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Updated: Dec 8, 2023

A New Normal

To say the COVID-19 pandemic divided the workforce in two is oversimplifying a very complicated and unique period of history. However, those of us attending the 2021 Strictly Business Forum, and in large part those who are reading this article, likely represent one side of the divide. Represented are the professionals with high levels of education who were able to immediately transition to working from home. The shift was incredibly stressful, but at least it was possible to maintain stable incomes. The other half of the divide experienced a very different transition. They were not able to do their jobs from home and every day went to work in fear. They left young children at home where remote schooling was both foreign and frustrating. Wondering if they would have a job tomorrow was a daily concern, and for many, unemployment became the only option as child care became increasingly hard to find. The inequities in the labor market continue to be exacerbated and chronic stress, mental health crises and sickness have driven a wedge in the workforce that will take years to overcome. While businesses continue to adapt and even celebrate stability from a financial standpoint, they are seeing a definitive cultural shift in the workforce. Eric Zeisloft, Vice President of Operations at Mold-Rite Plastics explained that from a financial standpoint the company had a great year. This was accomplished by a lot of creative developments including shifts in how their manufacturing is done. “Mold-Rite makes plastic caps and jars that are used in almost every type of product,” said Zeisloft. The company needed to further automate certain aspects of production and bought more machines to meet product demand. “The pandemic had people buying more vitamins, medicine, supplements…. and of course, cleaning products. Every industry was going through more cleaning products, and with restaurants closing, people were buying more food products and cooking at home. All of these require containers and lids and you can see how our business would be positively affected.” Zeisloft asserted that while demand was high, maintaining a stable workforce was and continues to be the single biggest challenge, a point that quickly became the target of discussion for our group. Zeisloft explained, “We have about 600 employees. That is roughly 3% of the population of Plattsburgh. About 90% of our workforce has been with us a very long time. That’s great, although it also means that 10% of our staff is more transient. Sometimes new employees only work a few days, decide it’s not for them and leave.” This is not a new problem, but managing a workforce in which people are quarantined, have no child care or have family members to care for created significant gaps. One of the ways Zeisloft kept the machines moving was to hire 50 guest employees from Puerto Rico. As American citizens they didn’t require the same work visas other migrant workers need. Tim Bresett had a similar experience at Ausable Chasm. For the General Manager staffing was a huge challenge. Not just for the Chasm, but he saw it everywhere. “From our viewpoint, staff shortages are our greatest challenge. Everywhere we go we see help wanted signage and hear stories of how difficult it is for business to operate at full potential.” He was pleased to say that the number of visitors was up 85% from 2020, but was quick to point out that it is still down from the 2019 season. Business at Ausable Chasm is not simply about the number of tourists coming through the gates. Bresett explained “We need people to have a good experience. Because of staff shortages, many of our guests encountered long waits and were unable to do all of the activities because we just couldn’t staff up enough. We couldn’t get enough guides to run the rafts or the adventure programs.” Bresett is confident that getting the Canadian tourists back will be a bonus, but he remains concerned about hiring the additional 50 people he will need to support the influx of visitors in 2022. “We have the additional challenge of our work being seasonal. We have a core staff that come back year after year, but others are here for a season. You’re paying $15 an hour, but a lot of them are 16/17 years old and don’t really need the money. Many are college students who feel they only need five grand to get through the academic year so they start in May and quit when they’ve reached their goal. I end up stuck in August.” Bresett developed a new bonus structure set to begin in 2022 where employees get a hefty bonus if they stick it out until after Labor Day. And like Eric Zeisloft at Mold-Rite who embraced hiring a more diverse workforce, Bresett hired workers from Honduras to help shore up his team and may do so in the future. In considering the biggest challenges faced by businesses, supply chain issues would naturally surface. Elizabeth Murray, the Showroom Manager for Champlain Valley Electric Supply Company was asked if this problem effected sales in the lighting industry. She said, “Supply chains have not really been an issue for us because we work with so many different companies. We can always redirect a customer. Hiring employees is a huge challenge, but the bigger challenge is keeping the ones you have. It has never been more important to stabilize employees, communicate emotionally with each of them and truly change the dynamics of how you run your business. Murray continued, “It’s no longer the day that the employer tells employees what to do. Employers are required to manage employees totally differently. Employees have issues at home, health care issues. We just got hit with someone who is out due to COVID-19 so now I’m not just the Showroom Manager, I’m also the bookkeeper.” Despite the obstacles, Murray was optimistic. “I’m not a bookkeeper, but I’m going to learn the role because I’ve got weeks ahead of me to struggle through this.” Michelle LeBeau, president of UVMHN at Alice Hyde & CVPH agreed that staffing issues have overwhelmed her workforce at a time when the number of patients needing care is growing. “Volumes are going through the roof with many folks who didn’t seek treatment over the last 18 months because of COVID-19 now have expanded diagnoses. When you combine that with an exiting workforce and the reality that many colleges weren’t able to place students into clinical spaces, you have new graduates entering the workforce who have a lot of simulated experience and limited clinical or bedside experiences.” LeBeau explained the hospital continues to focus on how to support, educate and orient new employees and ensure that the employee experience and quality of care provided is the top priority. When the state implemented mandates that employees in health care settings had to be vaccinated, the hospital lost almost 250 people through a combination of retirements, resignations, travel assignments, and terminations related to personal decisions to not be vaccinated. “Our workforce has seen a cultural shift throughout the last two years. The number of people between the ages of 57 and 62 who have retired is absolutely unheard of. We had nearly 40 people leave to go traveling.” LeBeau explained that people are reevaluating what is important to