hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues December 2022/ January 2023


More jobs, fewer workers

Tight labor market shifts region’s goals for economic development


With businesses across the region struggling to recruit workers for routine operations, economic development officials say their focus now is on expanding the local labor pool as much as on wooing new employers. Joan K. Lentini photos


With businesses across the region struggling to recruit workers for routine operations, economic development officials say their focus now is on expanding the local labor pool as much as on wooing new employers. Joan K. Lentini photos


Contributing writer


Washington County officials cheered this fall when Amazon announced plans to establish a regional distribution center in Granville.

But the question on the minds of some area business owners is just where the company will find the 200-plus workers needed to run the facility, given a national labor shortage that is already being felt acutely by many local businesses. Amazon has set a goal of opening the new distribution center by the middle of next year.

Laura Oswald, the county’s economic development director, said Amazon is acutely aware of the challenge and has responded by starting its recruitment early and advertising across a larger geographic based than would be typical.

“They started recruiting before they even closed on the building,” she said.
Amazon’s wider net for recruitment will be essential at a time when the local work force has been shrinking and graying. Both Washington County and neighboring Rutland County, Vt., saw their overall population decline over the past decade.

As the labor shortage intensifies, some economic development and labor officials around the region have shifted much of their focus from attracting new employers to helping existing employers retain an adequate work force.

“It doesn’t matter if we help with recruiting and posting jobs if a place of business has a revolving door of employees leaving,” explained Liza Ochsendorf, director of Warren County Office of Workforce Development.

The new Amazon center in Granville will occupy the former site of the Manchester Wood manufacturing business that closed in 2018. The site is less than 1,000 feet from the border of Vermont, where Gov. Phil Scott has said the ongoing labor shortage is the single most crucial challenge facing the state.

“If we don’t right this ship, we’ll continue to see our work force shrink,” Scott said at a press conference in April. “You’ll hear this story over and over again: Good paying jobs are out there, but they’re struggling to fill them.”


Paying workers to move
The labor shortage has broadened economic development officials’ traditional focus on business recruitment to include convincing people to move from other parts of the country to fill local jobs.
The state of Vermont, for example, is offering to pick up moving expenses for workers relocating from other states to take jobs.

Vermont, with 40 workers for every 100 job openings, has the most dire labor shortage — or as some prefer to call it, “talent gap” — of any state, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The national ratio is 73 workers for every 100 job openings.

The Vermont Relocation Incentive Program offers grants of up to $7,500 to reimburse moving expenses for workers who move from out of state to accept full-time employment with a Vermont employer at a wage that exceeds Vermont’s designated livable wage, currently $13.39 per hour. The grant is also available to remote workers who relocate to Vermont and continue their current employment.

Vermont’s population increased in the decade leading up to the 2020 census, but the demographics of its work force have changed, said Matthew Barewicz, a state Labor Department economist, at a press conference with Scott in April, a video of which the governor’s office posted on Facebook.

The share of people between the ages of 35 and 54, which are considered the prime working years, has decreased from about one-third to about one-quarter of the state’s total population, Barewicz explained. Meanwhile, the share of those aged 55 and over increased from less that one-fourth of Vermont’s population in 2000 to one-third in 2020.

Oswald, the Washington County economic development director, said she is not aware of any discussion of New York pursuing a relocation incentive program similar to Vermont’s. But she said private companies in many cases are recruiting from outside the region.

The labor-force trends have made quality of life and community more essential to economic development, Oswald said.

“You also need to pay attention to what your communities look like,” she said. “Why do your kids want to come back and live here?”

Tricia Rogers, the president and chief executive of the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber and EDC Warren County are working on an initiative to make sure there is sufficient affordable housing for new workers relocating to the region – and to retain existing employees.

Other regional employment experts said the labor shortage has increased the importance of employee retention and worker training.


Vacant jobs, empowered workers?
Workers are in short supply in virtually every economic sector, both nationally and locally.
“There is not an employer large or small that I know of that is not having a problem with it,” Oswald said. “I talked to one employer yesterday that said, ‘We could hire 15 machinists tomorrow if we could find them.’ ”

Retail stores and restaurants have been forced to reduce hours, or in some cases go out of business, because they can’t find enough help.

The lack of workers also has hastened the trend of retail chains switching from brick-and-mortar to online business models.

Even county governments, whose jobs historically have been highly desired because of their stability, are facing labor shortages, Oswald said. By the time applicants get through the civil service process, they often have already found more lucrative jobs in the private sector, she said.
The challenge for employers has become an opportunity for workers, who lately have been enjoying unusual upward mobility in the labor force.

