Higher Ed’s Jobs Recovery Sputters

While higher education recovered, in the first six months of this year, nearly half of the cumulative jobs it had lost since the pandemic’s start, growth sputtered during the most recent quarter. Even after the federal government plowed billions of dollars in pandemic-related aid into the coffers of America’s public and private institutions of higher education, academe significantly trailed the broader economy in its share of cumulative jobs recovered since the beginning of the pandemic, according to preliminary, seasonally adjusted estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Last December clocked in as the darkest month of the pandemic for higher ed, with an estimated 661,000 jobs cumulatively lost in the private and public sectors since the previous February — a reduction of nearly 14 percent. Put another way, one out of every seven employees on the payroll in February 2020 had disappeared from higher ed’s work force by Christmas.

This year, higher ed had seemed to be showing signs of a rebound. Over the first half of 2021, higher ed’s labor force grew cumulatively by an estimated 318,900 jobs. The percentage change in estimated job losses since February 2020 shrank to a 7.2-percent loss in August 2021.

But the third quarter of 2021 didn’t maintain the same momentum as the first six months of the year. Preliminary estimates indicate that higher ed basically added no jobs from July to September. In comparison, during the third quarters of 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, estimated job gains for higher ed ranged from 8,400 to 46,000 new workers. In the broader American economy during the third quarter of this year, 1.8 million new employees joined the work force.

What’s clear is that the labor forces of the U.S. economy and of higher ed not only endured the pandemic’s ugliest days on different schedules, but also are recovering out of sync. While December 2020 was the darkest month for higher ed in terms of cumulative jobs lost, the bleakest moment for the overall American work force became clear in April 2020, when more than 22 million people were reported to have disappeared from payrolls over a period of just two months. But from then to September 2021, the United States added 17.6 million workers back to the labor force — or nearly 80 percent of that 22-million job deficit.

In comparison, higher ed closed only half of its 661,000-job deficit in the nine months after December 2020. The job losses have been blamed for diminished services and supply-chain woes on many campuses.

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