Passengers at an American Airlines gate at the Dallas/Fort Worth International airport in Dallas.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
It wasn’t long ago that Amazon, Shopify and Peloton doubled their workforces to manage through the pandemic surge, while Morgan Stanley staffed up to handle a record level of IPOs, and mortgage lenders added headcount as rock-bottom rates led to a refinancing boom.
On the flipside, Delta Air Lines, Hilton Worldwide and legions of restaurants slashed headcount because of lockdowns that rolled through much of the country and other parts of the world.
Now, they’re scrambling to reverse course.
Companies that hired like crazy in 2020 and 2021 to meet customer demand are being forced to make sweeping cuts or impose hiring freezes with a possible recession on the horizon. In a matter of months, CEOs have gone from hypergrowth mode to concerns over “macroeconomic uncertainty,” a phrase investors have heard many times on second-quarter earnings calls. Stock trading app Robinhood and crypto exchange Coinbase both recently slashed more than 1,000 jobs after their splashy market debuts in 2021.
Meanwhile, airlines, hotels and eateries face the opposite problem as their businesses continue to pick up following the era of Covid-induced shutdowns. After instituting mass layoffs early in the pandemic, they can’t hire quickly enough to satisfy demand and are dealing with a labor market radically different from the one they experienced over two years ago, before the cutbacks.
“The pandemic created very unique, once-in-a-lifetime conditions in many different industries that caused a dramatic reallocation of capital,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at job recruiting site ZipRecruiter. “Many of those conditions no longer apply so you’re seeing a reallocation of capital back to more normal patterns.”
For employers, those patterns are particularly challenging to navigate, because inflation levels have jumped to a 40-year high, and the Fed has lifted its benchmark rate by 0.75 percentage point on consecutive occasions for the first time since the early 1990s.
The central bank’s efforts to tamp down inflation have raised concerns that the U.S. economy is headed for recession. Gross domestic product has fallen for two straight quarters, hitting a widely accepted rule of thumb for recession, though the National Bureau of Economic Research hasn’t yet made that declaration.
The downward trend was bound to happen eventually, and market experts lamented the frothiness in stock prices and absurdity of valuations as late as the fourth quarter of last year, when the major indexes hit record highs led by the riskiest assets.
That was never more evident than in November, when electric vehicle maker Rivian went public on almost no revenue and quickly reached a market cap of over $150 billion. Bitcoin hit a record the same day, touching close to $69,000.
Since then, bitcoin is off by two-thirds, and Rivian has lost about 80% of its value. In July, the car company started layoffs of about 6% of its workforce. Rivian’s headcount almost quintupled to around 14,000 between late 2020 and mid-2022.
Tech layoffs and an air of caution
Job cuts and hiring slowdowns were big talking points on tech earnings calls last week.
Amazon reduced its headcount by 99,000 people to 1.52 million employees at the end of the second quarter after almost doubling in size during the pandemic, when it needed to beef up its warehouse capabilities. Shopify, whose cloud technology helps retailers build and manage online stores, cut about 1,000 workers, or around 10% of its global workforce. The company doubled its headcount over a two-year period starting at the beginning of 2020, as the business boomed from the number or stores and restaurants that had to suddenly go digital.
Shopify CEO Tobias Lutke said in a memo to employees that the company had wagered that the pandemic surge would cause the transition from physical retail to ecommerce to “permanently leap ahead by 5 or even 10 years.”
“It’s now clear that bet didn’t pay off,” Lutke wrote, adding that the picture was starting to look more like it did before Covid. “Ultimately, placing this bet was my call to make and I got this wrong. Now, we have to adjust.”
After Facebook parent Meta missed on its results and forecast a second straight quarter of declining revenue, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company will be reducing job growth over the next year. Headcount expanded by about 60% during the pandemic.
“This is a period that demands more intensity and I expect us to get more done with fewer resources,” Zuckerberg said.
Google parent Alphabet, which grew its workforce by over 30% during the two Covid years, recently told employees that they needed to focus and improve productivity. The company asked for suggestions on how to be more efficient at work.
“It’s clear we are facing a challenging macro environment with more uncertainty ahead,” CEO Sundar Pichai said in a meeting with employees. “We should think about how we can minimize distractions and really raise the bar on both product excellence and productivity.”
