The roadside sign in front of a Raymond church last week, replete with poetic double meaning, aptly described not only the spiritual condition of the nation right now but also the dire employment situation.

Quoting Luke, the Lake Region Baptist Church on Route 302 sign read: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”

John Balentine, a former managing editor for the Lakes Region Weekly, lives in Windham.

Help wanted signs are everywhere. If 2020 was the year folks huddled inside staying safe from COVID-19, 2021 will be remembered as the year employers, trying to claw their way back from the government-imposed lockdowns, tried desperately to stay viable despite a worker shortage.

While we see evidence of the worker shortage in our daily lives (with many working overtime to take up the slack), the media is filled with stories about the dire employment situation. Every sector of the economy is struggling to find workers.

So, what’s the problem? That’s the ultimate question for this age, the immediate post-COVID vaccine era in which, as President Biden says, we’re still languishing in a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

It’s relatively safe to go back to work, compared with 2020 when workers had no vaccine and no way of knowing if they’d die from the disease.

The answer is manyfold and multifaceted and will be studied for years to come. Possible reasons for why people aren’t returning to work include:

• The “enhanced unemployment” benefits – which started in March 2020 and gave workers $600 extra per week for about a year and then was reduced to $300 extra per week until early September – made it financially easy for people to stay at home. And these folks are still living off that money.

• Some folks are lazy, have gotten used to suckling off the welfare system and don’t want to work when they can live on continued unemployment benefits, even at a reduced rate.

• Qualified workers with the skills required are hard to find. Our education system isn’t preparing young people with the skills needed now.

• Some are just plain afraid of going to work out of legitimate fear of contracting COVID.

• Some have been out of work so long that they’re afraid of physically hard, mentally tasking or otherwise stressful jobs.

• With the looming threat of schools closing when just one COVID case hits, parents can’t go to work because they never know when they’ll have to stay home with their kids.

• Parents can’t find childcare because the facilities are either filled to capacity or unaffordable, negating any money a return to work would provide.

• Some who lost their jobs in 2020 made a radical change and have gone back to school to prepare for a new career.

• Some had an epiphany about life in 2020, quit their unfulfilling job and are doing something completely different, like traveling, starting their own business or trying to become the next Stephen King.

• Some became accustomed to working from home, quit when their employer required them to return and refuse to take a job outside of the home, preferring the non-commuting, stay-at-home lifestyle.

• Some have opted to take early retirement and exit the rat race altogether.

Whatever the reasons for the worker shortage, the current inability of employers to entice workers to rejoin the work world shows how interconnected we all are and how dependent we are on each other’s continued strong work ethic.

If someone doesn’t engineer and manufacture the widget you need, and there’s no one to package and deliver that widget, and there’s no one to sell that widget to the middleman and end-user, then you simply won’t have that widget.

There’s a delicate balance in the free market enterprise system, which up to now has run pretty smoothly and has made America the greatest economic force in history. The interplay between worker wages, supply and demand, a healthy self-image, strong community and strong economy work together to keep the capitalist system operating and goods and services flowing.

But unprecedented government intervention – in the form of financial incentives to “stay safe at home” and enormous spending programs and money printing to prop up the economy – has thrown that system out of whack and it’ll be a miracle if we ever get back to normal. Here’s hoping that miracle can happen one job vacancy filled at a time.

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