Workforce shortages caused by the pandemic are both a challenge and an opportunity, according to members of the Community Development Advisory Council (CDAC) who met Oct. 28 with Kansas City Fed President Esther George. The gathering was the CDAC’s first in-person meeting in two years. Council members arrived from across the seven states of the Kansas City Fed’s Tenth District, ready to share what they saw happening in their communities.

The Kansas City Fed started the CDAC 20 years ago. It chose members who could provide a deep view of communities and lower-income populations. Since then, the CDAC has been an ongoing source of partnerships and ideas for new focus areas and projects. (Watch for the External LinkTEN magazine article about 20 years of the CDAC in the spring issue.)

External LinkCDAC members offer deep knowledge on subjects such as education, health, housing, technology and social services. Members at the October meeting included:

  • Niki Lee Donawa, chief community relations officer, University Health (formerly Truman Medical Center), Kansas City, Missouri.
  • Don Greenwell, president and executive director, The Builders’ Association, Kansas City, Missouri.
  • Geoff Jolley, executive director, Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), Kansas City, Missouri.
  • Neelima Parasker, president and CEO, SnapIT Solutions, Overland Park, Kansas.
  • Aubrey Abbott Patterson, president and CEO, Hutchinson Community Foundation, Hutchinson, Kansas.
  • Jim Reiff, executive director, Nebraska Enterprise Fund, Omaha, Nebraska.
  • Cecilia Robinson-Woods, superintendent, Millwood Public Schools, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
  • Adrienne R. Smith, president and CEO, New Mexico Caregivers Coalition, Bernalillo, New Mexico.
  • Awais Sufi, president and CEO, SchoolSmartKC, Kansas City, Missouri.

The community development team asks CDAC members to answer questions about what is happening in their communities and in their fields of work. Their comments reflect the experiences of individual members. They do not reflect independent research by the Kansas City Fed.

Low wages and family caregiving responsibilities contribute to the Great Resignation

  • Smith said the serious shortage of home caregivers was due to low wages and their own caregiving responsibilities. Smith said the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the average wage of a New Mexico home care worker was $10.90 in 2009, and $10.92 in 2019. As a result, many caregivers have left the field. “I’ve talked with New Mexico caregivers and to employers across industry sectors,” she said. “Both tell me that low-wage workers have used the opportunity of the pandemic to train for jobs outside of the home care field so they can leave their current job.”
  • Greenwell said many women left construction at the height of the pandemic because they needed to care for family.

The need for childcare has only grown more critical

  • Jolley said more than 5,000 childcare seats were lost across the Kansas City metro area during the pandemic.
  • Abbott Patterson said before COVID, a study showed existing licensed childcare centers only met half the Hutchinson region’s demand, and some centers closed during the pandemic. Now the local community college has cut its associate degree in early childhood education, thought to be partially due to low wages in the field.

The impact of worker shortages ripples throughout the economy

  • Donawa said nurses and respiratory therapists are in very short supply, and the hospital was unable to meet with students regarding hospital career opportunities because schools were closed during the pandemic.
  • Sufi said that many teachers have left the profession after two difficult years, and substitute teaching firms are overtaxed trying to make up the difference. Some schools are seeing 20-30% of teachers out every day.
  • The pipeline for new teachers is slim, Robinson-Woods said. The University of Oklahoma only graduated 36 new teachers this year.
  • Parasker said foreign university students were a large workforce pipeline for U.S. tech companies, but that pipeline has diminished substantially.

The Great Resignation also brings opportunities to train, diversify workforce

  • Greenwell pointed to opportunities to engage new entrants, especially minority populations, in the trades. Various mentoring programs have increased the diversity of first-generation construction workers. A third of workers entering the field in urban areas are women and/or people of color.
  • Robinson-Woods said that the increased use of emergency teaching certifications is attracting more diverse professionals, from various sectors, to teaching.
  • Parasker said that worker shortages were leading to an increased reliance on automation, but also a reduced emphasis on the need for experience or college degrees to enter the tech workforce. For low- and moderate-income (LMI) people, “this is the time to enter the tech workforce,” she said. “Before that gap closes with automation, we have to work hard and diligently to promote the underrepresented population to enter the tech industry.”
  • Jolley said, “We have seen a number of clients choose not to return to their prior employment due to dissatisfaction with the working conditions, pay, mental drain, or for other reasons. Some have chosen to seek other, more satisfying employment.”

The pandemic and other factors are having an impact on mental health

  • Donawa said mental health providers, already in short supply, cannot meet the increased demand for mental health services, especially among LMI and minority populations. “Unfortunately, the most vulnerable are feeling the mental health effects more intensely,” she said. “Job loss, housing instability, food insecurity and other risk factors for poor outcomes have disproportionally hit minority communities.”
  • Greenwell said that mental health issues are a growing concern in construction trades, in some cases driven by transitions in technology. “The cycles of change continue to accelerate in number and frequency,” he said, “and are causing feelings of fear and disconnection. It is feeding general unrest and a personal sense of dissatisfaction and even hopelessness. Suicide is a substantial matter in the construction industry and the community at large.”

The pandemic has created additional stressors on schools and teachers

  • Sufi said there was significant and disproportionate learning loss for LMI communities and students over the past two school years. “Learning loss is particularly prevalent in communities that were using virtual schooling to a greater degree in the last 1.5 years, and LMI urban communities disproportionately engaged in virtual learning,” he said. “This creates a multiplier on learning loss, as these populations were more likely to fall behind even in good times.”

The pandemic highlighted needs of small businesses

  • Jolley said that a major cause of disparities in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) lending patterns was a lack of technical assistance for small businesses. A Troost-Prospect corridor study, for example, found that 40% of small business owners did not apply for a PPP loan and 70% of those small business owners didn’t know the PPP program existed.
  • Reiff said problems with PPP loan applications pointed to a need for technical assistance for small businesses, especially in bookkeeping practices. PPP applicants were best served when working with their bankers, he said. In addition, the pandemic made the divide among various socioeconomic and demographic groups more pronounced. “In the small business space, we see this in terms of high debt loads, including student loans, mortgages, online borrowing, etc.,” he said. “This hampers the ability of businesses to secure the capital they need.”
  • Abbott Patterson said that programs for business owners should target owners who are themselves LMI or Black, indigenous or people of color, rather than businesses that employ LMI individuals. “Employers who are employing people who are LMI are not paying high enough wages,” she said. “Paying workers a living wage should be a requirement for getting assistance.”


Jennifer Wilding

Community Development Specialist

Jennifer Wilding, a community development specialist for the Kansas City Fed, provides communications, engagement, and research for the community development department.

Wilding e…