Has A Government Ever Taken Drastic Measures To Address A Labor Shortage?

Define “drastic” as you will, but has any government ever taken drastic measures in response to a labor shortage? About the only solutions I can see, apart from state-sanctioned slavery, is to cut benefits to the unemployed. Surely there must be other options???

It’s been done often enough before. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union faced a labour shortage and so very rapidly got 18 million women, mostly housewives, into paid employment, in part by increasing access to child care. Getting women into employment was also a big thing during World War II, not just in the USSR but in pretty much every warring country.

Didnt North Korea do some kind of forced employment hauling people into rural areas to work farms due to a pretty serious food shortage.

Immigration has been the traditional method to increase the labour pool once internal resources are exhausted, like @psychonaut suggestion that childcare opened up the female workforce.

I remember seeing a news story 5-10 years ago in China where Foxconn or someone similar was having real trouble getting cell phones/tablets made as part of a labor shortage, so the Chinese government made it mandatory for local college students to work as unpaid temps at the Foxconn facility to gain credits to graduate from college.

Yep. That’s what I was going to say. Big increases in immigration is the normal method.

Another way of addressing labour shortages is to increase the length of the working day or of the working week. In many countries the official working week is six days long; in others the working day is 9 or 10 hours instead of the more usual 8. These rules might apply only officially to government jobs, but the private sector will usually follow suit, and working less than the official number of hours might affect employees’ entitlement to state pensions, unemployment benefits, etc.

Oh, and let’s not forget raising the retirement age, which seems to be quite common among European countries these days.

That’s how we got feudalism, IIRC.

Starting with the Roman Empire in decline, and ongoing, peasants were at various times forbidden from leaving their farms to seek their fortune in the city, both to limit the city poor who were a disruptive danger to public order, and to ensure a supply of farmers. Eventually the laws required most people to follow in the vader’s vootschtapps.

The same happened in other disruptive times, like (IIRC) after the Black Death in some areas when manpower was in short supply.

A more modern example is very short term, when the government takes soldiers and uses them to fill in - didn’t Ronald Reagan do something like that for a while after firing all the air traffic controllers? Certainly in heavy lifting situations, they are put to work in places like sandbagging during floods. However, if your solution to a shortage of Assembly line workers is “See the world, or at least the inside of all the Apple factories” then you need to go back to the draft, volunteers will be less willing.

More likely, the solutions are (a) higher wages and (b) automation. For example - almost every every decent sized restaurant has those dishwashers where you fill and roll the tray through in a matter of a minute or three, instead of sinks full of suds and a guy up to his elbows. One less drudge position, faster turn-around - the bus boy can put the dishes directly onto the tray and then go get the next load. A similar automation concept is to eliminate dishes, serve food to go, in disposable containers. McD’s even has enter your order screens, eliminating a frustrating counter job as much as possible - it’s cheaper to add a new screen than another employee.

In grocery stores, self-scanning replaces cashiers - one attendant can monitor a dozen stations, and does not spend their day mind-numbingly doing something people can do for themselves. Credit and debit replace the need to handle cash. In gas stations, self–serve allows one attendant to monitor a dozen or more pumps, again aided by the technology of electronic pay. And so on… (I read about one experiment where a service like Amazon, all the warehouse bins are on automated carts. The order picker does not spend time to go up and down the aisles, the aisle contents line up to drive past him or her and they only need to pick, pick, pick - which soon will be done by robots too. Let’s not forget Netflix (while they are still around) where thousands of Blockbuster employees have been replaced by your keyboard and remote.

Elon Musk’s assembly lines are as automated as that sort of assembly can get. China is finding itself evolving economically to the point where automation can beat paying drudge wages; something simple like sewing clothes is moving to even worse-paid areas like Vietnam and Bangladesh.

One might be tempted to say “child care” but generally in North America, both spouses already work. Even Europe with its far better social safety net and easily available cheap daycare is suffering from the same decline in demographics - it still does not pay to have children, you have to really want them.

So basically, the only jobs left will be the ones where the human cannot be replaced, or where people are willing to pay more for the privilege of getting that service. There. the level of wages will rise until the jobs are filled. Personally I prefer to do my own gas pumping and McD order entry, scan my own groceries, etc.

ETA: Canada, USA, Australia and perhaps Britain address the labour shortage by importing new workers. More insular countries generally avoid that, but then have “guest workers” who eventually hang around long enough to want to become local citizens.

I should add here that very short term, I read stories of nurses and doctors (especially nurses) being required to work overtime because fatigue and peers with COVID infections have severely reduced the number who can work. The result is obviously predictable - burned out nurses quit, making the problem even worse. When there are not enough 16-hour-day 7-day-week nurses, they have to resort to contract labour companies, that have the flexibility to outbid the union rates. It’s a deadly spiral and the short term cure is worse than the disease - literally.

