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Employers looking to tap the 'labor reserve' for new workers may need to be willing to meet them halfway on their needs

Employers seeking out new avenues to fill workforce gaps should take a closer look at the "labor reserve," or people who would work under different conditions, says one Illinois researcher. But enticing them to apply for a job may require some accommodation of their needs.

Adee Athiyaman is a professor at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Looking at data from the Current Population Survey gathered between January and October 2021, he found around 26,000 rural Illinoisans classified as part of the labor reserve, or nonparticipants in the workforce who would join under more favorable conditions.

"If you think in terms of businesses wanting to employ people in this climate of declining labor force, then the only option is we start looking at the labor reserve," he said. "That means people didn't really look for a job earlier. But now, they will be happy to join the labor force if the economic and social conditions or benefits are good enough for them."

More than half of the rural labor reserve is composed of non-college educated women, with a median age of 37. Poor health, childcare, and transportation challenges were cited as the biggest obstacles for this population.

"They have to be, you know, a really female-friendly kind of workplace. That means they may have to actually think in terms of helping with childcare, transportation, and so on," Athiyaman said.

Childcare is an issue for women regardless of educational attainment level, but Athiyaman said data shows the number of non-college educated people in the rural labor reserve is six times larger than the college-educated pool.

Athiyaman said transportation can be a challenge for women particularly in the more rural areas of the state, where public transportation options aren't as readily available.

Ill health may be a trickier subject. About one in four nonparticipants in the labor reserve cite COVID-19 as their main reason for not actively seeking work.

A January paper by Athiyaman found increasing retirements may also be driving the labor shortage. The retirement growth rate in Illinois stood at about 1% for each one to two week time period.

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