The 28th Annual Strictly Business Forum brought together some of the brightest business minds in the region with the goal of giving them the opportunity to do one of the things they do best: work collaboratively to discuss problems and propose solutions.
We looked back at business in 2017, and ahead to the challenges of the coming year. The opioid epidemic was an unavoidable topic of conversation, its tendrils far-reaching into the community. Though much progress has been made in the arena of positioning our down- town as an attraction to visitors, the group outlined some of the work to be done as well as an interesting overview of how we got here in the first place. Overall, there was wide appreciation for the enduring spirit of our leadership and community which seems resilient without end and continues to value coming together to overcome adversity in whatever form it takes.
Introducing the Great Minds of Table Five:
• Dr. John Ettling, President, SUNY Plattsburgh
• Richelle Gregory, Director of Community Services, Clinton County • Mark Crawford, Partner, Burnham Benefit Advisors
• Paul Grasso, President, The Development Corporation
• Ken Parkinson, Chief of Police, Plattsburgh Police Department
• Dan Alexander, Publisher, Sun Community News and Printing
• Beth L. Hill, President and CEO, The Fort Ticonderoga Association
Hard Work Paying Off
Area business leaders have worked hard in the last two decades to bring more businesses, and consequently more jobs, to the region. Their success in putting Plattsburgh on the map as a center for aero- space and transportation is undeniable. While having a plethora of job opportunities in the region may seem like only a blessing, demo- graphics and training must also be examined in order for us to sustain the job growth in the region.
Local job growth has recently seen the most marked increases in the area of manufacturing. Recruiting and retaining an adequate roster of entry-level employees has been a shared challenge for many local businesses across the region. “We are a small county; not everybody wants to work in manufacturing,” commented Grasso, noting the importance of matching employee interest with their work. Another issue that many businesses struggled with has been attendance. Dan Alexander recently found himself filling in for an employee who did not show up to make a timely delivery to New Hampshire. “Part of the problem is that when we do find folks, they may only last a day or two,” he commented. “Sometimes they don’t even show up when they are given a job interview.”
One reason entry-level employees may not show up is because doing so will negatively impact the benefits they receive from public assistance. New York State and Clinton County in particular provide robust income-based benefits for individuals and families in the form of health care, child care, cash, and other benefits. These income- based supports can make it difficult for a potential employee to justify working a job at minimum wage instead of collecting benefits. “It’s tough to match all those benefits with an hourly wage,” commented Crawford. In his role he regularly works with employers who struggle with the disincentive that public assistance provides to potential employees. “We have clients who share that employees notify them today that they can’t work tomorrow because if they do they’ll exceed the income level and subsequently lose daycare or healthcare benefits,” he explained. “It’s a built-in disincentive for people who really want to work.”
Competing for Good Employees
Employees are enjoying a buyer’s market when it comes to entry- level manufacturing jobs. Employers who want to attract and retain a qualified workforce are being forced to up the ante in order to remain competitive. A variety of useful best practices in this regard was shared around the table.
Mark Crawford is in the employee benefits business working with employers to design and implement benefit solutions that address the common challenges of recruiting and retaining employees. “With respect to recruitment, numerous area employers have reduced the waiting period for eligibility for benefits,” he explained. “Typically the norm in the market for new employees was a waiting period of 90 days. I’m seeing employers reduce that to 30 days as an incentive.” Alexander is using the strategy of increasing individual rates of pay, while trying to get more work done with fewer people. “Our goal right now is to figure out how we can better use fewer people—give them goals, tools, and skills to accomplish more, rather than staying with some of the manual processes that we’ve stuck with through the years.”
Grasso and his team suggested injecting a bit of competition to incentivize employee production. “The idea is to keep wages where they are, but give employees a target to hit if they want a pay increase,” he explained. “Pay a base salary of $15/hour with an option of raising it to $19/hour if certain production volume and quality targets are met by the team.” In this way, there is peer pressure among employees to show up, pull their own weight, and work hard.
In addition to implementing practical on-the-job strategies to make jobs more attractive to prospective employees, area businesses are beginning to turn their thoughts toward solving the greater problems of people living in our community. Conversations among the leaders at our table brought to light some real logistical issues such as helping people find affordable housing, reliable transportation to and from work, and childcare for their families. While these factors aren’t work-focused, they have a heavy impact on the well-being of the individual, and that well-being has a direct impact on their ability to show up as an effective, productive employee.
Any conversation about the well-being of employees is incomplete without considering the impact of the opioid epidemic that has gripped our region, state, and nation. “One thing that’s changed dramatically in our community over the years is drug use and abuse. Today, that is a huge issue that employers have to face,” added Beth Hill. Grasso pointed to pre-employ- ment drug testing as a self-selection factor that prospective employees might use to avoid applying for work in the first place. Employers who are in desperate need of workers have a tough choice to make. “A lot of companies are no longer drug testing because they lose half of their applicant pool as soon as they find out they will be tested,” he explained. This tem- porary Band-Aid of a solution for employers to turn the other cheek is a clear sign that drug abuse among our community neighbors is an issue that cannot be ignored.
