US factory

Factories can’t find enough workers because up to a quarter of applicants fail drugs tests

Except you can't tell if the worker smoked a month ago, or on their way to work

The New York Times revealed a problem about the job market that people don't think about much: factories need jobs, people want jobs, but often, factories can't hire people because they fail the drug test part of the application process. Even if they haven't smoked for a month.

Normally, when we're talking about why there isn't enough work or there aren't enough jobs to do the work there is, we're talking about stuff like a gap in skills and education, or the fact that too many jobs are being lost to technology.

But as this New York Times article shows, for some US manufacturing companies, it's not about any of that – it's the fact that up to a quarter of applicants fail drug tests, so can't be hired to the job.

Janet Yellen, who runs what's called the US Federal Reserve and usually mainly talks about interest rates, made a testimony last month in which she said that the increase in opioid use in the US is linked to the drop in working age people finding work.

It's a vicious cycle: people in areas with higher unemployment are more likely to use drugs, but that means they'll stay unemployed if the drug test system stays the way it is.

There's a lot of research about how much drug use costs the economy...


Misuse of prescription drugs in the US has been rising so quickly that it's being called an 'epidemic'. A study from one health insurance company said that the number of people addicted to prescription drugs had increased by five times between 2010 and 2016. According to US government research, prescription opioid use cost the economy $78.3 bn in 2013 – taking into account the cost of things like healthcare, crime, and welfare paid to people out of work.

And it's not just prescription drugs – a separate research report puts the combined cost of illegal drugs, prescription drugs and alcohol misuse at over $440bn. 

...But it doesn't always take into account the impact it has on employers

But the thing we can't measure is how much drug use is costing business in terms of health costs and in terms of the loss of workers they can't employ, or workers they have to let go, because of issues with drugs.

One employer, Regina Mitchell, told the Times that her company had to pay a quarter of a million dollars to cover the cost of three employees' drug treatment last year alone. She's also spending a lot more on training new people, to ensure her pool of workers is bigger.


We’re always looking for people. But at least 25 per cent fail the drug tests

Part of the problem for these companies is that in industrial jobs drug use is a safety issue. While attitudes to medicinal marijuana are a bit more relaxed in the US than they used to be, it still makes it pretty dangerous to operate heavy machinery.

As one factory boss told the Times: “If something goes wrong, it won’t hurt our workers. It’ll kill them — and that’s why we can’t take any risks with drugs.”

Businesses say they're struggling to compete

People are deterred from applying because of strict drugs testing, and when they do apply they aren’t getting through.

Michael Sherwin, chief executive of a manufacturing company in Ohio, said it’s losing up to $200,000 worth of orders to overseas companies because it doesn’t have enough workers.

“Our main competitor in Germany can get things done more quickly because they have a better labor pool… We are always looking for people and have standard ads at all times, but at least 25 per cent fail the drug tests.”

An organization in Youngstown, Ohio is trying to help

Flying High is a non-profit group which trains people, provides drug treatment and advice, and recommends applicants to jobs once they've completed a full screening programme.

But as well as tackling issues of drug abuse, there's the problem of needing a way to improve the accuracy of drugs test screenings – right now, someone who smoked pot for medicinal use a month ago would show up just the same as someone who smoked pot on their way to work.

So although investing in rehabilitation is vital, tackling this vicious cycle between drug use and unemployment is also about developing the tech to screen this stuff more clearly, and avoid people who are totally capable of working not being allowed to do so.

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