Difficult to Fill Job Openings in 2021

by Jessica Nelson

April 11, 2022

Oregon’s decade-long economic expansion ended in the first months of 2020. The rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the economic trend virtually overnight. While the pandemic recession was deep and the job losses remarkably fast as they took hold over two months in spring 2020, the state has since regained more than four out of five lost jobs. The unemployment rate has returned to about 4%, near the rate prior to the pandemic. Employers posted more job openings in 2021 than we’ve seen in the history of this survey, since 2013. They also told us record volumes of job openings were difficult to fill, accounting for 72% of vacancies in 2021.

What can employers do to find the workers they need? We looked for signals from our Oregon Job Vacancy Survey, which is designed to identify employers’ vacancies, which ones they have a difficult time filling, and to get a business perspective on why these jobs may be going unfilled. The Employment Department surveyed 14,000 private-sector employers with two or more employees over the course of 2021 and received responses from 4,400, a slightly lower response than the 4,900 businesses who told us about their hiring in 2020.
Private employers in Oregon reported about 97,000 job vacancies at any given time in 2021, more than double the vacancies in 2020. Starting wages averaged $19.69. Businesses reported difficulty filling 69,500 of their job vacancies, which accounted for 72% of the total, a jump of 20 percentage points compared with 2020 (51%) and the highest rate since the question was added in 2013. Looking back, the prior peak was 64% in 2016 and 2017 as Oregon’s economic expansion heated up and unemployment rates fell to record lows by the end of 2017. Rapid job growth in 2021, as we added back jobs lost to the pandemic, led to a very competitive hiring environment.

Many characteristics of vacancies in 2021 were very similar to past findings. Four out of five job vacancies were for full-time positions, and nine out of 10 openings were for permanent positions, regardless of whether or not the vacancy was difficult to fill. Similarly, relatively few hard-to-fill job vacancies (31%) and vacancies filled without difficulty (28%) required education beyond high school.
Difficult-to-fill vacancies had two high-level differences in 2021. First, they paid a starting wage that averaged about $2 more per hour than vacancies filled without difficulty. In many cases in 2021, employers were offering higher wages for difficult-to-fill job openings than others in the same occupation. Difficult-to-fill vacancies were also far more likely to require previous work experience (59%) than job openings filled without difficulty (38%). With a record volume of job openings and a limited pool of candidates, employers may have needed to offer higher wages or other benefits to find the experienced candidates they were seeking.

Employers reported difficulty in hiring for 86% of openings that required more than five years of experience, and 81% of vacancies requiring one to five years of experience. A lower share of vacancies required long-term experience than prior to the pandemic. Openings citing a requirement of more than five years shrank to 4% of vacancies in 2021, from 7% in 2019. Vacancies requiring one to five years of experience accounted for 35% of 2021 vacancies, a drop from 39% in 2019. The share of vacancies employers reported as having no experience requirement jumped 5 percentage points compared with prior to the pandemic, to 42% in 2021. Entry-level jobs were more heavily affected by pandemic job losses, and rapid hiring occurred in 2021 to replace those positions as businesses resumed operations after pandemic restrictions loosened.
Why Are Job Vacancies Difficult to Fill?

For each difficult-to-fill vacancy, employers offered open-ended responses to identify the primary challenge for the unfilled opening. Their responses were then sorted into 12 categories. Employers indicated that a lack of applicants was the primary factor in almost half of their challenging openings in 2021. That’s an unusual finding – the primary reasons for difficulty are usually more spread out among several factors. The reopening conditions in 2021 meant many employers were hiring simultaneously for similarly skilled workers. While the number of job openings reached record highs, the unemployment rate steadily dropped to near pre-pandemic lows by the end of 2021, and job openings outnumbered unemployed workers. Many positions seem to have gone unnoticed in the swell of opportunities and didn’t receive enough applicants.
As the economy grew and unemployment rates were low in the years leading up to the pandemic, employers had the most difficulty getting any applications for their job openings at all, similar to their reports in 2021. The struggle to find candidates with specific qualifications has been either the second or third most prevalent challenge in recent years, although it moved to the top reason in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Another heavily reported reason prior to the pandemic was unfavorable working conditions – like part-time jobs, short hours, nontraditional shifts, and demanding physical labor. Employers reported unfavorable working conditions less frequently than typical in 2021, accounting for 5% of difficult-to-fill vacancies.

