Whether it's the “Great Resignation” or the “Great Reallocation,” here's what you need to know about the pandemic's lasting effects on the workforce. Photo via Getty Images

The pandemic has altered many aspects of American life, but perhaps none as much as the way Americans work – or, if they work at all. One startling phenomenon resulting from the pandemic is a massive exodus of people leaving the workforce. On average, around 4 million employees quit their jobs each month in 2021, with resignations accelerating toward the end of last year and hitting a record 4.5 million in November.

These mass departures have created an imbalance in the labor market. As of December 2021, there were 10.9 million job openings in the United States, but only 6.3 million unemployed workers. This imbalance has contributed to the supply chain issues that have plagued many industries, as well as to some of the wage and price inflation we are seeing. Inflation has been rising while our labor force participation rate has plummeted to 61.9 percent, back to around where we were in the mid-1970s. In other words, only about 3 out of 5 working-age adults are actually working.

Embedded in the resignation data are really two types of people: those who are leaving the workforce permanently, and those who are leaving their current jobs for better, or more flexible, work. If the former group refers to a trend dubbed the “Great Resignation,” the latter is more aptly described as the “Great Reallocation.” Although fundamentally different, both trends tell us something important about the ways in which American work life has changed in the wake of the pandemic.

Workers permanently leaving the workforce may be doing so for a variety of reasons. Pre-pandemic, America was already in the Baby Boomer retirement cycle. So, for many people who might have been a year or two away from retirement before the pandemic, the fear and uncertainty resulting from COVID-19 simply delayed those plans. But with 2021’s stock market gains, and retirement accounts flush with cash, many people felt secure enough to pursue the retirement they put off during 2020’s uncertainty.

Another subset of people leaving the workforce likely did so out of a legitimate fear of COVID-19 or, on the flip side, because of burgeoning vaccine mandates. As Americans learn to live with COVID-19, and with many vaccine mandates being struck down or withdrawn, some of these workers will return to the workforce, while others will opt for retirement to avoid these issues. Additionally, with the advent of virtual school across much of the United States, many parents felt pressure to either quit working and stay home with their kids or quit an in-person job to find a work-from-home job.

Still another subset of workers—primarily those in lower-wage jobs—chose to stay home because government subsidies stemming from the pandemic equaled or, in some cases, exceeded their expected earnings from work. Since those subsidies largely ended, many of these workers have been looking to reenter the workforce. However, with the rise of artificial intelligence algorithms pruning resumes for “fit” with certain jobs, a significant employment gap on a worker’s resume could create problems for many who are now seeking work. In any event, many workers looking to get back in the game could benefit from having an expert optimize their resumes so they are attractive to the gatekeeper’s new electronic eye.

Another group of workers resigned to start their own businesses. From January to November 2021, nearly 5 million new businesses were created in the United States. This represents a 55 percent increase over the same period in 2019, which was a boom year right before the pandemic.

The workforce gap stemming from the “Great Resignation” has substantially increased employee bargaining power. In an effort to bridge that gap, employers have been engaged in a war for talent that will continue or, absent a market disruption, even intensify in 2022. In this tight labor market, employers have been realizing that there is a competitive advantage to recruiting talent away from competitors. Wages are up, with no downturn in sight. In November of 2021 alone, pay was up 3.2 percent for employees remaining in their existing jobs. But, for those employees who switched jobs, pay increased 4.3 percent, revealing an advantage to employees looking to “upgrade” their positions. To attract employees, employers are not only offering higher wages, but also, other enticements like signing bonuses, retention bonuses, private offices, and hybrid or fully remote working arrangements.

The pandemic also changed employees’ perspective on work. People became introspective and reevaluated their wants and needs. With so many forced to work from home at the onset of the pandemic, and the overall success of working from home, the flexibility that accompanies working from home has now become ingrained in people’s psyches. Many now prefer or demand jobs with greater flexibility. The success of the work from home phenomenon has also caused several employers to embrace nationwide recruiting of remote workers. These employers greatly benefit from mining a nationwide talent pool and their employees love being able to live where they want, work from home, and still receive great pay. Now, if you want to live in a cabin in Montana or a beach house in Florida, you can do that and still get Silicon Valley pay.

Given the pandemic-driven new market realities, a few things have become clear. First, work from home, to a greater or lesser extent, is here to stay. Second, whether employees work from home or at a business, if we hope to solve supply chain problems, get products back on shelves, and stem the tide of inflation, we need to get Americans back in the workforce. Third, for those considering going back to work, there is no better time than now.

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Scott Nelson is a Houston-based partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth focused on labor and employment.