Few U.S. companies have been hit as hard as Peloton, whose fitness equipment and on-demand classes became an instant gym replacement during lockdowns and which has since suffered from massive oversupply issues and out-of-control costs. After doubling headcount in the 12 months ended June 30, 2021, the company in February announced plans to cut 20% of corporate positions as it named a new CEO.
Banks and Wall Street bracing for a ‘hurricane’
Some of the Peloton products that were flying off the shelves in the pandemic were being offered as perks for overworked junior bankers, who were sorely needed to help manage a boom in IPOs, mergers and stock issuance. Activity picked up with such ferocity that junior bankers were complaining about 100-hour workweeks, and banks started scouting for talent in unusual places like consulting and accounting firms.
That helps explain why the six biggest U.S. banks added a combined 59,757 employees from the start of 2020 through the middle of 2022, the equivalent of the industry picking up the full population of a Morgan Stanley or a Goldman Sachs in a little over two years.
It wasn’t just investment banking. The government unleashed trillions of dollars in stimulus payments and small business loans designed to keep the economy moving amid the widespread shutdowns. A feared wave of loan defaults never arrived, and banks instead took in an unprecedented flood of deposits. Their Main Street lending operations had better repayment rates than before the pandemic.
Among top banks, Morgan Stanley saw the biggest jump in headcount, with its employee levels expanding 29% to 78,386 from early 2020 to the middle of this year. The growth was fueled in part by CEO James Gorman’s acquisitions of money management firms E-Trade and Eaton Vance.
At rival investment bank Goldman Sachs, staffing levels jumped 22% to 47,000 in the same time frame, as CEO David Solomon broke into consumer finance and bolstered wealth management operations, including through the acquisition of fintech lender GreenSky.
Citigroup saw a 15% boost in headcount during the pandemic, while JPMorgan Chase added 8.5% to its workforce, becoming the industry’s largest employer.
But the good times on Wall Street didn’t last. The stock market had its worst first half in 50 years, and IPOs dried up. Investment banking revenue at the major players declined sharply in the second quarter.
Goldman Sachs responded by slowing hiring and is considering a return to year-end job reductions, according to a person with knowledge of the bank’s plans. Employees typically make up the single biggest line item when it comes to expenses in banking, so when markets crater, layoffs are usually on the horizon.
JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon warned investors in June that an economic “hurricane” was on its way, and said the bank was bracing itself for volatile markets.
Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., during a Bloomberg Television interview in London, U.K., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images
ZipRecruiter’s Pollak said one area in finance where there will likely be a hemorrhaging of workers is in mortgage lending. She said 60% more people went into real estate in 2020 and 2021 because of record low mortgage rates and rising home prices. JPMorgan and Wells Fargo have reportedly trimmed hundreds of mortgage staffers as volumes collapsed.
“Nobody is refinancing anymore, and sales are slowing,” Pollak said. “You’re going to have to see employment levels and hiring slow down. That growth was all about that moment.”
The intersection of Silicon Valley and Wall Street is a particularly gloomy place at the moment as rising rates and crumbling stock multiples converge. Crypto trading platform Coinbase in June announced plans to lay off 18% of its workforce in preparation for a “crypto winter” and even rescinded job offers to people it had hired. Headcount tripled in 2021 to 3,730 employees.
Stock trading app Robinhood said Tuesday it’s cutting about 23% of its workforce, a little over three months after eliminating 9% of its full-time staff, which had ballooned from 2,100 to 3,800 in the last nine months of 2021.
“We are at the tail end of that pandemic-era distortion,” said Aaron Terrazas, chief economist at job search and review site Glassdoor. “Obviously, it’s not going away, but it is changing to a more normalized period, and companies are adapting to this new reality.”
Retail is whipsawing back and forth
In the retail industry, the story is more nuanced. At the onset of the pandemic, a stark divide quickly emerged between businesses deemed to be essential and those that were not.
Retailers such as Target and Walmart that sold groceries and other household goods were allowed to keep their lights on, while malls filled with apparel shops and department store chains were forced to shut down temporarily. Macy’s, Kohl’s and Gap had to furlough the majority of their retail employees as sales screeched to a halt.
