The Great Resignation: Millions leaving workforce, might not return
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The COVID-19 pandemic led to the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression. Many felt the brunt of layoffs, budget cuts, hiring freezes and pay cuts. For some, collecting unemployment and stimulus checks was more sustainable working a 9-to-5 job. 

The pandemic was also an opportunity for many families to reflect on their identities outside of the workplace and whether it is fulfilling their needs financially and emotionally. People are leaving their jobs in masses in search of flexible work schedules, better salaries and happiness. Millions of people are still unemployed yet employers are struggling to fill staffing shortages. 

The term “The Great Resignation” was coined by Texas A&M University organizational psychologist Anthony Klotz in the prediction of the mass voluntary exodus of the American workforce. It has only worsened since government support dried up along with lingering gender and socioeconomic problems. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a record $4.3 million people – about 2.9% of the U.S. workforce – quit in August. In September, the nation’s jobless rate fell to 4.8%, a pandemic low, but the decline was partly driven by people leaving the labor force. It’s only the beginning. 

While all sectors of the job market are feeling the impact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that education, food and service, and wholesale trade industries are seeing the most people leave. 

“It is important that we put things into context. COVID-19 has created some massive, unexpected forces in the U.S. economy such as the turmoil in the labor market, increase inequality and income in wealth, supply chain issues, increase in the savings rate, huge increases in government spending, and massive and creative changes in central banks role,” said Munir Quddus, dean and professor of Economics at the College of Business at Prairie View A&M University.

“Workers are more aware of the options they have outside of corporate America. People are starting businesses and entering into the gig economy where they have more control and no boss to report to.”

Two share their stories

Deseré Cross Ward is CEO and co-founder of TwoWards Solutions, a communications consulting company built with more than seven years of experience in social media marketing at both the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin. 

Deseré Cross Ward

She left her job at UT in August this year due to an accumulation of factors that took place surrounding the death of George Floyd. She was proud to have a seat at the table with university leadership until things took a drastic turn during the protests in 2020. 

“I was the only Black employee in my office. I started to feel isolated and there was a transition of university leadership so I felt that my contributions at the school were slipping through the cracks, Ward said. “I had to take some mental days off because I felt like I was the only one grieving plus there was a misalignment with my morals and values at the school.”

Ward felt the school didn’t do enough to address the diversity, equity and inclusion issues for Black students in the aftermath of the protests. Employees had to return to the office three days a week, preferred to work remotely due to better productivity and to avoid office microaggressions. 

“I’m not wasting my time, money, and talents on the status quo, when I can build my empire,” Ward said. 

Houston resident Jessica (who requests anonymity) said she worked in the news industry for a few years. Smith left the news business in 2020 when her newsroom experienced job cuts. 

She had to take on more responsibilities, which led to burnout. She decided to transition into social media consulting making twice her previous salary along with a flexible schedule. 

“With the 24-hour news cycle, the constant pressures to perform multiple jobs for ridiculously low pay, being the youngest and at times one out of a handful of Black journalists in a room full of white traditional-thinking news staff, put a lot of things in perspective for me, she said.

“During the pandemic, I began to think of my work-life balance, I had none. This life is so fragile. I want to one day get married and start a family, and make a dent in my student loan payments, but the demands of the business took a toll on me, and as much as I loved what I did, I couldn’t afford to be in the industry anymore.”

What employers should do

Ijeoma Oguh, a Houston human resources business partner for a Fortune 500 company, said the workforce, specifically Corporate America, has to pivot with the times and rework company structure. “There are a few things employers need to change if they want to retain quality talent,” she said.

Consider a remote work model. What do vacation times look like? What roles must be in the office and what roles aren’t necessary?  Develop a compensation strategy. Employees aren’t keeping their eggs in one basket. Invest in a flexible workspace for mental health and wellness activities if you are downsizing from a traditional office building. Decide what is going to get employees to stay that involves more than just a salary and 15 days of vacation a year. Everybody wants top talent until they understand their worth and leave. Break the glass ceiling. Black professionals often only go so high in a company and some believe they are expected to work twice as hard for less money compared to their white counterparts. Executives should adapt a cultural way of thinking and open the pipeline of promotion and leadership within their companies.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021

  • 4.3 million Americans, or 2.9% of the entire workforce, quit their jobs in August.
  • 309,000 women older than 20 dropped out of the workforce in September; in contrast, 182,000 men were added.
  • In August, there were more than 10.4 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. workforce.

Laura Onyeneho covers the city’s education system as it relates to Black children for the Defender Network as a Report For America Corps member. Email her at

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...