Moderator: Paul Deyoe | Photos by Ty Kretser
The importance of attracting and retaining employees was the most discussed topic at Table One during the 33rd Strictly Business Forum. Post pandemic, it was clear to everyone in my group that employees hold a lot of power in choosing where to work and what they need from their employer in order to stick around. Remote work flexibility, ability to take time to handle family obligations/child care needs along with finding the right work culture that suits them were top benefits mentioned.
We discussed how younger people, especially in high school or college, do not want to work as many hours. Older employees have either decided to retire post pandemic or take a different career path that is less time consuming and stressful.
We talked about the current economic climate and that even though finding employees is a challenge, business was up slightly for almost everyone in 2022. Looking ahead to 2023, the people at our table believed a recession is imminent, but if we prepare for it now, we will get through it like we always do in the North Country.
Table one consisted of a diverse group of business leaders who each offered a unique perspective on 2022 and the future of the local business climate.
Rod Giltz – Chairman, Northern Insuring Agency Giltz oversees Northern Insuring’s financials and continues to handle select clients, specializing in risk management for governmental entities and large business accounts.
Richelle Gregory – Director of Community Services, Clinton County Mental Health Gregory is responsible for the planning, development and coordination for the Office of Mental Health, Office of Addictions and Services and Supports, the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Director of Clinton County Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Joe Keegan – President, North Country Community College Keegan, president of NCCC for the past three and a half years, has seen the college change before, during and post pandemic. In addition to being a proud graduate of North Country Community College in 1989, Keegan has served many roles there since 1994 including as an associate professor.
Rick Martindale – Owner/Partner, Martindale, Keysor & Co PLLC Martindale is a Certified Public Accountant and has been in the trade for over 30 years. He founded Martindale, Keysor & Co in 1999.
Matt Spiegel – President, Dynamic Warehousing & Distribution – Owner of Naked Turtle and Olive Ridley’s restaurants Spiegel opened his first business in 1996, the Naked Turtle restaurant, in Plattsburgh. He has since added Olive Ridley’s Taphouse & Grill and Dynamic Warehousing and Distribution.
Shannon Wilkins – Co-Owner/Business Manager of Rulfs Orchard. Wilkins has worked at the orchard since she was a child. Along with her sister Amanda, they took over Rulfs from her grandfather in 2015. She has a degree in accounting from Siena College and is the Chairperson of the North Country Chamber of Commerce.
Our morning started off discussing the labor challenges we face here in the North Country and what we can do to overcome them. Spiegel, who employs around 200 people was surprised at how many of his employees did not want to come back to work after the pandemic.”
Spiegel and Martindale agreed it was most likely due to the realization that they didn’t need to work at all. Martindale pointed out, “many employees, especially older ones, realized they simply did not have to work anymore and the pandemic made them realize they would rather enjoy their time retired and could get by with the money they already had saved.”
Giltz said Northern Insuring has also seen some long-time employees leave. “After the pandemic, some of our employees that have been with us the longest simply decided to make a big change and move to a completely different part of the country and have a fresh start”
Wilkins said they noticed this trend at the orchard as well, “High school and college students are not as interested in working like they did in the past. Today’s younger employees value time away from work to enjoy events/recreational activities with their friends and family.”
Martindale said they have had to adjust the number of positions they have and they will have to do the same work with fewer people because some positions will remain open.
For the employees who want to continue working, our table believed they can demand more from their employers to allow flexibility to work remotely, to take care of family/personal issues and to have a work environment that makes them happy.
At Dynamic Warehousing and Distribution, Spiegel said they’re doing more things to help employees not only be happy to be working there, but also make it easier for them to take care of personal issues. “The North Country has to catch up with the Silicon Valley approach of making the workplace a community that has fun activities, food/social events and resources on hand for employees to make their lives easier.”
North Country Community College is trying new ways to help attract employees and students. Keegan described a program they have working with local prisons, “We’re working with the various correctional facilities in our region to help people with felonies integrate back into the workforce or start their own business. We currently have 120 students from four local prisons. We’re the only school in the SUNY system that does this with prisons. We have this exclusivity because we’ve demonstrated that we can do this successfully. Graduation ceremonies are very moving and the students are so thankful for this second opportunity.” This program helps keep inmates positive and motivated to be good prisoners.
Mental Health challenges post pandemic were also discussed. According to Gregory, “After the pandemic, healthcare systems are overwhelmed. As patients are triaged, those with behavioral health issues are not prioritized and healthcare lacks the bandwidth to adequately address and improve these issues. COVID has amplified symptoms, that include fear and anxiety, in vulnerable populations. When a person who is symptomatic is in public, their behaviors can be misinterpreted and exploited, contributing to biased beliefs and stigma. Contributing to the system challenges, ages of suicide and behavioral health issue are being identified younger with limited resources and interventions. “We need collaboration of state and federal agencies to strengthen partnerships to help communities treat and prevent these issues. Telehealth is great for some of the population, but for those who are the most vulnerable, it is much more effective to meet in person. Treating this population and having flexibility and a supportive environment could lead to an untapped workforce.”
Looking to 2023 and beyond, the people at Table One believed the pandemic has changed the local business climate and that it will continue for a few years. Some industries were up, like auto and home improvement, but for others that relied on business from Canada, they are still not back to pre-pandemic sales. Martindale pointed out at his business, “Some of our clients did not come back when the border reopened. When the border was closed some of my Canadian clients simply shut down their businesses or retired. We are starting to recover from this, but it has not caught up yet.”
All agreed technology will have a bigger impact on the success of businesses in the North Country by helping lower expenses and reduce their impact on the environment.
One of our most discussed topics was the impact of electric vehicles in our region. Rulfs Orchard recently installed EV charging stations and they are being used more and more, especially by Canadians. Wilkins stated “We have four available and the transactions/usage is more than I expected. It costs a customer 25 cents per kilowatt to recharge their vehicle and a $3 total was the most I have seen someone pay. Canadians are big users. And it’s good for business. They come in and buy breakfast while they wait the two hours for their vehicle to charge.”
Giltz talked about his experience with his electric vehicle, “My car will go 40 miles in the summer and just a little less in the winter. This is all from a car that is four years old. My daughter Dena has a newer car which she charges at home and she gets 100 miles per charge.
Overall, 2022 was a good year for our table’s participants. Most businesses were steady or up and North County Community College saw an influx of older students seeking to get the credentials needed for a new career. The college saw students taking advantage of online courses go up from five percent before the pandemic to 30 percent today.
Mental health issues along with drug/alcohol abuse have risen due to the pandemic and more needs to be done to help those who suffer. Inflation, labor challenges and a recession most likely right around the corner were important concerns our table had and it’s important that we plan ahead now so we are prepared. That’s how we’ll make 2023 a positive year for the North Country.