What some are calling “The Great Resignation,” because of the large number of people leaving jobs, could more accurately called “The Great Reshuffle,” analyst Stephanie Ferguson wrote in an Oct. 31 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report.

The most severe labor shortages, according to the report, are in durable goods manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, education and health care.

“Even if every unemployed person with experience in the durable goods manufacturing industry were employed, the industry would only fill half the vacant jobs,” Ferguson wrote.

That means the 85 employees who will be laid off next year as a result of the recently announced closing of the Lehigh Hansen cement plant in Glens Falls should not have difficulty finding new jobs.

In Vermont, Scott has said construction trades are being hit hardest with labor shortages.
Sectors that hire unskilled workers have less severe shortages but are struggling with high turnover.

Nationally, the leisure and hospitality trade is experiencing the highest turnover rate, with 956,000 employees leaving jobs in August, while 1.1 million new employees were hired, according to Ferguson’s report. The retail trade was a close second.

Compared with other states, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts are near the middle of the pack in terms of the increase in job openings from pre-pandemic levels.

In New York, the increase in job openings between February 2020 and September 2022 falls somewhere between 10 percent and 39 percent, the second lowest of four categories. Vermont and Massachusetts have seen increases of 40 percent to 69 percent, the second highest of four categories.


Pandemic speeds ongoing trends
The pandemic is a factor in the labor shortage, but the issue is more complex and will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future, labor experts said.

After the pandemic, many workers in their mid-50s and early 60s decided to retire early rather than return to their longtime jobs, said state Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, who is chairwoman of the state Legislative Commission on Skills Development and Career Education.

Others had time during the pandemic to pursue hobbies and outside interests and decided to try to turn those activities into businesses, rather than returning to their previous jobs. As a result, the rate of new business start-ups in New York has increased over the past year, Woerner said.
Some industries, particularly tourism, were experiencing labor shortages even before the pandemic, as evidenced by an increasing reliance on seasonal workers from overseas, Ochsendorf said.

The aging of baby boomers out of the work force is another factor.
“The baby boomers were born into families with four or more children, but they had only two children. So essentially, they did not replace themselves,” Ochsendorf said.

Finding enough workers will continue to be a challenge in the future, because many younger couples are deciding not to have children at all, she said.

“We were going to face a work force shortage in four or five years, but the pandemic accelerated it,” Woerner said.

“You could have predicted 60 years ago that this was going to come,” but no one could have predicted the trend would be accelerated by the pandemic, said Oswald, the Washington County economic development director.

Shortages of child care and limited public transportation also are factors, she said.
Although retention has become a priority for employers, Rogers, of Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce, said wages aren’t the only consideration. In many cases, she said, employers are offering increased paid time off, flexible work schedules and the option for employees to work remotely -- considerations that add value beyond financial incentives.
“It’s the whole package,” she said.

Oswald said employers are relying more on automation, whether in manufacturing or in restaurants, where customers may now place orders via an app rather than to an in-person server.

Woerner said it’s important to evaluate the success of work force training programs and be able to respond quickly to emerging needs of employers. She said she has been studying local work force development initiatives throughout the state to determine how the state could be more effective.

Woerner pointed, for example, to a computer database system that Monroe County Community College uses to track employer needs. The system allows the college to focus on training in fields that will allow students to find immediate employment. She is working to get funding to expand that system statewide.

Woerner also is focusing on expanding work force training programs at community colleges and BOCES campuses, the regional vocational training centers for New York’s secondary school students. Individual programs need to be tailored to fit the specific needs in the communities that a community college or BOCES school serves, she said.


Expanding the labor pool
Officials now are focusing on segments such as youth, the disabled, and individuals with criminal records – population segments from which employers previously were reluctant to hire, said Ochsendorf, the director of Warren County Office of Workforce Development.

The state Department of Labor recently authorized counties to spend up to half of their federal employment funding for youth ages 14 to 24 on school-age youth programs. Previously only up to 25 percent could be spent on school-age youth programs, with the rest spent to assist those in their late teens and early 20s.

Nationally, Ochsendorf said, the youth employment rate is the lowest it has been in recent years.
“Our area especially has an aging population, and we need the younger generations to learn the skills for our local in-demand industries to take these jobs,” she said.

Ochsendorf said officials also are working to show employers that those with criminal records can be rehabilitated and that the disabled can be competent part-time employees.
“Only about 30 percent of New Yorkers with disabilities are employed, and we can do better,” she said.

The economic downturn is drawing some older workers back into the work force, said Barewicz, the Vermont Labor Department economist.

“I think we’re having a new trend emerging in the labor force called ‘un-retirement,’” he said. It’s possible that we’re going to see un-retirements and more of the ‘encore careers,’ individuals coming into the labor force,” he said.