BOSTON (SHNS) – The number of workers in the health care industry, traditionally one of the state’s most stable, has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels two years after COVID-19 upended the employment landscape, and one career center official cautioned Thursday that job-seekers are “steering away” from the field.

As businesses warn of labor shortages and Beacon Hill leaders eye hiring incentives, the constellation of MassHire Career Centers across the state want the Legislature to inject additional funding to help them close lingering gaps in the state’s employment landscape.

One particularly worrisome area of focus for MassHire North Shore Workforce Board Executive Director Mary Sarris is health care, which she called a “life and death industry.”

“It is an industry that job-seekers right now tend to be steering away from for a variety of reasons,” Sarris said during a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Massachusetts Workforce Association. “We are not seeing the interest in the health care industry that we have seen in the past, so we know through our one-stop, we need to help people become comfortable again working in the health care industry.”

The situation presents itself as the industry deals with numerous challenges, including new costs forced on facilities due to the pandemic, worker burnout, competition for workers from other sectors, the effects of industry consolidation, and a growing segment of the state population who are elderly and in need of more care.

The health care and social assistance field in Massachusetts had nearly 20,000 fewer jobs in February 2022 than it did in February 2020, according to seasonally adjusted data presented during Thursday’s event.

That represents the second-largest dropoff, surpassed only by accommodation and food services, which remains about 40,000 jobs below pre-pandemic levels.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, who co-chairs both the Legislature’s Labor and Workforce Development Committee and its Elder Affairs Committee, said the industry challenges overlap across the two panels she leads.

“The most prominent challenge for the continuum of elder care is finding people to do the work,” Jehlen said. “For example, there are over 200 people in the Mystic Valley Elder Services network that are not receiving the care that they are entitled to because there aren’t enough workers. Getting enough workers and getting enough workers with the right skills is certainly the biggest challenge in elder affairs, same in early childhood, same across so many sectors.”

Across the state, employers have added hundreds of thousands of jobs since the devastating early months of the public health crisis, but total employment remains below pre-pandemic levels and experts warn the labor force is not matching employer demand, particularly with new data indicating businesses have many unfilled positions.

Between July 2007 and the pandemic’s start, Massachusetts recorded a statewide unemployment rate lower than the national average in every single month, according to Boston Indicators Policy Analyst Anne Calef, who analyzed labor trends in a February report. But for much of the pandemic, unemployment in the Bay State surpassed the national rate.

Workers of color continue to bear disproportionate burdens from joblessness and underemployment, and economic and workforce experts stressed during Thursday’s event that the top-line unemployment numbers fail to capture the full scope of the pandemic’s ripple effects.

The state’s labor force participation rate ticked up slightly to 65.9 percent in February, but that remains below 2019 levels. Researchers said data indicate tens of thousands of Bay Staters want to work but have left the labor force because they are discouraged.

Another major factor, according to Mass. Workforce Association Associate Director Raija Vaisanen, is immigration. Since 1990, about 80 percent of the state’s labor force growth has come from new immigration, but since 2017, international migration to Massachusetts is down 74 percent, Vaisanen said.

“Our population and labor force are just not keeping up with labor force demand,” Vaisanen said. “2021 was the first year we had more deaths than births in Massachusetts. This is a direct impact of COVID.”

Vaisanen named four trends she is watching to get a sense of the labor force recovery: COVID-19 vaccination and illness rates, the pace of hiring in care work, labor force participation rates, and policy efforts.

The workforce association urged lawmakers to go beyond Gov. Charlie Baker’s spending recommendations and bump up the amount of money career centers will receive from state government, arguing that they need additional resources to help connect employers — who, based on widespread job openings, are often struggling to hire — and workers.

Baker’s fiscal year 2023 budget bill proposes $5.96 million for the MassHire Career centers, down from the $9.5 million they received in FY22. MWA urged legislators to nearly double Baker’s proposal and bump that line item up to $10 million.

“It funds the people and the infrastructure that needs to be there in order for job seekers to find job search help or get into training programs and for employers to find the talent they need,” said MWA Executive Director Tonja Mettlach.

The group also asked the Legislature to add $10 million more for the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund, about $12 million more for YouthWorks and Summer Jobs, and $15 million more for the Community Empowerment and Reinvestment Program.

Baker last week launched a $50 million program offering businesses grant money to incentivize hiring by defraying the costs of training new workers. Employers can receive $4,000 per employee, up to $400,000 total, and are encouraged to seek workers from outside traditional candidate pools.

Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, on Thursday said some lawmakers question the wisdom of that approach.

“One of my colleagues said to me, ‘Why are they paying companies? Companies are looking for workers,'” she said. “Another possibility would’ve been to put some of that funding into MassHire to help people get the skills and the connections they need.”