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The Future of Museum Labor: Exploring the Latest COVID Impact Data

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
graphic of United States map with text reading National Snapshot of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums

Last week the Alliance released the results of our most recent snapshot of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on US museums. We launched this series of surveys in June 2020, a little over 3 months after the World Health Organization declared that the novel coronavirus constituted a global pandemic. At that point virtually all museums were closed to the public and one-third of directors felt their organizations were at some risk of permanent closure. The newest data reveals both the first signs of recovery, for at least part of the sector, but also signals of deep and continued damage.

This post examines what the snapshot data tells us about museum employment, remote work, and changes in labor practices, puts that data in the context of national labor trends, explores implications for our sector, and suggests some steps museums might take as they rebound. Rather than trying to recreate the sector as it was in 2019, museums might use the opportunity created by this disaster to rebuild better than before.

Snapshot Data

Thirty-seven percent of museums responding to the survey tell us that since the beginning of the pandemic they have decreased the size of their staff, by an average of 28 percent. On the other hand, nearly half (47 percent) of respondents have plans to rehire or increase staff size in the coming year. That is promising news for museum employment, but will museums be able to find the candidates they need to fill those positions? Of those museums currently recruiting, 56 percent report they are having trouble filling open positions, especially in guest services/admissions/frontline/retail (56 percent), facilities/maintenance/security (40 percent), and education (26 percent). Almost half (45 percent) of responding directors listed “labor and skills shortage” as one of the biggest potential disruptors to their business strategies in the next year.

Many museums face a scarcity of volunteer labor as well. Seventy percent of museums downsized or suspended their volunteer programs during the pandemic and now that they are beginning to rebuild, almost half (48 percent) are having trouble finding the volunteers they need. Nearly a fifth (18 percent) think that their volunteer programs will never rebound to their previous levels. While there are distinctions, both legal and ethical, between the roles filled by paid staff and volunteers, it seems reasonable to expect that long-term reduction in the unpaid workforce could have a profound effect on museum operations, and impact the work of paid staff as well.

It’s clear from the snapshot that some museums are already taking steps to improve wages and benefits for staff. Despite financial stress, 52 percent have raised compensation since 2019, with 49 percent increasing the hourly rate of lowest paid employees. Fifteen percent have shrunk the gap between lowest and highest salaries, and another 15 percent have made changes to the benefits they offer. Many of these changes involve health insurance, for example increasing the percent of costs covered by the museum, adding dental and vision coverage, out-of-network coverage for mental health care and wellness, and creating flexible spending accounts. Some museums are increasing the amount of paid vacation, reducing the weekly hours required of full-time staff, adding transportation benefits, and extending/expanding benefits like sick leave, paid time off, and holidays for part-time and hourly positions.

During the pandemic, museums, like other employers, learned that remote work is both a possible and, for many employees, a preferable option. Over 80 percent of snapshot respondents provided telework options for at least some of their staff over the past two years, and 60 percent said they intend to continue to offer new or expanded telework options for staff.

National Context

Last November more than 4.5 million people in the US left their jobs voluntarily—the highest number in two decades of government data. In September, the consulting firm McKinsey reported that 40 percent of employees said it was at least somewhat likely they would leave their jobs in the next 3-6 months. Journalists have dubbed this exodus from paid work the “Great Resignation,” (or as McKinsey calls it, the “Great Attrition”) and the trend is driven by a combination of very different experiences. The toll has been particularly high in health care and education, sectors notably composed of people driven by a strong commitment to cause-based work who soldiered through the pandemic as long as they could before burning out. Some of those walking away from their jobs have been relatively educated, economically advantaged individuals who used their financial security to minimize their COVID risk. Other people have been forced to leave low-paid, high-stress, insecure positions in part due to the lack of a comprehensive network of social support. (In this context, it is worth noting that many of the positions museums are finding hardest to fill typically offer relatively low pay for high-stress work that requires direct interaction with the public.)

The net effect of this exodus is that many sectors are having trouble finding the workers they need, particularly in leisure and hospitality, transportation, professional services, and education and health services.  A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows the labor force participation rate (which is the proportion of the working-age population that is employed or looking for a job) has stalled at around 62-63 percent—the lowest rate the US has experienced since the 1970s.

