How businesses are trying to bring back workers in the Southern Tier
Looking for a local restaurant to grab a quick lunch?
It might take some searching.
Many area dining establishments are limiting hours, and it's not for a lack of food.
Rather it's due to a lack of available employees, and it's not just restaurants. It's hotels, it's hospitals, it's factories, it's retailers and more, and it's having an impact on the economic recovery of the Southern Tier and beyond.
"I think we're seeing the most (shortages) in the hospitality and food service businesses. Some restaurants are currently not doing lunch because of staffing issues," said Stacey Duncan, president of the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Broome County Industrial Development Agency.
"It affects the bottom line as businesses are weighing the costs for inventory, staffing, being open when you don't have enough people," Duncan said. "We're seeing these contractions."
A 'worker's market'
As with real estate, the labor market is cyclical. Right now, the ongoing pandemic is giving people looking for work the advantage.
Help wanted signs are everywhere, but with the specter of COVID-19 still lingering, a lot of people are reluctant to enter or reenter the workforce.
Others have gotten accustomed to being home and are looking for jobs that can allow them to work remotely. Some have simply retired or otherwise dropped out of the job market completely.
As a result, employers and economic development agencies are getting inventive to entice potential workers through the door.
"Wage increases, adjusted benefits, hybrid work environments, educational opportunities, and creating a culture of appreciation are just some of the techniques being utilized by employers in the Southern Finger Lakes region," said Kamala Keeley, president of Three Rivers Development Corp., which serves Chemung, Steuben and Schuyler counties.
"Safety during the pandemic is another big hurdle for employers to navigate in encouraging the labor force to reactivate," Keeley said. "The ones that are able to make this a priority are having more meaningful engagement with returning workforce."
Worker shortage a widespread problem
As lockdowns and other restrictions imposed in the early stages of the pandemic eased and businesses were able to reopen or get back to normal operations, many quickly discovered there was no mob of job candidates lining up their doors.
Uncertainty spurred by the arrival of the COVID-19 omicron variant and concerns over a federal vaccination mandate could have an impact on the labor market situation in 2022.
"Although there are an abundance of employment opportunities across the region, overall the labor force is disengaged," Keeley said. "This is not unique to our region, it’s a national phenomenon. The challenge is to increase labor force engagement and make sure individuals are receiving the training and upskilling they need to be prepared."
There seems to be a certain level of inertia among many people who were idled by the pandemic, even as job opportunities open up again, said Sheri McCall, manager of the Tioga County Career Center.
"I had a job fair in August, before unemployment benefits ran out. We had 6,500 people who were going to lose benefits, and 88 people showed up," McCall said. "We're seeing lower attendance than what we're used to. Some people are looking for better jobs or looking to work remotely. Child care has always been an issue, even in the best times."
A lot of older workers simply opted to retire rather than try to find a new job, McCall added.
Balancing the labor market going forward
In addition to finding willing workers, many employers are having trouble finding people with the right skillsets for the jobs available.
That's why it's critical educational institutions and economic development organizations make adequate training programs available to make sure potential employees are not only willing but qualified, Duncan said.
"There is some opportunity to build a stronger pipeline from high school to the workforce, or to help people begin again," she said. "We need to provide more access and opportunities for people. Childcare is a huge issue as is access to transportation to work. It's really a holistic approach.
"I am optimistic that we are starting to reconnect all the dots as a community," Duncan said. "That's going to be beneficial in the long run. We'll see a lot of innovation and slowly learn to navigate this in a way that works."
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