Moderator: Betsy Vicencio | Photos by Ty Kretser
December 2019 was the last time we gathered in person for the annual
Strictly Business Forum. Three years later, our business community revealed we are stronger than ever. More than 50 people joined us at the MHAB Life Skills Campus to tackle topics of the day at the 33rd Forum. The tenor in the room was robust with a blend of familiarity, curiosity, and welcoming gratitude. This event reflects the commitment of our business community, dedicating time to explore and re-energize our regional culture of all that’s good about business. Table Five was an eclectic blend of compelling leaders from multiple industries and diverse experiences.
Of the 14 first-timers at the Forum, two were at our table.
Annie Brennan, Dealer Principal of Brennan Buick GMC transplanted her young family from New Brunswick to the center of Plattsburgh, New York. She and her husband, Shea, have jumped into the community with both feet. They have found a synergy with the business, cultural and social offerings of the North Country exceeding their expectations.
Trevor Cole, Director of Planning and Community Development, Town of Plattsburgh brings a passionate lens of equality and inclusion to a vision for our future. The SMART Growth plan for the Town provides an inviting structure for the future to welcome and engage people who may want to “travel” in our region without vehicles of their own.
Seasoned Forum veterans at our table included:
Courtney Chandler Delaura, Vice President of Agency Insurance Brokers, Inc., represents the third generation of the Chandler family operating this North Country company. Delaura has served the Plattsburgh community with her involvement with The Strand Center for the Arts and Plattsburgh Noon Rotary Club.
Justin Ihne, CEO of the Plattsburgh and Malone YMCA, has become the beacon of hope for the child care crisis in our region. With a vision for how the YMCA can better serve as the center point for all things community, Ihne has created a fund-raising campaign which has achieved 50% of its initial goal. A new facility – located on New York Road on the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base — will allow the Y to expand its offerings to citizens of all ages.
Billy Jones, NYS Assemblyman who was recently re-elected to a two-year term brought the voice of the people to our table. The most well-traveled representative of our region, Jones engages and participates with our people, developing a true and meaningful sense of what is happening, what needs to happen and how government can help. His dedication to all things North Country remains our greatest resource.
Sylvie Nelson, Executive Director of the North Country Workforce Development Board For more than eight years she has brought support services to our developing workforce for three counties in the North Country. Originally from Montreal, Sylvie provides a first-hand connection to our partners in Canada.
Eric Zeisloft, Vice President of MRP Solutions, is a leader in manufacturing. He brings his common-sense solutions to the complex problems of workforce development while operating one of the largest and growing manufacturers in our region.
And the results are in…
Our morning round table discussion started with a recap on 2022.
Justin Ihne reported that the YMCA had an “exceptionally strong year with people reconnecting with the Y. Memberships have increased 30% compared to 2019, our last ‘normal’ year.”
Annie Brennan, who was celebrating the one-year anniversary of Brennan Buick GMC found 2022 to be a wonderful start to their Plattsburgh move noting “…incredible networking opportunities and community involvement. Supply chain issues were very challenging as we started the year with only 13 units on our lot, but the horizon is looking bright as we’re finishing the year with over 200 units in stock.”
Sylvie Nelson said, “One Work Source offices are back in full operation mode, offering workforce development services and education. Additionally, an innovative program through the North Country Workforce Partnership, called Authentic STEM, connects local students with students in Germany in conjunction with Schluter Systems LP to use a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math based curriculum and apply it to real-world problems and challenges.”
Assemblyman Billy Jones discussed two key challenges of the North Country. “We haven’t expanded our workforce in years. We have a diminishing population, families are having fewer children, and Baby Boomers are retiring at accelerated rates. This causes a huge disruption in our available workforce. And that is compounded by the social services cliff that financially cuts off people working their way out of poverty. Once someone receiving benefits earns a certain amount of money working (not nearly enough to sustain themselves or their family), their benefits (HEAP, SNAP, Childcare Subsidy, etc.) are eliminated, creating an impossible situation for people. This is where government can help, by eliminating this financial cliff and providing a smoother transition into self-sustainability.”
Courtney Chandler Delaura reported “Post COVID, (insurance) loss costs are through the roof, impacting rates across the board. The NYS Auto Insurance cap was great for customers initially, and then people began receiving non-renewals or were being dropped from their policies. This has placed enormous pressure on insurance rates across the board.”
