SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A record nearly 48 million American workers quit their jobs in 2021 and Bay Area businesses are still struggling to find the workers they need in almost every sectors.
The tight labor market sparked off by the phenomenon known as "the Great Resignation" is still going strong in 2022.
According to the most recent federal data from the U.S. Department of Labor, 4.3 million people voluntarily quit their jobs in January, just shy of the record high set in November 2021.
Strong job market, better opportunities
Data suggests most aren't quitting to do nothing. A strong job market with many opportunities and higher pay have attracted many to pivot to something better or re-invent their careers.
The COVID-19 pandemic set off in motion an economic churn that initially began with widespread job losses as businesses were forced to shut down.
That quickly transformed into a tight labor market as millions of American workers re-evaluated what they wanted to do with their lives and how they wanted to work. Since the spring of 2021, that began the start of the phenomenon of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs.
The pandemic exacerbated labor trends that already existed.
After rising steadily for more than three decades, the overall labor force participation rate peaked at 67.3 percent in early 2000 and subsequently fell to 62.7 percent by mid-2016.
It is generally projected to decline to 61.0 percent in 2026.
In recent years, the movement of the baby-boom population into age groups that typically exhibit low labor force participation has placed downward pressure on the overall participation rate.
The pandemic only accelerated the number of retirements during that period.
"We have seen a significant amount of retirements," says Alex Lin, Senior U.S. Economist with Bank of America.
"The surge in retirements that we did see was driven by those that were in the 65 to 74 year age group, particularly women and white workers," he says.
Lin attributed wealth gains as well as sensitivity and concern about Covid and the pandemic to those choosing to retire early.
"With increased financial security and a nervousness related to potentially getting the disease, there's a compelling case (to retire early if they can)," Lin says.
Hard hit sectors
Leisure and hospitality, accommodation and food services as well as retail trade continues to rank amongst the sectors with the highest quit rates.
"The restaurant business is not something I can really trust," says Henry Góngora, a former waiter, chef and bartender who has worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years.
During the pandemic, Góngora experienced prolonged uncertainty and anxiety with little to no income to pay for his family's bills.
"From depending on the restaurant business for more than 20 years to have nothing and struggles, it's better for me to have something that is more reliable."
Like many other restaurant workers he knows, he has switched to working in construction where he finds stability and good pay.
"If we have to work more physical and more hours, we got to do it," he says.
Economists agree that many have taken pause during the pandemic to reassess and make changes.
At the start of 2022, 22-year-old Katie Paniagua-Aguiar chose to quit her job to focus on building qualification and experience in a completely different field.
Before the pandemic she wanted a career in technology. She worked at a retail job that supported that goal, while supplementing her income by taking on babysitting as a second job.
Through the pandemic, she decided to change course completely.
"In the last 6-12 months, I've seen about 10-15 of my colleagues leave, but also 3-4 managers. I would say a lot more opportunities arose for them and different career paths." Paniagua-Aguiar says.
"At this point in time, I knew technology isn't what I wanted to choose as a career path anymore. I wanted to work more closely with children, so I'm doing my child development (qualification) and going back to school," she says.
"While babysitting was my side gig at the time, it ended up becoming my full time job," ," says Paniagua-Aguiar. "I am making about maybe $1,000-$2,000 more a month just babysitting, compared to when I was working two jobs and feeling burnt out. Now I have a little bit of a lighter schedule but it gives me more opportunities to work on school and my future."
Among the reasons for high quit rates are low pay (63%), a lack of opportunities for advancement (63%), and almost half cited childcare, according to a recent Pew Research Centre survey.
"We have seen an increase in the number of people leaving the labor force for family responsibilities," says Alex Lin, Senior US Economist with Bank of America.
From 2020 to 2021, most Californian K-12 public schools remained shut as the state waited for Covid-19 spikes in infections and hospitalizations to stabilize.
Stacey Waldspurger, a former ad executive-turned-baker started selling bread and pastries from her home kitchen a year after the pandemic began.
Customers would drive by her house for order pick-ups and the word of mouth referrals quickly spread through the community and her home baking business became wildly successful.
Waldspurger's pivot to baking worked out so well that in March 2022, she committed to a shop space on Madrona Street in downtown Mill Valley opening a bakery in town.
This meant she left her advertising career for good and there was no turning back.
"Monday, March 17, 2020 was the first day of home school and they only returned full time in April 2021," Waldspurger says.
"All of a sudden I was their teacher, something I am not qualified to do at all. There was no time for me to look for more work or new work at that point either," she says.
"During the pandemic, as I was taking care of the kids, I was also racking my brain on what kind of next career move I was going to make, meanwhile I was baking as a nervous habit, gifting to friends and family." she said.
"To be honest it took me a long time to realize those two things can go together - that I could bake and sell."
According to Bay Area Council President Jim Wunderman, childcare was a major factor contributing to the loss of women in the workforce.
"We especially saw the loss of women in the workforce. They were gaining and then now we are losing women, who are in many cases choosing to stay at home with their kids," Wunderman said.
Moving away and population loss
California and the Bay Area saw net population loss due to falling births, fewer international and domestic arrivals and more deaths during the pandemic.
Including 12 months of pandemic, California lost 173,000 people in the year ending July 1 2021. At the same time, annual deaths rose by 63,900 according to state data.
For the first time ever, California has lost a Congressional seat after the Census due to slowing population growth.
Between July 2020 and 2021, all nine Bay Area counties as well as Los Angeles saw a population drop for the first time on record.
Remote work and restricted international travel contributed heavily to a 15,435-person decline in San Francisco.
The latest report shows 855,550 residents now living in the city.
Net domestic migration saw a loss of 17,538 people, up from 5,935 people from 12 months before.