Labor Gap, part 1: Workers are hard to find

Zach Fredenburg, far right, poses with students from his BOCES Auto Tech class, which will gain space to work on hybrid and electric vehicles in a capital project at the Adirondack Education Center in Saranac Lake. Students pictured are Bradley Russ (Saranac Lake), Jeremiah Bell (Tupper Lake), Ray Amell (Saranac Lake), Will Holmlund (Saranac Lake), Eddie Sovey (Saranac Lake) and Dillon Fezette (Saranac Lake). (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

(Editor’s note: The Enterprise is publishing a series of articles about employers finding workers to be in short supply these days. In upcoming issues, the Enterprise will examine barriers to training and what nonprofits, government entities and educational institutions are doing about it.)

SARANAC LAKE — There just aren’t enough workers to fill the jobs.

From entry-level service workers to highly trained technicians, employers in the Adirondacks are finding that a lack of workers is slowing down everything from hotel openings to moving elderly patients from hospital rooms to their homes. The labor shortage exists across the United States, but it is notably acute here.

“If I was doing this job in Houston, I’d be done by now,” said Calli Shelton, looking at the bare floorboards of the old Dew Drop Inn in downtown Saranac Lake. She and her husband Randy lived for many years in Texas. They have started renovating the restaurant-bar space into what they hope will be a multi-purpose restaurant space. Not only will the completed project (they haven’t released the new name yet) offer high-end apartments looking over the Saranac River, an event space and a restaurant, but Shelton plans to host a cooking school at water level below the restaurant.

The school would help with the labor shortage, training students in the hospitality industry, but first they’ve got to get it built. Shelton said the company in charge of renovations is having problems finding construction workers.

A block away, the Hotel Saranac faced the same issue in the months before it opened Jan. 18. Not only did construction struggle with a finite number of workers to run electrical wiring and lay carpet, but staffing the hotel and its restaurant, bars, gift shop, salon and spa was a challenge. Then-General Manager Michael Salyers told the Enterprise in December, “We’ve held two job fairs. We’re just not finding the people.”

(Editor’s note: The Hotel Saranac’s website currently lists only three job openings.)

According to a report published by the New York Association of Training & Employment Professionals, “New York’s economy is reaching its lowest unemployment rates in nearly a decade. … The focus of workforce programs is shifting from re-employment services to assisting employers as they confront significant labor shortages in demand occupations and sectors.”

The North Country’s labor gap is particularly affected by two factors: population decline and low rates of education. NYATEP reports that among New York regions, the North Country had the second-greatest population decline, 7.4 percent, after the Southern Tier’s 7.5 percent.

“It’s a little bit of a chicken-egg thing,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said while visiting Plattsburgh on Jan. 31. “There are a lot of people if there are a lot of jobs.” Like many people spoken to for this article, the governor suspects solving the jobs problem may solve the population decline.

After New York City (19 percent), the North Country and the Hudson Valley had the highest number of workers with less than a high school diploma: 12 percent. The North Country has more workers with just a high school diploma than any other region, 37 percent, and the fewest with a bachelor’s degree or higher: 20 percent. It also has the lowest annual median wage: $40,000.

Labor analysts say many employers are begging for people with “middle skills” — more education than a high school diploma and less than a college degree. At the same time, vocational programs that used to be offered in high school are declining.

Alan Smith is director of the apprenticeship program for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee runs a five-year program to certify journeyman electricians. Each year, it takes the top scorers on an aptitude test and wait-lists the rest. Apprentices work alongside electricians and attend classes two nights a week. They are paid for their work, and the classes are free.

Smith said there’s a lot of demand for the program, which only accepts a few dozen applicants a year. On the Plattsburgh side of the IBEW district, “about 75” people are on the waitlist. On the Watertown side, there are “about 200.”

“With the Regents program requirements in high school, they don’t have time to do shop class,” said Smith. Many IBEW apprentices come in lacking skills that were common a decade ago.

“Ten years ago, when we took in apprentices, we didn’t worry about them needing to learn to read a tape measure. Now we know we have to. It’s the first thing we teach them.”

“People expect to just hire carpenters off the street, but you just can’t expect that anymore,” said Smith. “We feel that everybody should be doing what we’re doing. If you want a skilled workforce, you have to invest in training. Our members put in somewhere around 3 percent of their wages toward the apprentices.”

EDITORIAL: Looking into the Labor Gap

COMMENTS