FULL EPISODE: 12/26/21 WorkingNation’s Jane Oates and Intl. Downtown Assoc. CEO David Downey on workforce trends

Published: Dec. 25, 2021 at 8:13 PM EST
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Washington, D.C. –  Greta Van Susteren interviewed former Department of Labor official Jane Oates, now president of WorkingNation, a non-profit focused on solutions for workplace issues, and David Downey, president and CEO of the International Downtown Association, about the changing workforce in America for Gray TV’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren” airing Sunday, December 26, 2021.

Oates, who served under President Obama as assistant secretary of the Employment and Training Administration at the Labor Department, told Van Susteren that even though a recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) found 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September alone, she was remaining “optimistic’, explaining that many recent graduates who entered a “miserable” job market and took “placeholder” jobs were now transitioning “from being a barista to being perhaps somebody in the banking industry or somebody in healthcare.”

Still, of those in their 40s and 50s leaving the workforce, Oates said: “I think people are really rethinking jobs that were 24/7 jobs. We’re certainly seeing that in healthcare … seeing people after 18 months of grueling work, they decided to leave to go to pharmaceutical companies … or to take their nest egg and spend it.” Oates added: “I think it’s going to be a huge problem down the road because people are dipping into their 401(k)s and they’re not going to have enough when they are 65.”

At the same time, Oates said, there are a lot of people who are applying for jobs and not finding them due to age, lack of experience, or because of artificial intelligence algorithms used by potential employers. “When you apply for a job, it’s really a magician’s feat to get a human being to look at your resume and your application,” she explained.

International Downtown Association president David Downey said that although he disagreed with reports that downtown areas have been emptied as a result of the pandemic, “I would agree in the idea that COVID has accelerated the opportunity for a hybrid work environment.”

Downey is backing the Revitalizing Downtowns Act introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow and others, that would provide tax incentives for converting office buildings into mixed-use spaces. “We had hopes of having it included in the recent reconciliation package,” said Downey, “but now with support from both sides of the aisles, we’re … really ramping up for a full court press after the first of the year.”

Interview excerpts are below.

Jane Oates Highlights

Greta Van Susteren

4.4 million people quit their jobs. Where did they go and why did they quit?

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

It’s complicated. I mean, I want to be clear, that 4.4 million in the JOLTs report is a series high, so something to really keep watching. But I really think we need to go back in time a little bit to the class of 2000 and of 2020 and the class of 2021. Those graduates, whether they were coming out of high school or coming out with an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s or a graduate degree, had a miserable workforce outlook. So I think a lot of them took jobs that were placeholder jobs, temporary jobs that weren’t related to what they studied, and now they’re starting to find real opportunities into career paths. So I’m being an optimist about it.

Greta Van Susteren

The first job was never particularly attractive, never particularly high paying, often not on a career path, but you did it because it was a job and you didn’t quit it until you have another one lined up that was better.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

Well, there were a lot of hires. I mean, one million people in the last jobs report got hired. So there’s some evidence that people did go from being a barista to being perhaps somebody in the banking industry or somebody in healthcare. I think that I’m going to be optimistic about that, although I don’t want to dismiss, I think there’s a ton of people probably over 45, over 50, who said, “I’m done. I really have been running this rat race. I’m going to enjoy my life, enjoy my family, enjoy my friends and take a job that’s not as stressful.”

Greta Van Susteren

But if you do that, if you quit your job, especially in your 40s or 50s, you can’t just retire. I mean, very few people have a nest egg that enables them to retire at their current standard of living or even lesser. I mean, you still have to have money.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

I think people are really rethinking jobs that were 24/7 jobs. We’re certainly seeing that in healthcare, in that sector, certainly seeing people after 18 months of grueling work, they decided to leave to go to pharmaceutical companies, to go whatever, or to take their nest egg and spend it. And I think it’s going to be a huge problem down the road because people are dipping into their 401(k)s and they’re not going to have enough when they are 65.