Two hiring managers weigh in on corporate DEI initiatives amid the pandemic in a guest article for InnovationMap. Photo via Pexels

How Houston companies can use pandemic challenges to foster innovative corporate inclusion efforts

guest column

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and over the last 18 months, that proverb has proven true across the world, from classrooms to boardrooms. Shuttered classrooms and businesses, overflowing hospitals, and social unrest spurred by the killing of George Floyd have forced communities and leaders across the world, and here at home, to find innovative solutions to a myriad of problems.

But even as many people long for a return to normalcy, the truth is that, in many ways, the bell cannot be "unrung." Remote work, which was a necessity for many at the height of the pandemic, has given rise to an explosion of hybrid working environments that show no signs of reversing course. In the midst of this physical separation among colleagues, leaders across industries have been forced to throw out the rulebook and reimagine what it means to collaborate.

Additionally, the disparate impact experienced by communities of color throughout the pandemic has highlighted the importance of programs focused on increasing diversity and promoting inclusion. It is no coincidence, for example, that roughly six months into the pandemic, the general counsels of 12 major financial institutions penned an open letter to the legal community calling for greater inclusivity in the legal community.

So, how can companies transform the struggles presented by the pandemic into a springboard for lasting, innovative inclusion efforts? The answer lies in taking risks, strengthening the fabric of connectivity, and looking to the future.

Crowdsource new ideas

The concept of crowdsourcing is nothing new, but at the corporate level, leaders may overlook its benefits. Hackathons—large, collaborative events originally developed for computer programming or coding—can be implemented across all employment levels to crowdsource innovative ideas.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, the firm implements the Hackathon concept during the summer associate program, thus harnessing the creativity and progressive ideas of younger talent. When the pandemic forced the firm's 2020 summer program to go entirely virtual, the firm decided to create groups of summer associates across all offices to brainstorm programming ideas aimed at improving and sustaining diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Together with partner leaders, these summer associate teams worked virtually to create truly innovative programming ideas, several of which the firm is currently implementing to recruit diverse talent. The program was successfully replicated in summer 2021, asking participants to hack the problem of associate inclusion. In addition to generating important programming content, these Hackathons increased participant morale, encouraged cross-office collaboration, forged new relationships across various geographic regions, and tackled the timely topics of enhancing law firm diversity and inclusion that will improve client service in the future.

Other industries—from large, global corporations to small businesses—can implement the Hackathon concept to successfully build bridges and harness innovation around inclusion. For example, MIT recently held a successful hackathon to source solutions to the problem of student inclusion during the pandemic, and Microsoft sponsored a hackathon aimed at solving the education and technology gaps of remote learning brought on by the pandemic.

Moreover, experts agree that equity and inclusion initiatives are only successful with buy-in from the c-suite. In other words, fostering an inclusive corporate culture starts at the top. If corporate leadership participates in the Hackathon experience—as a mentor, judge, or coach, perhaps—as opposed to merely sponsoring the event, it sends a message to all employees that the company as a whole values inclusion as a cornerstone of corporate culture.

Embrace virtual connections

The pandemic forced us all to navigate the world of virtual meetings, and with the popularity of hybrid working environments, virtual connectivity is here to stay. Companies must embrace this new virtual frontier and implement programs that engage employees, promote collaboration, and introduce an element of fun.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, new hires create introductory videos about themselves that are globally shared firm-wide, while veteran lawyers create their own video content introducing themselves and their practices, thus creating an immediate personal connection.

Additionally, virtual events celebrating diversity and inclusion events, such as Black History Month and LGBTQ Pride Month for example, provide opportunities for fellowship across offices and bolster inclusion efforts. Hunton Andrews Kurth hosted a virtual cooking class, based in a Dallas partner's kitchen, celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May, which was virtually attended by 132 attorneys firm wide.

Company-wide virtual events such as escape rooms, cocktail-making classes, games and trivia build camaraderie, which deepens the bonds of collegiality and strengthens feelings of inclusion and belonging. Companies should invest in virtual technologies to help facilitate this important new frontier of connectivity, recognizing that increased digital connectivity supports a collaborative and inclusive working environment.

Highlight community outreach

In global companies, high-level, company-wide diversity and inclusion leadership should work in tandem with leadership at the local level. At our firm, for example, in addition to firm-wide diversity leadership, each local office has a specified leader committed to promoting local inclusion initiatives. While virtual events help connect geographically-diverse employees, it is equally important to offer local employees opportunities to connect in person with one another and support diversity programming in the community.

For example, attorneys in Hunton Andrews Kurth's Richmond office recently came together to learn about and pool resources to support a local artist's public art project focused on creating murals to promote open dialogue around racial and social justice. Additionally, employees might select a local DEI educational experience in which to participate as a group outside of the office, then plan to gather informally (in person or virtually) to discuss lessons learned and continue important conversations. When colleagues come together to support local inclusion programs or participate in shared experiences, new connections are forged that help support a diverse and inclusive corporate culture.