Low wages came in as the third most reported reason for difficulty in 2021, no doubt driven there by rapid increases in starting wages offered to entice applicants as businesses reopened and worker scarcity became a major dilemma for employers. More business responses acknowledged that their wages weren’t competitive in 2021, accounting for 11% of challenging openings, compared with about 6% in 2017 through 2019.

Responses that specifically cited the pandemic or its effects increased in 2021 to 13% of difficult-to-fill vacancies, from 8% in 2020. Responses citing unemployment insurance benefits or UI accounted for 9% of 2021 hard-to-fill jobs. Employers became increasingly vocal about how these benefits affected the availability of workers in the middle of 2021; but we continued to hear about UI throughout the year, even after enhanced benefits programs ended on September 6, 2021. In our standard categories for difficulty, which we’ve used since 2013, these COVID-related reasons were mostly clustered in the low wages and lack of applicants categories.
Among 2021 job vacancies where employers reported a lack of applicants, the most common occupations included:

  • Retail salespersons
  • Personal care aides
  • Nursing assistants
  • Restaurant cooks
  • Maids and housekeeping cleaners
  • Cashiers

Vacancies that lacked qualified candidates included jobs like:

  • Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers
  • Registered nurses
  • Personal care aides
  • Electricians

Top occupations where employers cited low wages as the primary challenge included:

  • Maids and housekeeping cleaners
  • Personal care aides
  • Restaurant cooks

Overall, employers reported difficult-to-fill job vacancies in 379 different occupations in 2021, a surprising increase from 285 occupations with difficult-to-fill vacancies in 2020. The top 15 occupations shown in the table reflect about one-third of the difficult-to-fill openings in 2021. Jobs with the largest number of hard-to-fill vacancies included personal care aides (3,800), retail salespersons (3,100), heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers (2,700), restaurant cooks (2,300), and nursing assistants (2,200).

Difficulty filling jobs hit all areas of the state in 2021. Employers reported larger shares of hard-to-fill openings in every region. Portland Metro employers reported the least difficulty; still, nearly two-thirds of openings (64%) in the area were difficult. Regions reporting the highest shares of difficult-to-fill vacancies included the East Cascades (81%), the Rogue Valley (81%), and Northwest Oregon (77%).
The pandemic affected each area of the state differently, with restrictions implemented and relaxed county by county as the pandemic wore on. Job recovery trends in 2021 diverged across Oregon, with East Cascades the first region to fully recover from pandemic job losses by early 2022, and Eastern Oregon close to a full recovery. Most other areas of the state remain below pre-pandemic job counts.

Employers in Southwestern Oregon, Clackamas County, and Lane County were the most likely to mention the virus or its effects specifically in their responses, though the range between regions wasn’t large. Across the state, employers referenced COVID-19 or the pandemic and related programs in responses representing about 13% of difficult-to-fill vacancies. Of course, we know effects of the pandemic have been pervasive and affected all jobs and people to varying degrees.
There wasn’t as much variation in average starting wages across the state as one might expect. Average starting wage for hard-to-fill jobs ranged from less than $18 per hour in Northwest Oregon, Southwestern Oregon, and the Rogue Valley to above $23 per hour in the Portland Metro region. Portland Metro employers were more often recruiting for jobs that required education beyond high school and previous work experience.

As we approach a full jobs recovery after the pandemic recession, it’s likely that many characteristics of job vacancies will remain similar to what we’ve seen in the past. A typical job vacancy tends to be for a full-time, permanent position. The majority tend to require previous work experience, and about one-third tend to require education beyond high school. Employers faced increased difficulty filling open jobs in 2021, with the swiftly falling unemployment rate and some workers still sidelined by pandemic-related factors. Employers may need to consider adjusting their experience and education requirements where possible and providing more training on the job, or they may need to raise the wages (or some combination of pay and perks like benefits or other work flexibility) they offer in order to reach the experienced applicants and qualified candidates they’re seeking.


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