and hiring freezes,” says Glassdoor economist Daniel Zhao. He’s seeing similar trends in mortgage-related jobs in financial services, which are also dependent on interest rates.

But he says that while there is clearly a lot of concern about the economy, the headlines about job cuts are “not really showing up yet in the data as a wave of layoffs that would be comparable to past perceptions or downturns.” Overall, he says, the “holistic picture is still one where employer demand is extremely high and there aren’t enough workers to fill those jobs.”

Zhao says it’s common at an inflection point in the economy, like where we find ourselves now, to see stories that suggest two directions. At such times of change, “it’s always a little bit difficult to square the anecdotes that you hear with the data as it moves in real time.”

Still, he thinks some things are different about the current economic intersection. All of the focus on the “Great Resignation” over the past year or so, as well as the difficult time many industries have had finding workers, could influence what they do going forward. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see employers continue to focus on trying to retain and attract workers, even if there is a moderate downturn,” he says.

Brian Kropp, Gartner’s vice president of research, points to other disconnects he’s noticing. “In the past, revenue and staffing moved almost perfectly together,” he says. “Three months from now this could be different, but at least right now, the relationship between revenue and hiring is just not as consistent and highly correlated as it’s been before.”

That could be due to the backlog many companies already have when it comes to staffing unfilled roles, as well as the increased churn Kropp thinks companies will see as hybrid work allows people to switch jobs more frequently. “The labor market for places that aren’t impacted by concerns about interest rates or concerns about stock equity—that labor market? It’s still red-hot, going a thousand miles an hour.”

Just like many companies have learned lessons that “just-in-time” supply chains couldn’t withstand the havoc of a global pandemic, they’re also learning the same lean approach can hurt them when it comes to talent. Frankiewicz says many employers—especially those with the resources to hire more workers—have adjusted to more of a “just-in-case” philosophy when it comes to their workforces to try to avoid understaffing. At a time when more workers aren’t even showing up to their shifts, says Frankiewicz, it’s “not just in case I can’t find the talent, [but] just in case I can’t fill the shifts.”

Recent data from ManpowerGroup shows talent shortages reaching the highest levels in 16 years, and Frankiewicz said in an email about Friday’s jobs report that “the tension is palpable, yet the reality is optimistic.”

She wonders how the current market could impact a downturn. “We’ve never faced an entry into a recession like what we’re facing now” with such a tight labor market, Frankiewicz says, saying two key differences are a structural change in the number of workers in the economy, citing lower birth rates, and the demand for technology skills not only in tech firms, but across all sectors. “It’s why we’re having this conversation—because there is no playbook.”

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