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Rudene Mercer Haynes is a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, serves as a firmwide hiring partner, and also sits on the executive committee. Alex Gomez is also a partner and serves as a fellow firmwide hiring partner.

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3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon

Amperon CEO Sean Kelly joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his company's growth and expansion plans. Photo via LinkedIn

The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is majorly key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector. But CEO Sean Kelly says he doesn't run his business like an energy company.

Kelly explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that he chooses to run Amperon as a tech company when it comes to hiring and scaling.

"There are a lot of energy companies that do tech — they'll hire a large IT department, they'll outsource a bunch of things, and they'll try to undergo a product themselves because they think it should be IP," he says on the show. "A tech company means that at your core, you're trying to build the best and brightest technology." Continue reading.

Amanda Burkhardt, CEO of Phiogen

Spun out of Baylor College of Medicine, Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to pitch at SXSW earlier this month. Photo via LinkedIn

A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains. Continue reading.

Mielad Ziaee, 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar

Mielad Ziaee, a 20-year-old student at the University of Houston, was tapped for a unique National Institutes of Health program. Photo via UH.edu

A Houston-area undergraduate student has been tapped for a prestigious national program that pairs early-career investigators with health research professionals.

Mielad Ziaee was selected for the National Institutes of Health’s 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar Program, which connects young innovators with experts "working to advance the field of precision medicine," according to a statement from UH. Ziaee – a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and minoring in biology, medicine and society who plans to graduate in 2025 — plans to research how genomics, or the studying of a person's DNA, can be used to impact health.

“I’ll be one of the ones that define what this field of personalized, precision medicine will look like in the future,” Ziaee said in a statement. “It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility that will involve engaging diverse populations and stakeholders from different systems – from researchers to health care providers to policymakers.” Continue reading.

Health tech startup launches Houston study improve stroke patients recovery

now enrolling

A Houston-born company is enrolling patients in a study to test the efficacy of nerve stimulation to improve outcomes for stroke survivors.

Dr. Kirt Gill and Joe Upchurch founded NeuraStasis in 2021 as part of the TMC Biodesign fellowship program.

“The idea for the company manifested during that year because both Joe and I had experiences with stroke survivors in our own lives,” Gill tells InnovationMap. It began for Gill when his former college roommate had a stroke in his twenties.

“It’s a very unpredictable, sudden disease with ramifications not just for my best friend but for everyone in his life. I saw what it did to his family and caregivers and it's one of those things that doesn't have as many solutions for people to continue recovery and to prevent damage and that's an area that I wanted to focus myself on in my career,” Gill explains.

Gill and Upchurch arrived at the trigeminal and vagus nerves as a potential key to helping stroke patients. Gill says that there is a growing amount of academic literature that talks about the efficacy of stimulating those nerves. The co-founders met Dr. Sean Savitz, the director of the UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, during their fellowship. He is now their principal investigator for their clinical feasibility study, located at his facility.

The treatment is targeted for patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, meaning that it’s caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain.

“Rehabilitation after a stroke is intended to help the brain develop new networks to compensate for permanently damaged areas,” Gill says. “But the recovery process typically slows to essentially a standstill or plateau by three to six months after that stroke. The result is that the majority of stroke survivors, around 7.6 million in the US alone, live with a form of disability that prevents complete independence afterwards.”

NeuraStasis’ technology is intended to help patients who are past that window. They accomplish that with a non-invasive brain-stimulation device that targets the trigeminal and vagus nerves.

“Think of it kind of like a wearable headset that enables stimulation to be delivered, paired to survivors going through rehabilitation action. So the goal here is to help reinforce and rewire networks as they're performing specific tasks that they're looking to improve upon,” Gill explains.

The study, which hopes to enroll around 25 subjects, is intended to help people with residual arm and hand deficits six months or more after their ischemic stroke. The patients enrolled will receive nerve stimulation three times a week for six weeks. It’s in this window that Gill says he hopes to see meaningful improvement in patients’ upper extremity deficits.

Though NeuraStasis currently boasts just its two co-founders as full-time employees, the company is seeing healthy growth. It was selected for a $1.1 million award from the National Institutes of Health through its Blueprint MedTech program. The award was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The funding furthers NeuraStasis’ work for two years, and supports product development for work on acute stroke and for another product that will aid in emergency situations.

Gill says that he believes “Houston has been tailor-made for medical healthcare-focused innovation.”

NeuraStasis, he continues, has benefited greatly from its advisors and mentors from throughout the TMC, as well as the engineering talent from Rice, University of Houston and Texas A&M. And the entrepreneur says that he hopes that Houston will benefit as much from NeuraStasis’ technology as the company has from its hometown.

“I know that there are people within the community that could benefit from our device,” he says.