The labor market turmoil caused by the COVID pandemic resulted in tremendous job losses following the lockdown, then a massive rehiring as the economy reopened, and then what became known as the “great resignation,” the phenomena of Americans leaving their jobs in record numbers. Nowhere was this more prevalent than among young shift workers, where about half of the workforce left their jobs.

But where did they go, and why? Were they leaving their jobs in order to live off the relatively generous government assistance provided in the wake of the pandemic? A new report by the Shift Project, a joint research initiative between Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy and the University of California, San Francisco, found evidence that, instead, young workers used the tight labor market to leave positions that offered lower pay and precarious schedules in order to secure positions that offered higher compensation and better working conditions.

“Our results suggest that young workers in the service sector seized the opportunities provided by an extremely tight labor market to improve their working conditions.”

Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett

“Our results suggest that young workers in the service sector seized the opportunities provided by an extremely tight labor market to improve their working conditions,” write the authors and Shift Project principal investigators, Daniel Schneider, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at HKS, and Kristen Harknett, of the University of California, San Francisco. “Rather than being trapped in jobs with low pay or unstable schedules, these workers sought out roles that were a better fit for their own personal and professional goals.”

The researchers, drawing from surveys of nearly 3,000 18-to-24-year old service sector workers conducted over two years between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2022, were able to track the young workers’ satisfaction in their original place of work and their intention to leave as well as their subsequent job moves.

They found that 49% of those young workers stayed at their job, 39% left for a new job, and 12% transitioned to unemployment. But among that 12%, less than 1% were sitting out of the labor market while the remainder were actively looking for work, in school, or providing care.

Stayed at their job
Left for a new job
Transitioned to unemployment

The researchers found a strong association between job quality—better wages, more stable schedules, prospects of promotion—and workers leaving their jobs.

For example, 67% of workers who earned minimum wage left their jobs, compared with 45% of workers making $15 an hour, and only 17% of workers making $25 an hour. Similarly, canceled shifts in the previous month and less than two weeks of scheduling notice were significantly associated with job exits. “Around 60% of workers who experienced a canceled shift and 57% of workers who had less than two weeks of notice left their jobs, compared to 49% who did not experience a canceled shift and 41% with more than two weeks of notice,” the report found.

The implications for employers, according to the researchers, are simple: “In order to attract and retain younger workers, employers should offer competitive pay, benefits, and schedules,” they conclude. The report shows that workers are actively pursuing jobs that provide them with the basics of livable wages, paid time off, and stable and predictable schedules. Schneider added that, “while many workers were able to access these basic features of job quality by changing jobs, there is an important role for federal, state, and local policy to ensure that all workers have access to these fundamentals of a good job.”

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