them and the shift has been felt across industries. Colin Read agreed and took our discussion a step further in saying the situation is exacerbated on the national level as people are reevaluating the way they want to interact with the workforce in general. Read is a professor of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. “People are retiring earlier than we expected. They are leaving the workforce to care for loved ones, especially children. And those who have school aged children or aging parents are making the difficult choice of leaving their jobs. There is a large withdraw of women from workforce—a disproportionate number, and we really need to address this.” Nearly ten years ago, Read participated in a Strictly Business Forum where attendees were asked what the most important issues were facing the North Country business community. At that time Read was quoted as saying, “By 2040, we’re projected to lose 3,000 households so it’s essential that we attract people from the outside…We need to think about making our region more affordable by creating more jobs and better jobs. Even if kids leave for a few years to spread their wings, we need to create opportunities to bring them back.” Attendees at this year’s Forum acknowledged that problems which existed a decade ago continue to surface as the most important issues today. Victoria Duley, Executive Director of the Adirondack Economic Development Corporation, said the loss of workforce continues, but she doesn’t feel the crisis facing the North Country now is necessarily a heightening of past issues. “We continue to see an outward migration, but the fallout we are seeing is an absolute societal economic shake-up. People are addressing their career choices. They are deciding if they want a break, or to be able to enjoy their young children. Programs like extended unemployment contribute to some of the long-term shake-up.” Everyone agreed that there is an increasing number of talented youth leaving the area. Duley emphasized it is time to row a new workforce. “We have realized that diversity is not just the right thing to embrace in order to create quality communities, but is to our direct economic benefit. We are perhaps a decade behind other areas in terms of promoting immigrants settling in our region. We need to help new residents feel comfortable living and working here because they can help us grow our economy.” Elizabeth Murray challenged the idea that so many people are leaving the area. She has witnessed an influx of people relocating to the area. One of the issues we face, she said, is that there simply isn’t enough housing for them. “Despite the increasing costs around building new, we have to start building more homes and affordable rental housing.” She further stated, “It’s also important to recognize that not everyone who is moving here is joining the workforce. They may be keeping their old jobs and continue to work remotely outside of the area.” The North Country has long been answering the question of how to retain and attract families. It was the underlying mission of the Vision2Action movement in the region that sought to change the way recreation, education, transportation, arts and other factors preserve the workforce. Colin Read said Vision2Action and Vision 2040 addressed the goal of bring 3,000 new families to the region. He cautioned against pessimism at a time when it is possible to redefine how employers run their businesses and how we can “package” the North Country as a great place to live. Read said, “I’m not suggesting that things are going back to the way they were pre-pandemic, but even in this more challenging environment, there are going to be pockets that succeed with spectacular economies. Places like Asheville, North Carolina and Austin, Texas. These places are growing by leaps and bounds because they put together the packages everyone has been referring to regarding quality of life. The North Country has every opportunity to sell a quality-of-life package that appeals to a workforce that is in the midst of redefining its career goals. Justin Ihne, CEO of the Plattsburgh and Malone YMCAs shared his view of the successes and challenges facing the region. Like many of the Forum participants, Ihne celebrated having a strong year in 2021. The Plattsburgh YMCA saw a 20% increase in membership over 2019 numbers. “Our camping, youth sports and child care all increased in enrollment and our community continues to see the YMCA as a great connector of people.” At a time when health and wellness are in everyone’s thoughts, it is natural that people might invest in their fitness in new ways. Ihne was quick to point out the other layer to membership increases. “When we were forced close our doors in 2020, we had the potential to lose one of the most fundamental aspects of our income generation. It was easy to conclude that if people can’t come to the gym, why continue their memberships? That turned out to be the complete opposite of what happened. We actually retained 65% of our membership base while we were closed! It speaks volumes about the value of our services and programs and it was touching to see the show of support at a time when fear and uncertainty was the predominant collective emotion. It was clear that the YMCA is deeply entrenched in the community and the quick response to providing child care for essential workers and collaborating with the schools became an instant focus. One of the best parts of living and working in the North Country is the swift and strong partnerships that have been forged and continue to develop. In 2021 the YMCA collaborated with the City of Plattsburgh to reopen what was then the City Recreation Center on the Oval. There continue to be discussions about collaboration with the hospital and Ihne stated that partnerships with the school districts have never been stronger. “I think in general our community is more connected with the YMCA than ever before.” Colin Read said there is no reason to be pessimistic, but we need to take a very clear-eyed look at the challenges ahead and not just assume that we are going through a transient, temporary period. We need to understand that the “new normal” doesn’t simply refer to wearing masks or social distancing. It applies to the economy as well. This clear-eyed look will no doubt require major shifts in the way employers interact with their employees. If the divide in the workforce between those who are hanging on to their jobs or working remotely and those who remain unemployed is going to be shored up, it will take a focus on addressing the mental health crises our friends and neighbors are facing. It will require a renewed focus on the work-family interface and an understanding that one-size-its-all solutions are a thing of the past. It will become increasingly important that the negative storylines about who is unemployed and why they are unemployed take a back seat to understanding individual narratives and assessing individual strengths and growth edges. If the business community as a whole can embrace thoughtful re-employment strategies that include providing access to assistance, it is possible to facilitate a productive, rejuvenated “new normal” that will define the North County moving forward.

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