What's Tony Thinking

“Now Hiring;” Thoughts on The Great Resignation


All sorts of businesses continue to have signs out looking for people to work. The grocery stores, restaurants and various retailers all need people to come work for them.

In a previous millennia — when I was a kid and a young man — most businesses were local and locally owned. They were small businesses owned by the people who ran them. Sure, they hired some people if there was enough business, and in doing so, provided local employment.

Sometime along about the 80’s locally-owned businesses began to disappear, to be replaced by chains and franchises. So visiting most any town or small city in America means that you see the same businesses as you saw in the last town: Subway, McDonalds, Super Eight, Red Robin, Big Five, Wine Outlet, Office Max etc. The same restaurants, the same retailers. Then the big box stores put the finishing touches on the trend, driving small groceries and locally owned department stores out of business.

Now, the chickens of this chain/ franchise system have come home to roost. These chains can’t find anyone to flip the burgers, operate the check-outs, stock the shelves or help people try on shoes. It may be because wages are low and working conditions, including prospects of advancement, aren’t great. But it may also be because, as a national chain or franchise, locals who work there aren’t that invested. How could they be? Why would they be?

My guess is that if businesses were operated by the people who owned them, there would not be the same labor shortage there is now. The people who own the business would be there trying to make a go of it. They are invested, literally and figuratively.

A decade ago we lived for a year in Toronto. One of the things that struck us about that very big city was how many small, independent businesses there were. Honestly, it helped make that city interesting and fun. More variety, more color, more local character and pride. Quite a contrast to the bland sameness of American retail landscape.

While I’m sure that many of the small, locally owned businesses in Canada were subject to the same monocultural pressures as in the States, they also did have one great advantage. With a nationalized health care system, these businesses didn’t have to bear the burden of paying their employees health care costs.

That has been a burden for all small employers, but also for the sector I know best, churches. Employer borne health care costs, starting in the 80’s, pushed growing numbers of small congregations over the edge and out of business. Overhead was just too high.

The chains then came up with ways to hire people but keep their hours below the threshold that would trigger health care and other benefits. Which meant more people without health care.

So, ironically, a national health care plan might have contributed to a more vibrant, more local economy. Resistance to the same has hastened the transition to businesses that benefit from economies of scale. It has also meant that employees aren’t invested because their employers are investing in them.

At the same time, in the 80’s union busting efforts were in full swing, with the result that fewer and fewer employees were protected by collective organizing. This too benefited the large scale retailers and chains.

Are we surprised that people are saying “no thanks” and “no way” to these jobs? Are we surprised that downtowns, from small towns to big cities where locally owned businesses once thrived, are emptied out and depressed, haunts of the lost and the addicted?




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