CAPITAL REGION — Labor Day 2021 finds the Capital Region labor market still waiting to turn the corner, with many employers having continued difficulty hiring enough people.
The list of potential reasons is often recited: Fear of COVID, lack of childcare options, unwillingness to accept low or medium wages, government policies and payouts removing some of the imperative to earn a living.
That last point has been a recurring narrative in the business community through the pandemic: Enhanced benefits make unemployment more lucrative than employment for many people, particularly when the costs of going to work (child care, meals away from home, commuting) are factored in.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in August 2021, the national workforce participation rate — the percentage of working-age Americans employed or actively seeking employment — stood at 61.7%, down from 63.4% in January 2020, the month before COVID began to spread in the United States.
The New York state Department of Labor estimates that 518,600 people were employed in the Capital Region in July 2021. This compares with 504,100 in July 2020 and 531,700 in July 2019.
The shrinking labor force has left many jobs vacant.
The response by employers has ranged from lowering standards to cutting operating hours to raising starting pay — anything to get people to fill out applications
Money is something they use to catch the job hunter’s eye.
UPS is hiring package handlers at its Latham facility at $26.25 an hour, counting attendance incentives.
ADUSA, the Schodack distribution center serving Hannaford, offers experienced truck drivers $85,000 a year to start, plus a $10,000 signing bonus.
Training helps, too.
CDTA will take people with no commercial license and train them to drive a bus.
GlobalFoundries has an apprenticeship program for young people who lack experience but have a desire to work in the growing semiconductor industry.
Others take a different route, and try to accommodate the needs and wants of their employees so they’ll want to work there.
CHANGE OF PLAN
Heidi Knoblauch has worn a number of hats, including chairperson of Troy’s Industrial Development Authority and Local Development Corp. and venture and growth manager at Pioneer Bank.
She’s also an entrepreneur, opening Plumb Oyster Bar in Troy in 2016 and reopening it late last month after a COVID hiatus.
So how does a restaurant find help in one of the tightest sectors in a tight labor market?
Listen to the employees and reshape the business plan, Knoblauch said. All of the people who reopened Plumb with her Aug. 26 were previous employees who wanted to return under the right circumstances.
“I think the [employers] who are really having trouble with their workforce are looking at their industry with a pre-pandemic lens,” she said. “Employers that are going with the flow are having more success attracting employees.
“It’s very simple — you just ask them. You say, ‘What is it that gets you excited about this place?’ It doesn’t matter what I want.”
It’s not an autonomous collective — Knoblauch still hires, fires and manages. But her former employees were intimately familiar with the business and came up with a modified business plan that worked for everyone involved.
The employee-first model is beneficial, she said, and the dictatorial-employer model is problematic at this point.
Plumb has reduced its menu to focus on its strengths: its raw bar and craft cocktails.
Would she like to return to the full pre-pandemic menu? Possibly. But it would be hard to hire enough staff at this point, and she doesn’t know what the future holds.
“I don’t think there’s going to be this magical return to normal,” she said.
FUN IS WORK
The Great Escape theme park in Queensbury operated this summer, though not at full tilt. It held its first-ever drive-through job fair, dropped its aversion to hiring people with tattoos and piercing and raised pay.
It still had to cut back to an unprecedented five-day week in July to avoid overstretching its smaller workforce.
Spokesman Jason Lee said in addition to regional and national labor shortages, COVID travel restrictions cut the number of foreign students who arrive through the company’s Work & Travel Program to only about 115 this summer.
Employees did appreciate the five-day workweek, he said: “Our staff (is) grateful for the small reprieve closing two days a week, as it allows us to offer the best in-park experience to our guests on days that we are operating.”
Great Escape is pressing forward past the symbolic end of summer, Labor Day. It will be open weekends in September, then convert to Fright Fest on weekends in October, plus most Fridays and Columbus Day.
It will be hiring performers for the Halloween event for weeks to come, and promises a season-end bonus of 10% of all wages earned before Sept. 13 and 35% of all wages earned from Sept. 13 to Oct. 31 — but only to employees who stay through Oct. 31.
SLOW ROAD BACK
Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady was shut down for more than five months in 2020 as a COVID precaution and reopened just shy of a year ago. But it has been a slow and halting reopening, waiting for state approvals each step, modifying its facility along the way, and looking for replacements for those among its 1,000-strong workforce who’d moved on during the shutdown.
“It’s been tedious and slow but it’s happening,” said Linda Waters, director of human resources.
“It is definitely a candidates’ market now, not an employers’.
We have to work to get qualified candidates into our system,” she said.
