The chaos at many airports illustrated it very drastically; In some sectors there is a shortage of workers. Last year there was talk of a “great resignation” by the former employees. However, this does not seem to be the case.
Where has all the workers gone? This question seems to be omnipresent in Europe. From French cafes to Irish construction workers to Czech car factories and Italian farms, employers have traditionally believed they can use cheap labor as they please. In the meantime it seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Businesses grumble, though seldom as loudly as Parisians await a forgetful garçon with their drinks. In no other area is the shortage of workers as evident as in air transport. For weeks now, long queues of tourists have been forming at the largest European airports, waiting for their flights – unless they have been canceled due to a lack of flight personnel. Going on a relaxing holiday has never been so stressful. In this economic situation, everyone in Europe can find a suitable company; hence Europe is having operational difficulties.
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After two years of pandemic uncertainty, tourism has bounced back (except for some travelers from Asia). Actually, this should be a boon for Europe, which attracts half of the international tourists from all over the world. But the headlines are grim. Airport and airline staff shortages have pushed up the number of cancellations.
While holiday resorts and city centers are typically fully booked in June, airlines in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have had to cancel nearly 8,000 flights, about three times as many as in 2019, according to consultancy Cirium. With every canceled flight, the number is increasing the tales of woe: bachelor parties in Alicante are being postponed, family trips to Tuscany are being cancelled. Although American air traffic is also familiar with these problems, the chaos in Europe can hardly be surpassed.
Anyone who was still able to board their flight might have been better off with a cancellation. At the end of May, waiting times at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol were up to six hours in some places. The Dutch airline KLM then suspended all trips from its main airport for four days. Considering the internal mess, baggage check-in has become an act of trust.
At the largest Paris airport, almost half of all luggage that was supposed to follow its owners to their destination on July 2 was lost. Unions warned passengers of the possibility they might never see their swim trunks again. When a member of the Cypriot House of Representatives was stuck at Frankfurt Airport for two days, he lamented the “Third World conditions” there in a tone similar to that of many Germans on their trips to the Mediterranean.
Part of the chaos is due to the unexpectedly rapid surge in tourism. Years of holiday withdrawal are now giving way to “revenge tourism” that is consuming the remaining reserves of the pandemic stimulus packages. One might have expected that the war on the fringes of the continent would have a negative impact on demand. Instead, he drove the euro almost to par with the US dollar – and made Greek taverns and Baltic beaches irresistible.
The airports should have been prepared for this situation. Predicting passenger numbers for any given day is not overly complicated when tickets are purchased well in advance. Nevertheless, the heads of the airline companies have been complaining about difficulties in hiring staff for months.
Familiarization with flight operations takes time: airport security personnel need to be vetted and cabin crew trained (something that goes unnoticed with some airlines). Then the strikes began. In recent weeks, Scandinavian pilots, German security personnel, French airport firefighters, Dutch cleaners, Belgian flight attendants and Italian air traffic controllers, among others, have stopped working.
One reason for the strikes is workers’ demands for wage adjustments in view of the influx of tourists and rapid inflation. But the challenges at the airports are not only the result of local labor disputes. Off the runway, too, European workers currently have the upper hand. At 6.6%, the unemployment rate in the euro zone has reached its lowest level since the introduction of the common currency two decades ago. In some places there is almost no work force: in Germany, the unemployment rate is only 2.8%.
In the past, labor shortages would have been solved by importing helpful Polish or Bulgarian specialists. That is no longer possible: Poles and Bulgarians can now find many good jobs in their home countries. Instead, Germany issues work permits for Turkish baggage handlers. Any concerns about accepting more immigrants from non-EU countries were pushed aside. Europe now employs almost everyone within its borders who is willing and able to work.
There is a suspicion that the generous welfare states are letting many Europeans down. Last year there was talk of a “great resignation” by the former employees. However, this does not seem to be the case. In the euro area, the proportion of 15 to 64-year-old employees is higher than before the lockdowns. Unlike in Britain or America, the number of people in work in the EU is now larger than before the pandemic, explains Jessica Hinds of Capital Economics. Many have better opportunities than the jobs once reserved for them.
“Everyone is wondering: Where has they all gone?” muses Emirates CEO Tim Clark, according to Bloomberg. “And the answer is always: Amazon.” It seems more pleasant to listen to a podcast and process packages from online retailers for a reasonable fee than to ask passengers at 5 a.m. if there are liquids in their hand luggage. The same goes for serving cocktails to impatient Parisians.
Strict labor regulations and unremarkable economic growth have rarely faced Europe with the problem of too many jobs in recent decades. It’s still a problem. What can be observed at airports also affects nursing homes, hotels and other facilities with a high need for unskilled labour. They simply get less attention. While some workers’ wages could rise, many companies that rely on low-wage workers say they can’t afford overages. Meanwhile, unions, which normally negotiate permanent wage increases, may be concerned about fueling inflation.
It is possible that the labor market will regain some momentum as the European economy slows down. Rising energy prices and a renewed increase in corona numbers have clouded the mood in recent weeks. Not a good prospect – unless they concern employers in need of money or people who want to relax on distant beaches.
The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “Travel chaos in Europe is a glimpse of a future with few spare workers” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.
The original to this post “All because of Big Quit? Anyone who explains the staff chaos in this way is making a mistake in reasoning” comes from The Economist.