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NAVIGATING THE ENVIRONMENT OF 2.9% UNEMPLOYMENT

By Garry Douglas

Issue: August 2022

In late 2019/early 2020, pre-pandemic, Clinton County saw an historic low in unemployment of 2.7%. Two-and-a-half years later, after the somewhat higher unemployment levels of the pandemic, we are at 2.9%. This is of course good news for the people and families of our area who are enjoying not only high employment, but options and new opportunities for advancement.

For employers, of course, it represents the unprecedented tightness of our labor pool that all are experiencing, from small businesses to large and from lower skill to higher skill positions of all kinds. But it is not merely a return to the end of 2019, as the pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated many of the ingredients that then were in play that resulted in recruitment challenges. And it has created others that are not quickly reverting to former norms.

Demographics were and are bringing fewer younger people into the workforce while the retirement of baby boomers accelerates, with many having advanced their retirement decisions during the pandemic. And even more concerning is what some have called the “great resignation” — a significant portion of the population which has simply left the workforce and are not reflected in employment stats as they are not seeking jobs. Then add the long-term impact of a generation of college-aged students who, unaccepting of remote learning and restrictions, dropped out of school and may or may not return, reducing the numbers of qualified graduates in all sorts of fields for years to come.

Creative employers are responding in all sorts of ways, as all must because there is no “silver bullet” that will right this labor imbalance. Many are adjusting wages and benefits to be more attractive (both feeding and in turn fighting against inflation), though there are limits on the ability of many businesses to do this. And more and more employers will be moving beyond these traditional basics to softer things that are often more valued by younger people, such as more flexibility in hours and time off. Full or hybrid remote work is also here to stay for many positions and is the only lure for some who have left the workforce.

Childcare has also grown in importance, with a number of state and federal actions having been taken to help with costs but which will take time to be felt, in part because there is a death of childcare employees as well.

Also, even more important than it always has been is an employer’s workforce culture and its reputation as an employer. More are thinking of ways to show more appreciation, provide added workplace amenities, invest in training and education for good employees who will then feel valued, and considering incentives and bonuses for help in recruiting friends and family.

And finally, we must as a country over the next few years achieve immigration reform that includes substantial increases in legal immigration visas for work and skill levels of all kinds. For 150 years, this is how America has always met its expanding workforce needs and thereby continued to grow as an economy.

The Chamber is continuing to work with area employers and with workforce partners in a variety of ways. As noted, there are no silver bullets, but there are a number of approaches that each employer can use to help enhance recruitment and retention. And we have several creative proposals pending in Washington and Albany that would give us some helpful new support programs. At the same time, I do believe that, as a rural manufacturing region, we are in fact outperforming the support systems of similar areas, and we have the foundations and commitment to partnerships that will let us do more.

Onward and upward! Garry Douglas is president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce.

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