If the pandemic had occurred twenty years ago (maybe even ten), the impact would have been far worse: our technological infrastructure enabled many people, predominantly white collar workers, to work remotely even when prudence, or necessity, confined them to home. It remains to be seen whether this impromptu mass experiment with remote work causes a long term shift in work practices. A Gallup reports that 91 percent of people who are currently working at least some of their hours remotely hope to continue to do so after the pandemic as well. Such a shift would have massive implications for society: if businesses downsize offices, how would city centers repurpose the space? Where would people choose to live if their work was untethered from their home? And who would benefit, or be disadvantaged, by workplaces in which some people work on site while others log in? Remote work, and hybrid arrangements that combine remote work with some time on site, are particularly preferred by mothers and workers of color—groups that already experience inequities in pay and opportunities. Researchers worry these inequities could be further magnified by remote and hybrid work, because such arrangements leaves workers vulnerable to proximity bias—the tendency of executives to preferentially give raises and promotions to people they work with, in person, in the office.

Implications and Opportunities

Will there be a museum skills and labor shortage? There are some signals, aside from the snapshot data, that suggest there might. In December, researchers from North Carolina State University, surveying science educators in museums and other non-school settings, found that 59 percent were considering changing careers. Pay was one big issue, with 70 percent of respondents saying they were unable to sustain their career without additional support from spouses, parents, or others. Other stressors that cropped up in the open-ended comments included issues related to shifting programming online and concern for their personal safety. In November, Artnet News published a story titled “There Are Almost Two Dozen Director Roles Vacant in U.S. Museums Right Now. Why Does Nobody Want Them?” The article quoted Laura Raicovich, former director of the Queens Museum, observing that, “People really don’t want to be directors right now because the jobs are emotionally unsustainable and it’s a challenge to navigate the wealth gap between low-paid staff and wealthy trustees.”

Some economists speculate that the gap between worker supply and demand may disappear once the pressures of the pandemic recede. People may feel safer about returning to work, and parents and caregivers will have fewer COVID-related responsibilities. But even if interest in museum jobs ticks up, it may not be as simple as attracting the same cadre to come back. Some people are using the “pandemic pause” to rethink their priorities, their work-life balance, and their careers. Nearly a third of US workers under the age of forty have thought about changing their occupation or field of work since the pandemic began, according to a 2021 Washington Post-Schar School poll. Some museum workers who have quit or been laid off may decide to change professions or retire.

If there is a skills and labor shortage, what might museums do to attract and retain the people they need? In the for-profit sector, these steps have included offering hiring bonuses, raising salaries, and improving benefits. If museums raise salaries and benefits, during pandemic recovery, will this create a new, higher baseline for compensation, or will the gains erode over time as the labor market rebounds? During the pandemic, as they struggled to support their staffs, some museums also began to address deeper questions around labor, asking how they could build better, more equitable, and more stable employment for the people who work in our field. How might museums, collectively, sustain these conversations, and use them as an opportunity to establish new operational norms?

These new norms may address compensation, but as a recent article from the Society for Human Resource Management points out, pay is not the only issue. Improving the work environment is important as well: teaching managers to be good communicators and good listeners, expressing appreciation for employees, and providing opportunities for growth and advancement. How can museums use this opportunity to reexamine their own work cultures and create a better environment that sustains and retains staff?

The snapshot data suggest telework will continue to play a big role in museum work in coming years. What are the implications for who can and will work for museums (if not in the museum itself), and for their experience as workers? Museums might want to apply what has been learned about leveling the playing field in the hybrid workplace to protect women, parents, and people of color who spend the least amount of time in the office. Some for-profit businesses based in expensive cities are finding they can use remote work to pay better wages (relative to the cost of living), by hiring people who choose to live in less expensive parts of the country. Some museums may choose to take this approach as well.

Museums might use pandemic recovery as a chance to reexamine what jobs are needed to support the museums work going forward. Seventeen percent of snapshot respondents indicated they anticipate shifts in how they allocate staff across departments in the coming year. Combing through the free text for these replies, no clear pattern emerges. Some museums plan to use fewer front-line staff, some more. Many respondents say they are increasing the staff devoted to digital initiatives and online programming. (Which makes sense, since 76 percent say they intend to continue virtual programming they started during the pandemic.)

In the past two years, museums have undergone their own version of the “Great Attrition,” and many experienced people may never return to the field. We will deeply feel the loss of those colleagues, and are, collectively, poorer for the experience and knowledge that they take with them. This disruption also means the field has an unprecedented number of positions to fill, and the opportunity to do so in such a way as to advance our collective DEAI goals. Over half (55 percent) of the snapshot museums report they are planning, or taking steps to, diversify their staff with regard to race; 26 percent with regard to age; 28 percent with regard to gender; and 27 percent with regard to socioeconomic background. By rethinking assumptions about what credentials and experience are needed to do those jobs and taking a broad and inclusive approach to recruitment and hiring, museums have the opportunity to create a workforce significantly more diverse than it was in 2019. This could be one good thing to set against the pain and loss inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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