But as these businesses reopened and millions of consumers received their stimulus checks, demand roared back to shopping malls and retailers’ websites. Companies hired people back or added to their workforce as quickly as they could.
Last August, Walmart began paying special bonuses to warehouse workers and covering 100% of college tuition and textbook costs for employees. Target rolled out a debt-free college education for full- or part-time employees and boosted staff by 22% from early 2020 to the start of 2022. Macy’s promised better hourly wages.
They hardly could have predicted how quickly the dynamic would shift, as rapid and soaring inflation forced Americans to tighten their belts. Retailers have already started to warn of waning demand, leaving them with bloated inventories. Gap said higher promotions will hurt gross margins in its fiscal second quarter. Kohl’s cut its guidance for the second quarter, citing softened consumer spending. Walmart last week slashed its profit forecast and said surging prices for food and gas are squeezing consumers.
That pain is filtering into the ad market. Online bulletin board Pinterest on Monday cited “lower than expected demand from U.S. big box retailers and mid-market advertisers” as one reason why it missed Wall Street estimates for second-quarter earnings and revenue.
Retail giants have so far avoided big layoff announcements, but smaller players are in cut mode. Stitch Fix, 7-Eleven and Game Stop have said they’ll be eliminating jobs, and outdoor grill maker Weber warned it’s considering layoffs as sales slow.
The travel industry can’t hire fast enough
With all of the downsizing taking place across wide swaths of the U.S. economy, the applicant pool should be wide open for airlines, restaurants and hospitality companies, which are trying to repopulate their ranks after undergoing mass layoffs when Covid hit.
It’s not so easy. Even though Amazon has reduced headcount of late, it’s still got far more people working in its warehouses than it did two years ago. Last year the company lifted average starting pay to $18 an hour, a level that’s difficult to meet for much of the services industry.
Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta said on the quarterly earnings call in May that he wasn’t satisfied with customer service and that the company needs more workers. At the end of last year, even as travel was rebounding sharply, headcount at Hilton’s managed, owned and leased properties as well as corporate locations was down by over 30,000 from two years earlier.
It’s easy to see why customer service is a challenge. According to a report last week from McKinsey on summer 2022 travel trends, revenue per available room in the U.S. “is outstripping not just 2020 and 2021 levels, but increasingly 2019 levels too.”
Delta Airlines passenger jets are pictured outside the newly completed 1.3 million-square foot $4 billion Delta Airlines Terminal C at LaGuardia Airport in New York, June 1, 2022.
Mike Segar | Reuters
At airlines, headcount fell as low as 364,471 in November 2020, even though that wasn’t supposed to happen. U.S. carriers accepted $54 billion in taxpayer aid to keep staff on their payroll. But while layoffs were prohibited, voluntary buyouts were not, and airlines including Delta and Southwest shed thousands of workers. Delta last month said that since the start of 2021 it has added 18,000 employees, similar to the number it let go during the pandemic in order to slash costs.
The industry is struggling to hire and train enough workers, particularly pilots, a process that takes several weeks to meet federal standards. Delta, American Airlines and Spirit Airlines recently trimmed schedules to allow for more wiggle room in handling operational challenges.
“The chief issue we’re working through is not hiring but a training and experience bubble,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said on the quarterly earnings call last month. “Coupling this with the lingering effects of Covid and we’ve seen a reduction in crew availability and higher overtime. By ensuring capacity does not outstrip our resources and working through our training pipeline, we’ll continue to further improve our operational integrity.”
Travelers have been less than pleased. Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, more than 12,000 flights were delayed due to bad weather and not enough staff. Pilots who took early retirement during the pandemic don’t appear inclined to change their minds now that their services are once again in high demand.
“When we look at labor shortages related to travel, you can’t just flip a switch and suddenly have more baggage handlers that have passed security checks, or pilots,” said Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. “We’re still seeing people not opt in to come back because they don’t like what their employers are dictating in terms of working conditions in a post-lethal pandemic world.”
— CNBC’s Ashley Capoot and Lily Yang contributed to this report.
WATCH: Big Tech reports earnings, most guide higher despite macro headwinds