Eric Zeisloft said, “For the first time since I’ve been with MRP (more than seven years), we are SLOW! When COVID hit, orders went through the roof, up by more than 50%. Our customers stocked and over stocked up on our products. Add inflation and the change in consumer spending, and we are experiencing a temporary slowdown.”
Trevor Cole provided an overview for the Town of Plattsburgh through a planning and community development lens, “Business is steady with approximately $45M in new residential and commercial development. Many new single family homes are under construction and 80 units of multifamily housing were completed in 2022. The Industrial Manufacturing sector continues to grow with TDC building a new 60K square foot facility. Major Improvements to our infrastructure, things we can control (water and sewer) are happening. Conversations and planning for extraordinary growth and development continue at the Town level.”
Quickly the conversation moved to workforce, the largest challenge employers face. Changing the way we look at workforce development and the workplace requires a cultural shift from the pre-COVID world. This dynamic group of community leaders brought forward excellent strategies they have enacted to address both acquiring talent and retaining great employees. Examples included:
Wage increases – YMCA enacted a 13% increase in wages for full day childcare center employees. “Our childcare workers need to get to living wages to help address the childcare desert.” -Justin Ihne
Training Our Own – Agency Insurance is growing its workforce from the ground up. No experience necessary. “We can’t continue to recruit talent from other insuring agencies.” -Courtney Chandler Delaura
Aptitude/Attitude Testing – Brennan Buick GMC called upon a third-party agency to perform testing to find people that are a match for the work and the culture of the organization. “We need to broaden our scope when it comes to hiring methods and it is important that we invest in our people.” -Annie Brennan.
Civil Service Reform – “Test taking and scoring should not be the only measure of someone’s ability to work for a municipality. For some positions we need people-centric, customer service minded talent to serve our region, none of which is reflected on a civil service exam.” – Trevor Cole.
“We limit the talent pool dramatically based on a system set up in 1883 – based on “the concept of merit and fitness as qualifiers for appointment” to eliminate nepotism or favoritism in hiring practices. Yet the testing is not necessarily in line with the actual work that needs to be performed.” -Billy Jones
Talent from Territories – “We worked with a temp agency in Puerto Rico (a US Territory) and brought in more than 70 guest workers. We paid for their travel and housing for six months. Many people came just for the assignment and returned home, while several workers are still here living as engaged members of our community.” -Eric Zeisloft.
Flexibility/Hybrid Work/Other Services – Employers have to provide other areas of service to accommodate a changing workforce. “Flexible work schedules or hybrid work options have become the norm.” -Courtney Chandler Delaura.
“The part-time workforce is a force. If you normally have a staff of 40 people, in a part time work environment, you may need another 20 part-time positions to help cover all of the hours that you need your business to be open.” -Annie Brennan.
“Bringing EAS services and/or Probation and Parole into the workplace eliminated our employees from missing days or partial days of work.” -Eric Zeisloft.
Diving into Digital
Overwhelmingly, the business and community leaders at our table had all used technology and digital transformation to improve efficiencies and manage the needs of their customers, constituents and partners in an ever-evolving business world.
“MRP Solutions invested $4 million in robotics and automation” – Eric Zeisloft
“There are many third-party contractors available in our industry today. We currently use one for submitting warranty claims. E-contracting is necessary in today’s sales environment.” – Annie Brennan
“Fillable PDFs, website resources and use of third-party contractors are part of the growth in our digital transformation.” – Trevor Cole
“Database development, establishment of a customer portal to expand access to services and video conferencing for training and education are the areas of digital improvement for the One Work Source offices.” – Sylvie Nelson
“YMCAs are incorporating virtual classes, utilizing a third-party contractor for payroll, expanded PDF fillable forms, and online registration/ payment. In addition to increasing efficiency, we have increased our numbers in youth soccer to 270 this year – our largest enrollment ever.” – Justin Ihne
“Google chat has been great to improve communication with a hybrid staff. E-signatures and e-contracting are both the norm now in the insurance industry, resulting in a huge efficiency from quote to issue of policies.” – Courtney Chandler Delaura
“Even after COVID, we still meet with our constituents via Zoom at times, but the greater number of our people want to see their legislator in person.” – Assemblyman Billy Jones
Forecasting the Future
As we began to wind down our discussion, our table changed focus to look at the future. Throughout our morning, we discussed the impending financial challenges (possible recession, rising interest rate environment, inflations, consumer changes) in detail. Yet the forecast for the future seemed bright.