Greta Van Susteren

Obviously, we need to help people during COVID. COVID benefits, the extension of the federal unemployment benefits, is very helpful for some, but did it have an impact long-term on employment, people not wanting to do certain jobs and so now employers having a difficult time filling those jobs?

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

I still believe in my core that most of the American people are hardworking and believe that that’s how you build a better life for yourself and your community. So, I don’t buy into that people don’t want to work. I think there’s lots of people still completely concerned about where they’re going to leave their kids. I mean, thank God schools are open, but I mean, what happens if a new variant comes like Omicron and they close again? I hope that never happens, but I think a lot of women were very nervous about that. And I think there’s a lot of discrimination against people who did stay home to take care of their families, young or old.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

When you apply for a job, it’s really a magician’s feat to get a human being to look at your resume and your application. You’re stuck with this awful AI software that sees you didn’t have a job for 16 months, so they put you in the trash bin pile.

Greta Van Susteren

What I don’t like about the software that does this is if you don’t say the magic words, your application may not be considered because there are certain words that it looks for in terms of putting people in certain piles for consideration. And I don’t understand how that possibly benefits employers, or employees for that matter.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

Yeah, I think they’re leaving so much talent on the table. Nobody’s talking about that.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

And by the way, I think if people get excited about the low unemployment rate, they’re really naive. I mean, what I’m looking at is the people who are discouraged and not looking. Now, last month we had a plus. We had 500,000 people come off the sidelines and come in and actively look again. That’s a good sign, but I don’t do a dance about low unemployment rates, because we’re not counting nearly half of the people who are not in the workforce.

Greta Van Susteren

I imagine that if you’re 55 or 60 years old and COVID, you got tossed out of your job because of COVID and you may be taking care of a family member or grandchildren, whatever, now to get back into the job market, your skill may not even be a skill, because technology is moving so fast, a skill that’s even needed. So what do you do?

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

Let’s not hide the fact that if you’re 55 or older, there’s definitely discrimination everywhere. People don’t want to look at an older worker. They think we’re cranky. They think we’re set in our ways, instead of flipping that and saying seasoned and able to work with lots of different people. But I think it’s really a challenge. I think senior workers, especially with a lapse, are finding it difficult to get back in the workforce. And my hope is that this labor market shortage continues and older workers, as well as fill in the blank, younger workers without college, people who have a blip in their criminal record, mothers who have sat out for 10 years to raise their kids, all those populations have had historically a really hard time. I hope these employers who are having a tough time filling jobs start looking at the talent that’s there.

Greta Van Susteren

People discovered that during working from home, the remote, has that caused a huge shift in how people are looking at work? People want to work at home, unless of course, you’re in something like healthcare.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

Yeah. I think in manufacturing and all those frontline jobs, absolutely. They’re never going to be able to be remote. But I do think that some people like the flexibility. People who live in large urban areas or adjacent to large urban areas and have an ungodly commute. I mean, if you’re in California, you don’t want to sit on the 10 for 45 minutes every day. That’s a good day. If you’re in DC, you don’t want to be on the Beltway. I get all of that. But I think this whole remote work thing is probably going to create, in my mind, a shift to hybrid. So you know, there are days in every job that are busier than others. Will employers say you can work remotely one or two days a week? Will they say teams can come in? I mean, there’s an upside for employers too. They lose their real estate footprint.

Greta Van Susteren

It’s interesting. I can understand the remoteness one or two days a week, but five days a week, I think to myself, I met my husband, people meet their spouses at work. We spend a lot of time at work. I realize that we now have other considerations about people dating at work, but you lose that companionship when you work at home.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

Oh, absolutely. And we’re so intent about positive corporate cultures that are inclusive, that embrace people moving up the ladder. How do you build a corporate culture if nobody’s there? We keep saying that employers want people who can work in a team. How do you work in a team remotely? I don’t get to know you. I don’t see the pictures of your kids. We don’t have casual conversations.