Rivers is seeing good financials in mid-2021, posting its best gambling revenue month ever in July, but as a whole, it still isn’t quite back to full operation. The casino and resort need about 900 to 950 employees now, and are 10% short of that, Waters said.
So it’s using some different techniques and doing more outreach.
It also hosted two job fairs recently, one for food and beverage jobs, the other for gaming jobs. They drew about 30 people each and resulted in a combined 21 job offers. Rivers plans a third job fair Sept. 16 for other, more specialized positions.
Most Rivers employees are represented by the Hotel Trades Council. Hourly wages are mostly higher than $20, Waters said, excepting tipped workers, who get $11.50.
She’s finding that potential job applicants are thinking not just about wages but about their benefits and schedules.
“I think they’re looking at what’s overall best for them,” she said.
So what loosens the labor market, in her opinion? The end of the pandemic.
“I think COVID definitely is one of the big factors for people that live with people with underlying conditions,” she said.
Also, if COVID is vanquished, the enhanced unemployment benefits and eviction protections of the past 18 months may end as well, she said, making it harder to get by without a job.
Rivers hasn’t mandated vaccination for its employees but is recommending them, and providing $50 incentives per shot, or $100 for a two-dose series. It’s also planning an in-house vaccination clinic.
“We’re hoping that more will be encouraged to get the vaccine,” Water said.
BUSIER THAN EVER
GlobalFoundries, one of the largest public-sector employers in the region, has two multiple factors causing it to be short-staffed:
There’s a huge demand for its products: It has shipped more wafers from its Fab 8 foundry in Malta in the past year than ever before; it’s expanding to increase output, and the people it hires must have specialized skills and training not common in the area workforce.
“It’s been growing because the fab is expanding, we’re ramping up,” said Jordan Steller, senior director of human resources. “We were on a path with needing more people to start with,” he added, even before the pandemic, when a rise in remote work helped boost demand for electronic devices loaded with computer chips.
There currently are more than 120 open positions in Malta, most of them listed on the Careers page on GlobalFoundries’ website. The company also has numerous openings at its Vermont plant and a smaller number at its facility in East Fishkill, which is in the process of transitioning to new ownership.
Other U.S. chip manufacturers are in a similar bind.
“It’s an exciting story for the industry but a challenge too,” Steller said.
The sticking point is that “there’s a limited supply of people in the United States who have semiconductor experience,” he said. “We definitely have a sense of urgency on filling those roles.”
To build a pipeline for the near term and intermediate future, GlobalFoundries has formed seven academic partnerships, the most recent with Hudson Valley Community College and the University at Albany.
It takes on employees with two-year degrees and encourages them to take classes at its partner schools, where tuition is discounted and schedules are designed around their jobs.
It also takes on apprentices from BOCES vocational education programs.
“The beauty of it is there’s multiple pathways,” Steller said.
One thing GlobalFoundries doesn’t have to overcome is the negative image some people still hold in their minds about manufacturing jobs in dirty, noisy factories.
“The moment someone steps into [a chip fab], I think the idea that manufacturing is a thing of the past or somehow not cool evaporates,” Steller said.
STEM@GlobalFoundries works to reach the next generation of potential employees before they graduate from high school and reaches out to girls while they’re still in middle school before gender stereotypes potentially turn them away from careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Regionally, the Center for Economic Growth works along some of the same lines. One of its roles is workforce development, working to configure academic programs to meet the needs of employers.
“Obviously at CEG we talk about workforce a lot,” said Michael Lobsinger, senior vice president of business growth solutions.
The Capital Region labor shortage didn’t start when the pandemic started, he noted.
“Prior to COVID in certain industries there were still workforce issues,” he said. Some industries were short of employees to begin with, others grew so much during the pandemic that they became shorthanded, he noted.
Eighteen months after the first cases of COVID were documented in New York state, Lobsinger said, “People are still waiting — what’s going to happen with schools, what’s going to happen with the Delta variant. There’s a lot of external factors that are making people hesitant or they’re in transition.”
Others have been working so many stressful hours that they are burning out, looking perhaps at retirement or a career change.
There’s no real blueprint for how it might all play out, Lobsinger added, as the last time a health crisis of this magnitude hit was in 1918 when society was less mobile and more compartmentalized. Also a century ago, the American working class had much less accumulated wealth and there were fewer safety-net programs to keep them afloat.
CEG has multiple initiatives underway to increase the workforce, including a rebranding effort to attract new residents to the region.
“The things that we do to entice people to come back to New York, those are always positive,” Lobsinger said. “It’s all going to help and it’s going to take time. Long-term, I think things will improve.”