Efforts to address the issue are under way. Richelle Gregory is part of a community-wide effort with Clinton County Community Mental Health and Addictions Services and the Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery of Clinton County (SPARCC), which organized and held the first of hopefully many substance abuse employment forums. “The goal of these forums is to help employers work with employees and educate them about substance abuse,” Gregory explained, “including what services and supports are available to companies to maintain their workforce, and in what ways those services can be best utilized.”
Attracting People to Live, Work, and Play in the North Country
Eager to solve the problems of the community in 20 minutes or less, the brain trust around our table went right to work to identify improvements that might lead to population growth in the region. While stock issues such as affordable housing and reliable transportation were certainly acknowledged as important aspects of attracting new residents, the conversation quickly evolved to tackle other less obvious but equally significant issues.
Marketing the Region’s Strengths
Both Beth Hill of Fort Ticonderoga and John Ettling of SUNY Plattsburgh pointed to areas in Vermont that have done a fantastic job with branding their location on a wide scale. “Over in Vermont, they have a terrific brand,” Ettling said, “It’s Ben and Jerry’s; it’s Church Street; it’s skiing and more.” Fort Ticonderoga is not far from the smaller town of Vergennes, Vermont, which has caught the attention of Hill and some of her millennial employees. Vergennes is this little town with ‘big drinks, big food, and a big heart,’” she said. “They’ve branded themselves in this way that’s attracting young people. They are attracting new breweries and distilleries and restaurants.”
All contributors agreed that Plattsburgh and the North Country have equally amazing attributes that can be packaged, marketed, and sold to a wider audience with the goal of attracting more people to live, work, and play here. “When I think about Plattsburgh, we have Garry Douglas and other awesome leaders in this region,” Hill complimented. “Plattsburgh has really done well. You’ve got it all right here.” Alexander wondered out loud, “Does Plattsburgh need to be selling a business plan right now? Maybe there is more branding that should occur with respect to our amazing quality of life.”
With the gorgeous natural beauty of two mountain ranges and a phenomenal lake on our doorstep, and cultural centers like Montreal and Burlington within a short drive, there really is the best of both rural and urban worlds colliding right in our midst. On top of all of that, we can offer steady economic development and job growth. Alexander made some excellent points, adding, “The quality of life and everything we have to offer is great—but before you move somewhere, you first think about jobs and employment. We’ve got the jobs and that’s what some other areas are missing. We need to promote them. It may be really attractive and fun to live in North Carolina, but if you can’t get a job there, you can’t go out and enjoy all those quality-of-life offerings.” Locally, the growth of the aerospace industry and the many exciting economic developments are an excellent complement to the tremendous quality of life that the area can package and sell in order to attract new residents.
A downtown that draws in visitors as its own destination was discussed as an improvement that is necessary in order to attract more residents to live here. Ettling provided some historical context for the current challenges of down- town Plattsburgh as compared to our sister city across the lake. “When I moved here 14 years ago, I asked then-mayor Dan Stewart, ‘When did Burlington become Burlington, and why didn’t Plattsburgh do that too?’ He explained that when IBM was looking to expand, they came first to Plattsburgh. Back then, we had PAFB here and we did not think we needed to make the concessions that IBM required to get them to come here. We thought we’d always have the Base here. So they went across the lake, and Burlington welcomed them.” The resulting corporate influence and support, combined with community leaders exerting political will to make unpopular decisions to tear down and condemn buildings is what it took to create the destination that we see in downtown Burlington today. The fight continues to this day with the recent groundbreaking for the redevelopment of the downtown mall area.
Plattsburgh would do well to embrace the fight and tackle the challenges keeping our down- town area from achieving the greatness of its potential. Gregory explained the missing ‘it factor’ nicely, saying “We don’t have a neat little section of downtown where you can walk by many specialty shops and spend the day seeing and doing different things that are going on. I think we need something that looks attractive so people coming to visit can see that this is a neat place where there are things to do on the weekends with their families.”
Looking Ahead—Challenges for 2018
With good reason, the widespread problem of the opioid epidemic was a commonly cited source of stress from the leaders around the table. Plattsburgh City police chief Ken Parkinson works very closely with this issue and deals with its impact on a daily basis. He suggested that there is a perception problem in the community about who ‘drug users’ are and a lack of recognition of the strength of the health issue they are dealing with. “People can’t look at this problem and think that these people are addicted because they are bad people,” he explained. “It’s a disease and they need treatment, just like any other disease that you might have.” A reactionary but necessary measure in the middle of a drug abuse epidemic is to put resources behind treatment programs. The community must be responsive to the problem by ensuring that there are accessible and affordable treatment programs available to individuals who want help. Chief Parkinson saw this as a problem locally, commenting, “We are seeing a lot of people who want the help, but there’s nowhere for them to go to get it. It’s a huge problem, but I am optimistic that by working together we can conquer it.”
