Economic growth is a good thing. Sustained, controlled, and over a period of time, steady growth is the fuel that drives a community to be successful. The more tax-paying businesses and people there are, the greater the community’s potential to offer the resources and services necessary to attract and sustain them. Over the past decade in particular, the North Country has done a phenomenal job selling itself as a viable destination for businesses to relocate and expand. Large manufacturing companies like Norsk Titanium, Nova Bus, and Bombardier make frequent head- lines in the news, bringing more and more job opportunities to the local workforce. The tidal waves of change that these large companies create on the local economic ocean impact every business in the region, no matter how small.
Adapting to changes as they occur is essential for any business to stay relevant and thrive. As with change in most situations, when substantial changes happen at large companies in the region, they arrive with a plethora of both positive and negative consequences that are passed down to smaller operations in the surrounding area. When it comes to job opportunity, the arrival of a large employer with the corporate strength and resources to pay higher salaries, offer more attractive hours, and better benefits can pose a threat to the smaller operation that can’t compete. On the other hand, when a large company like Nova Bus brings in more production, that often means there will be increased demand on the smaller companies who are their suppliers. Paul Grasso, president & CEO of The Development Corporation has been working closely with area businesses to support their growth needs for over 10 years. “When a large manufacturer decides to ramp up production, that usually means their suppliers will also ramp up,” he explained. This demand might result in a supplier hiring more employees to allow an increase in production work from two shifts to three, or move to a larger commercial location. More jobs for local workers is a good thing for everyone, right? Not so fast…
As hard as local leaders have worked to attract business to the area, this is only half the battle. Our ability to continue to grow economically is ultimately limited by our ability to sustain an adequate, qualified workforce to support it. While it would be ideal to bring in large corporations who hope to hire and attract skilled workers and their families to resettle here from other places, there will always be more entry-level positions that won’t be attractive to job seekers needing to relocate. Demographics showing an existing, local, and available workforce that supports the needs of companies looking to expand and relocate here are an absolute necessity for the region to remain competitive.
While it may seem obvious, it is easy to forget that people (more specifically, employees) are a finite resource. Two key factors impacting the adequacy of a local workforce are the quantity of available people, and the quality of their skills. According to Grasso, numbers tell the story best. Recent statistics show the local workforce totaling approximately 37,000 people. When Clinton County’s unemployment rate hovers around 5 percent, that leaves a pool of about 1,850 individuals available for work. That number shrinks very quickly when you start to consider human experience and preference. For example, there are a number of people who will never consider a career in manufacturing, some who don’t want to work, some who can’t work, and some who are unemployable for myriad reasons.
A second concern with the local talent pool is the match between the skills that employers want and need on the job and the skills that prospective employees will bring with them when they show up to work. For entry level positions, not much technical skill is needed before a hire is made. However, it can be challenging to find employees who will commit to show up for work consistently, on time, and ready to accept direction for work. Grasso anecdotally shared that many companies grapple with this issue. “If a new employee comes in with an attitude, the training you have to offer them is almost irrelevant.” Another very real concern that drains the available worker pool is pre- employment drug testing. Grasso shared that local companies who offer pre-employment workshops for prospective employees often experience people who walk out as soon as they hear that there will be a mandatory drug test before they are hired. The drug use epidemic has resulted in a sizeable number of people who would rather not work if it means they would have to give up their recreational drug use.
As challenging as it may be, it is important to remain mindful of the fact that the problem of having more jobs than workers in Clinton County is a problem we are lucky to have. Grasso and others who are working on the issue have identified some solutions that offer promise. Unemployment rates in the sister counties of Essex and Franklin are often significantly higher than that of Clinton County, so looking for new hires in those areas is a natural next step. Daily transportation to and from home in a place like Malone to work in Plattsburgh is not only time consuming, but often impossible due to a lack of reliable transportation among the people looking for work. “The question is, ‘How do we get people from Essex and Franklin counties into Plattsburgh to work those jobs here in a cost-effective manner?’” said Grasso.
One effort that Grasso said is addressing this problem with some success has three local employers working together to provide affordable busing service for employees living in Malone. “They provide a ride for employees both to and from work to three different sites in the area,” Grasso said, “the employees are charged only $2 or $3 a day.” More collaboration by local employers to make it easier for people from nearby areas with less economic opportunity to fill jobs in Clinton County have the potential to alleviate the struggles on both sides of the problem.
Another more complicated but untapped solution for filling jobs in Clinton County lies in refugee resettlement programs. While rhetoric claiming that immigrants are taking jobs away from local people is plentiful, the reality here is that local people can’t fill the need. Communities across the lake in Winooski, Vermont, offer established refugee resettlement programs which come with an immediate, motivated, and available pool of prospective employees. The transportation issue is even more complicated considering a ferry crossing and crossing state lines, but the idea is ripe for pursuing. In New York, the nearest refugee resettlement communities are in Albany.
Keeping young people who grow up here attracted and gainfully employed as adults here has been a long-standing concern and effort in the region. Groups such as Vision2Action and Adirondack Young Professionals are making strides toward attracting new people and address- ing the “brain drain,” but realizing the benefits from efforts of this type can take a decade or more. Certainly, Governor Cuomo’s recent announcement of the Excelsior Scholarship holds promise to keep more college graduates in-state following graduation. The details of the Excelsior program have yet to be fully arranged, but for those who qualify it will offer free college tuition to families in certain income brackets in exchange for the promise to remain in New York for the same number of years that they received the assistance.
Aligning local educational training programs with the skills that local employers need and want in their employees is also an effective tactic to keep the pipeline of available workers flowing smoothly. To those ends, the new Institute for Advanced Manufacturing (IAM) at Clinton Community College is one example of a successful effort. The IAM works directly with companies to identify their workforce needs and then seeks to partner with area schools and agencies to help meet those needs. With a more direct connection between education and employment, the IAM offers the community a greater awareness of the career opportunities available to them right here where they live. Taking it one step further, it provides potential employees a direct and accessible pathway to gain the edu- cation and skills they need to achieve their career goals.
The problem of finding and retaining reliable employees is a universal concern affecting every business that has employees. Staying on top of local demographics, employer trends, and barriers for employees to work should also be a universal concern. The most successful efforts to address the issue have been those involving collaboration between stakeholders on all sides of the table. While progress has been made, more collaborative efforts, ideas, and ground-breaking initiatives are needed to ensure the continued economic health of the region into the future.