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Finding jobs around Chicago will be tough even as economy reopens, experts say

‘There are a lot of jobs that are basically on life support right now,’ outplacement firm exec Andrew Challenger says. ‘If the demand doesn’t come back, they will be gone.’

A server at Poor Phil’s in Oak Park takes orders for patio dining in May.
A server at Poor Phil’s in Oak Park takes orders for patio dining, as Illinois’ coronavirus shutdown rules have begun to be eased. But will jobs return, too?
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

The economy is on the mend — sort of. Restaurants are stirring to life for outdoor dining, stores untouched by the recent looting are back in business, and workers are venturing back to offices, even if just for a change of scenery.

So what’s happening to all those jobs we lost?

Their return has been slow — agonizingly so for those desperate to work.

According to the Labor Department, the U.S. economy added 2.5 million jobs in May. But that was just one in nine of those lost since the pandemic led to rapid shutdowns in March. Some analysts believe up to 40% of those jobs could be gone for good.

Employers worried about the future are slow to hire, challenging job seekers at all levels. “Things are starting to reopen, but everyone is concerned about adding new team members,” said Courtney Morrison, a Pilsen resident who’s wrapping up a one-year AmeriCorps internship with the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.

Courtney Morrison
Provided

The Northwestern University graduate is seeking a post in media or communications. Following the advice of the Career Transitions Center of Chicago, Morrison said she’s staying positive and working her contacts while dealing with the paired stresses of a job search and a lease due for renewal.

Career Transitions Center deals with many mid-career professionals, among them one with a fresh MBA from Loyola University Chicago and experience in banking. Asking that his name not be used, he said banks are interviewing but have been slow to hire and that one cut the salary offer twice for the open position.

“I’m concerned that the economic conditions may be depressing salaries for a lot of jobs,” he said.

Marie Trzupek Lynch, chief executive officer of the job-placement service Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, said Cook County has 650,000 unemployed people — and about 75,000 job postings.

Lynch said that in May 2010, when the region was coming out of the most recent previous recession, Cook County had 200,000 people unemployed — and 150,000 open positions.

It’s likely that recent grads will be competing for jobs with experienced applicants, especially as layoffs spread at professional firms and corporate offices. Companies such as United Airlines, Boeing and Hyatt are cutting or furloughing hundreds of employees in Chicago in their global retrenching. In-flight entertainment provider Gogo furloughed more than 400 employees here. Aon, the insurance broker and consulting firm headquartered downtown, has cut most staff salaries 20% but is avoiding layoffs.

Less noticeable because they’re out of the public spotlight, many law, accounting and other professional services firms have reduced staff or cut salaries as their clients have faced troubles of their own.

So even with the economy reopens, some hoping to get back to work will find they have no job waiting.

Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said some companies are limping through the summer with bailout money from the federal Payroll Protection Program. And more bad news could rip through the economy if there isn’t much progress in containing the pandemic and consumers stay nervous, according to Challenger.

“There are a lot of jobs that are basically on life support right now,” he said. “If the demand doesn’t come back, they will be gone.”

At this early stage in the recovery, some bar and restaurant workers around Chicago have been going back to work. But some of them say only the most experienced people, those who don’t need training, are getting the calls to come back.

Sam Toia, head of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said some owners have found their kitchen staffers moved to other states that reopened their economies sooner.

Temporary staffing firms are stepping up recruitment for factory jobs. Tim Bell, executive director of the pro-labor Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, said he’s noticed the staffing firms putting out lawn signs in manufacturing areas to attract workers. But Bell said some have been shut out of work because of child-care responsibilities with schools shut down because of the pandemic.

A worker recruitment sign in an industrial area of Itasca.
Tim Bell

More health-care businesses have been hiring as elective procedures and routine doctor visits make a comeback. And the start of summer has brought steady demand for construction labor. State government data show Amazon, benefiting from the pandemic’s push toward stay-at-home shopping, wants to fill 1,400 jobs in Illinois.

But if your line of work involves gathering a crowd into an enclosed space, the outlook isn’t good. Chicago’s convention business is close to writing off the rest of this year.

The major hotels that cater to conventions mostly remain closed. And some could end up staying closed until next year, said Michael Jacobson, chief executive officer of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, who said some of them are making their furloughs permanent.

“There is no end in sight for this,” Jacobson said.

Travel, particularly aviation, is down for the count. And employment in the arts doesn’t look much better. The Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet have scrapped their 2020 dates, and other arts and theatrical programming for the city’s normally full autumn season is sure to follow.

Economists struggle to compute the uncertainty of it all. Nobody knows whether there will be a vaccine or an effective treatment for COVID-19. Without those, people could be reluctant to hop on a plane, attend a banquet or return to a crowded office.

“We saw a lot of hiring in May, but we’re still not close to where we were.” said Bill Adams, senior economist at PNC Financial Services. “It will be a long and uncertain road to a full recovery,” probably extending “well into 2021.”

Bill Adams, senior economist at PNC Financial Services
Provided

That’s a point that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell emphasized in a report to Congress on Tuesday. Powell said Congress might need to add to its already record package of economic aid because “a full recovery is unlikely” without confidence that COVID-19 is contained.

The nation’s recession officially began in February. The longer it stretches, the more lasting its damage will be, Powell said.

“If a small or medium-sized business becomes insolvent because the economy recovers too slowly, we lose more than just that business,” he said. “These businesses are the heart of our economy and often embody the work of generations.”

According to the Fed, employment has fallen by nearly 35% for workers who previously were in the bottom fourth of wage-earners, a group that’s disproportionately Black and Hispanic. By comparison, the Fed said, employment among high-wage earners is down just 5%.