Greta Van Susteren

Well, I even notice in a news environment is that we all shifted to our homes for a great period of time. But before that crowded newsroom, if you had an idea, you would bounce it off colleagues and maybe it’s a stupid idea, but at least someone would check you on it. But when you’re solo at home, you don’t have that interaction with people, where you can even do your job better.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

No, I think that’s right. I think that disconnectedness is really going to, in the long term, get to people and say, I want to have a network. Look, when you have ever, any of us ever been looking to make a career move, who do you start with? You start with your network. Well, if you don’t build a network because all you do is know somebody on Zoom, you’re not willing to ask them questions, I think that’s going to have greater impacts. And by the way, I don’t believe that we were as productive as a country from home as we are when we go into an office. I know people said that during the pandemic, I think it was to make us all feel better. But I really think that employers are going to get much more into it, or they’re going to do draconian things like software that tracks how many hours you’re on your computer. I don’t like the idea of that at all.

Greta Van Susteren

I think as we look at how we’re changing, the workforce is changing, the jobs that are changing, how we’re evolving, I think that corporations that require college educations to apply are really losing out because a lot of people can’t go to college … I’d like to see them rethink that requirement.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

Boy, I so agree with you. I mean, you look at a job board and you see 70, 80% of the jobs say either bachelor’s degree required or a bachelor’s degree preferred, and you look at the tasks, the skills that you need for that job. There’s so many people that, as you said, didn’t have the benefit, the blessing of somebody helping them pay for their degree. On the other hand, you see all of these organizations, all these corporations now starting to look at education as a benefit. Why would they say, “We’re going to help you get your bachelor’s degree, but oh, we’re not going to hire you unless you already have one.” It really is a little duplicative to me. I think hiring the people with the right attitude, the right work ethic, the right skills, and helping them get a degree if that’s what they want so they can move up, I think that’s the wave of the future.

Greta Van Susteren

Big buildings in New York, they were filled top to bottom, and now all of a sudden with people working remotely, we’ve now got this empty real estate. What’s going to happen to that? Is that going to be converted to something? Because that can’t possibly stay empty much longer.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

Every company I’ve talked to is reducing its footprint, doing something different. But cities are doing some really interesting things. I mean, cities are thinking about using, even in DC, using some of those buildings for housing, low-cost housing, so we can deal with some of this homeless crisis. Others of them are really doing some very interesting things, talking about putting space in, not like the shared workspace that we’ve seen in the past, but shared production space. So almost creating in a building, a mini incubator where several small businesses could come and do some shared services. I mean, look, I think there’s no doubt, more business start-ups during the COVID period than the five years before when you look at the data. Lots of people are trying their foot in doing things on their own, whether it’s consulting, whether it’s making a product.

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

So, they’re going to need space and they’re going to need space that’s way outside of their house. Because look, the tax laws say, “You have to have a commercial kitchen if you want to cook.” Those kinds of things, I think we’re going to see people doing that multiple-use space, but certainly I like the low income housing, because as anybody who lives in a city, it’s heartbreaking to walk past people every day sleeping on the street.

Greta Van Susteren

In the pandemic period of about two years, has automation made a big impact on the job market? I know that even before COVID, I noticed at my grocery store, they used to have someone who w-s at the gate for parking. That’s gone. I saw automation. At the grocery store, now we have self-checkout. That was even pre COVID. But what’s the impact of COVID and where are we headed?

Jane Oates, President, WorkingNation

I definitely think in retail and in fast food kinds of things, kiosks are replacing people. And I think that is likely to only grow. I think some automation is really very positive. You look at manufacturing. I don’t want to think about, I’m sure our dads did this kind of work, but I don’t want to think about human beings having to lift up 100 pounds inside of a washing machine. I’m glad there’s a robot to do that. But I do think that we need to realize that we’re not completely out of control. We have some say in this. Just as you said, when you go to the grocery store, you make a choice. Is it worth a few minutes of your time to keep somebody in a relatively good job that pays more than minimum wage and benefits in most grocery stores?

