The US labor shortage isn’t really “news” anymore. It’s just a fact of life, evident whenever you visit a restaurant, hotel, hair salon, auto repair shop, or any other service business.
To me, the surprising part is how many Americans still think this is temporary when it’s really the new normal. Working-age people are becoming a smaller percentage of the population. That’s not going to change anytime soon.
I used to think job automation would solve this problem—perhaps too well, causing mass unemployment. That was wrong. Technology is indeed getting better, but slowly. Robots are a long way from taking over most human jobs.
That leaves businesses to make whatever adjustments they can while customers endure longer wait times and reduced service.
There are times, however, when delays and inferior quality aren’t just annoying, but dangerous. I recently had a personal glimpse of it.
Summer is always dry here in the Texas Hill Country, but this year’s drought is particularly bad. At my home, we have rainwater tanks to collect water for the garden. They’ve been empty for months so I was excited when we finally had rain in the forecast.
The tanks have leaf screens on top where the gutter attaches. They need cleaning which, in one case, requires climbing up on a little stone wall. Normally no problem. This time, the dried-out mortar broke under my weight. I went tumbling down, twisting my ankle.
Luckily, I didn’t hit my head, but my foot was in bad shape. My wife and I agreed it must be fractured. She wrapped it up and drove me to an urgent care center.
Why not a hospital emergency room? Because this didn’t seem like a big deal and hospital ERs are usually crowded. Plus, my insurance copay is much higher for the ER.
I expected a quick X-ray and some kind of splint. Nope. The urgent care place had an X-ray machine… but no X-ray technician. The doctor apologized and said we should go somewhere else.
We then learned other urgent care centers had the same problem. No one but an ER could do an X-ray.
ER waiting rooms are often full of people who really shouldn’t be there. I, for one, didn’t want to be there. The price was significantly higher. But at the time, it was the only way to get an X-ray, which the urgent care doc had said was important.
It turned out to be only a bad sprain. Now I’m hobbling around on crutches. I’ll be fine but the experience made me wonder if X-ray technicians are really so scarce.
A little digging into Texas Department of State Health Services data showed my county had one licensed radiology tech for every 893 residents in 2019. By 2022 it was only one per 1,531 residents—about a 42% drop in three years.
This is supply and demand. The relatively few people with those skills act rationally and take the best-paying jobs… which apparently aren’t at urgent care centers.
Nor is it just radiology. Looking again at my own county (Travis), I found the per capita supply of emergency medical technicians and pharmacy technicians had dropped about 10% between 2019 and 2022.
What do radiology techs, pharmacy techs, and EMTs have in common? All require advanced training but not a college degree. They aren’t glamorous jobs that produce millionaires. Yet the people doing them can either save your life or—if they aren’t qualified—possibly cause you great harm.
They’re also physically demanding jobs with long, odd hours. So who takes them? Mostly younger people, whom we know are declining as a share of the population.
Moreover, these workers have to be around sick, sometimes unpleasant people who are themselves stressed by our maddening healthcare system. That’s not fun. We’re all fortunate someone is willing to be there.
Maybe down the road, getting X-rays and prescriptions will be fully automated. At some point maybe we’ll have robotic EMTs. That could happen. But it’s years away, at best.
Meanwhile, we’re all kind of stuck. The best we can do is try to be patient… particularly when we are the patient.
See you at the top,