The crisis has taken root and has been a problem for more than enough years to spawn anew generation of issues. Richelle Gregory is greatly concerned about the never-ending cycle between childhood trauma and serious problems in adulthood. When large numbers of the adult population are drug and alcohol addicted, they negatively affect the large numbers of children in their care during an extremely vulnerable time in their lives. According to Gregory, obesity, lifespan, cancer, and likely many more serious health issues are all related to childhood trauma. In addition to facing the immediate problems of health, safety, and a stable home life, these children are more likely to grow up with mental health and addiction issues. “It’s a slow death and we’re not out of the woods yet,” Gregory cautioned. “The whole population of substance abusers are traumatizing their children. We are just responding to the crisis and the deaths and not really addressing the prevention end of it.”
So, what do we do about it? Parkinson justly commented, “Obviously it’s not something we can arrest our way out of.” He is optimistic about the motivation and capability of this community to work together to make a difference. Although the group thought that in general our region was “late to the game” in addressing the opioid crisis, there was positivity surrounding a local initiative called the SPARCC (Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery of Clinton County) program. “The SPARCC organization is an initiative by Clinton County to bring together the criminal justice system, social services, mental health, health care, businesses, and schools to actively engage in strategies to address these issues,” Parkinson explained. “I am most optimistic that we are going to conquer it. It is going to take some time. It is going to take working together as a collective group with addiction services, and treatment programs to squash this problem.”
In times where the high-school-aged population represents a declining demographic, higher education institutions continue to struggle to fill seats. SUNY Plattsburgh is feeling the strain. According to President Ettling, student dollars fund 80 percent of the budget of the college, and that trend has been rising for a long time. “Forty years ago about 75 percent of what we spent every year came from taxpayers through legislative appropriations,” he said. “That number is down to around 19 percent now.” With financial support from the state decreasing, SUNY colleges are more and more dependent on enrollment to keep the lights on within their institutions.
Unfortunate demographics further complicate the matter. “Since 2010 we’ve lost about 10 percent of our enrollment because of the falling high school graduation numbers in the North Country,” Ettling explained. The only place in the state where high school graduation numbers are not falling is New York City. This is no secret, so all SUNY schools are flocking there to recruit. Recruiting prospective students from even further afield, SUNY Plattsburgh is fortunate to have a significant population of international students repre- senting over 75 countries. However, even that population is beginning to shrink as global perceptions of the United States are impacted by the politically unfriendly climate of the current administration.
Changes in the newspaper and print indus- try are causing both concern and optimism for Dan Alexander and the Sun Community News. This is an organization that is embrac- ing the changing times and looking to grow. Alexander explained that over the last 20 years the newspaper industry was seen as a revenue generator for large corporate owners. Recent
times have changed this industry, which is currently suffering from a huge decline in circulation. “My long-term goal has always been to see the Sun as the premier news product up here in the region,” he proudly explained. “And I think we are getting closer to that event now.” The difference is in the community focus. The free paper has a circulation of 60,000 and is preparing to continue to offer print and digital exposure to local businesses as traditional print outlets falter. “We have been losing money for the last several years preparing for this process, but we are the ones who need to be the communities’ media organization down the road,” he added. In addition to finding money to purchase equipment and finding skilled labor to run it, Alexander is also struggling with finding facilities large enough to accommodate the newest printing presses he hopes to implement ahead of this curve. He optimistically added, “We see a very, very bright future, the one we’ve seen for the last 30 years. It hasn’t happened overnight, and we continue to work, and build, and grow.”
Another bright spot around the table was at Burnham Benefits Services. It should come as no surprise that as chaos and confusion surround politics and health care, advisors who help businesses navigate these benefits see a boom. “Between Trump care, Obama care, legislative agendas, and compliance issues, I don’t see this coming to an end,” said Crawford. “I see more and more of it coming, and that means more and more clients need us to help scrutinize their benefit plans for them and turn over every stone.” Burnham Benefit Advisors has a mix of clientele representing both large and small businesses. As such, its optimism about its future workload is mixed with real concern about the ability of its small business clients to sustain the rising costs of health care as a benefit. “How long can Dan at Sun Community News, for example, sustain 12 percent increases in healthcare premium costs every year for his employees?” Crawford wondered aloud.
Working Together for Success
Pride in local leadership, the sense of codependence and collaboration, and awareness of our strengths are just a few of the “crown jewels,” as Herb Carpenter would call them, that were celebrated during our intense morning of reflection. Challenges are most certainly ahead, but as history has shown us here in the North Country, they do not stand a chance against the united strength and resilience represented by the individuals in attendance at the 2017 Strictly Business Forum.