David Downey Highlights

Greta Van Susteren

Can you tell me the COVID impact on towns, cities, villages? Give me the overall picture.

David Downey, President and CEO, International Downtown Association

Well, my goodness, Greta, that’s an enormous question. I think what we found, overall, is that COVID-19 has accelerated many of the trends that we saw coming, not the least of which is change in the work environment and really the demand for traditional office spaces. We’re currently promoting the Revitalizing Downtowns Act, which is going to help to support rehabilitation of office to other uses, and I think that’s typical of what we’re seeing happen in downtowns, is we need to continue to evolve post-pandemic.

David Downey, President and CEO, International Downtown Association

This is an act that’s really straightforward, and it was modeled after the Historic Preservation Tax Credit. You know, we recognize that the best things that we can do with underutilized buildings is adaptive reuse, so it’s a 20% tax credit for qualified expenses so that we can provide an incentive financing tool for owners to reposition their buildings from office to perhaps mixed uses.

David Downey, President and CEO, International Downtown Association

Especially, we’re looking for housing to be added to our urban centers and within the act is a requirement that 20% of those units actually be affordable.

Greta Van Susteren

Well, we saw a little bit of this creeping up on us, but did COVID accelerate the process? Was that almost an accelerant in terms of driving people out of the city, these office buildings started to empty, because it does seem that some of these cities were beginning to empty out.

David Downey, President and CEO, International Downtown Association

You know, I think I would disagree on the emptying out of the city, but I would agree in the idea that COVID has accelerated the opportunity for a hybrid work environment. We still have current and future workforce generations that, not only want to work downtown, but they also want to live and be immediately adjacent to downtown.

David Downey, President and CEO, International Downtown Association

So, I think the emptying out is somewhat temporary as we come out of COVID-19. I think the new reality will involve a hybrid work environment where we’ll have just as many people occupying our urban centers, but it’s going to be on a much different rotating schedule. What we’re hearing from the office market is that employers are not intending to necessarily downsize, but begin to reconfigure how they use the existing space that they have today.

Greta Van Susteren

Are there any sort of model cities? I mean, what cities are doing really well on this?

David Downey, President and CEO, International Downtown Association

You know, the cities that are faring the best, or I should say the urban center kind of central business districts that have done the best during COVID are those that already had been pursuing residential as a key component of their downtown. You know, you talk about New York city and Lower Manhattan back in the 1990s was nine to five and then empty in the evenings.

David Downey, President and CEO, International Downtown Association

They went through this exact same process, and now while the businesses and the offices may have been fairly empty and many of the civic government employees were not there, they still had an abundance of people in Lower Manhattan. So that, along with any major metro that has a strong residential base over the last two decades, really fared much better than those that were still single-use business districts only.

Greta Van Susteren

The Revitalization Downtowns Act is how far along in the process? It’s hard to get things done in the city sometimes.

David Downey, President and CEO, International Downtown Association

You know, it’s been a challenge for sure. We had hopes of having it included in the recent reconciliation package, but now with support from both sides of the aisles, we’re targeting anything that can transpire before the end of the year that has a tax component to it but, most certainly, really ramping up for a full court press after the first of the year.

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About Greta Van Susteren:

Greta Van Susteren is the Chief Political Analyst for Gray Media and host of Full Court Press. Ms. Van Susteren is a veteran of Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and CNN. Her prime-time Fox News Channel Show, “On the Record,” was number 1 in its time slot for 14 1⁄2 years. Before joining Fox News, she hosted CNN’s prime-time news and analysis program, “The Point with Greta Van Susteren,” and co-hosted the network’s daily legal analysis show, “Burden of Proof.” Her legal analysis for CNN’s coverage of Election 2000 earned her the American Bar Association’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Journalism. She continues to host the weekly 30-minute program “Plugged In with Greta Van Susteren” on Voice of America, which broadcasts exclusively outside of the United States.

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