Unfortunately we’re not well constituted right now to make use of the potential labor pool of immigrants:


During WWII, the U.S. government implemented the Stabilization Act of 1942. It regulated price increases, but it also froze wages, so that companies wouldn’t be able to outbid each other on workers (who were often scarce, in part due to many workers having joined the military).

Many governments have even gone so far as to declare that peace has broken out and have sent the former conscripts back to the work pool or at least to university.

Don’t feel bad, I read articles suggesting that between COVID and bureaucratic ineptness (mostly the latter) the Canadian immigration system is even worse off. 3-year wait to hear from the government is not uncommon. At one point it was suggested to scrap all applications and have everyone start over, despite the onerous costs this implied for third world applicants.

Unfortunately (fortunately?), Canada does not have a large pool of illegal economic migrants to fall back on to keep wages low.

Reagan’s actions created a labor shortage in the Air Traffic Controller market

During the early 20th century lots of Italians and other Europeans were invited here to the US on a temporary basis to do stonework, such as building dams and bridges. Once their time was up a number of them refused to return home. This led to some violence but eventually most of them were allowed to stay.

In Western Europe after WW2 it took some years for for the national economies to recover and there was a massive labour shortage. Countries with colonial empires recruited workers from these countries in large numbers.

The UK went as far as altering citizenship laws to ease migration. There was large scale migration from the West Indies, Africa, India and Pakistan during the 1950s and 1960s and this transformed the UK into a multi-cultural society. France had migration from Africa, especially North Africa. Germany imported labour from Turkey.

Countries differed in the legal arrangements for such migration. Some were long term work visas. The migrants always came from poorer countries. After a few years family members joined and settled.

As you might imagine, this solution to a labour shortage did not come without problems. Aside from a few exceptions, West European politicians were very keen to avoid the kind of desperate civil rights issues that were prevalent in the US. Laws were passed to prevent racial discrimination and encourage equal opportunities. It generally worked out.

Labour shortages are not the only thing that can be solved by immigration. It is the obvious answer to an ageing population. If an economy cannot generate enough young taxpayers by itself, immigration is a potential solution.

Politicians like to persuade the public that they can control immigration with intricate work visa rules. Like switching on and off a tap of appropriately qualified workers from other countries. This does not bear much examination. It requires governments to be very attuned the requirements of all sectors of the economy and adjust work visa policies appropriately in a timely manner. Sadly Labour markets are far too dynamic and government bureaucracies are far too slow and inefficient.

A big part of the UK Brexit policy was to withdraw from the free mobility of Labour that came with EU membership and replace it with a carefully calibrated work visa policy to attract the ‘brightest and best’ to work in the UK. There is some scepticism that this cunning plan will work and labour shortages are becoming very apparent.

If only robots and AI were a bit smarter.

(Bolding mine).

I don’t want to sidetrack the thread, especially in FQ, but I don’t think Netflix is going anywhere.

The 200,000 subscribers they lost in the first quarter of 2022 is the first time their quarterly subscriber base has dropped in more than a decade. But let’s continue that discussion elsewhere.

Here. Let’s continue it here.

Yes, I was more pointing out that online streaming - whoever it turns out to be, or however constituted - is a Prime (sorry!) example of modern technology and automation eliminating a whole economic sector, specifically DVD rental stores. Meanwhile it makes things cheaper and simpler and far faster for the consumer - win, win, win.

Another example of government meddling, probably the opposite of OP’s question … Years ago NJ decided that there could not be self-serve gas stations, thereby ensuring employment opportunities for less skilled workers. With the current worker shortage, they have decided this sort of protection for workers is no longer necessary.

I guess the question would be - what do you expect? You can’t force people to work except for the very short term. Or rather, you can force them to show up, but you can’t ensure they produce effectively (just ask the Russian army top brass.) You need to use incentives like pay and amenities. The government does not need to raise minimum wages, for example, if nobody will work for minimum wage anyway. Businesses will adapt to the needs of workers (or die trying). If the working conditions are crap, fewer people will stay in the job no matter what the pay rate.

(There’s a political cartoon from just before COVID:
First woman '“Trump created 500,000 jobs last month!”
Second woman - “I know. I have three of them!”)

My wife manages a retail establishment, and getting qualified people willing to on-demand hours and an erratic part time schedule has been getting harder and harder. When people get more reliable, 40-hours guaranteed daytime jobs, they quit their erratic job. I suspect companies like Uber and DoorDash will see the same thing - they will have to make the job worthwhile.

I also think child care is a red herring - most women are already working, cheap child care will simply make their take-home net worth much better; job satisfaction rather than extra workers.

I spent six months in Switzerland in 1967 and they had a severe labor shortage. I recall that one month, the official unemployment in Zurich was a total of 7. The response was to import lots of “Fremdarbeiter” (foreign workers), mostly from Italy and Spain. They mostly jobs, such as garbage collection, that Swiss didn’t want to do. The main problem was that these people also created demand and thus more workers were needed. Also they were not permanent immigrants and therefore were not happy. I guess it all got sorted out eventually.