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Optimism is a Choice

by Betsy Vicencio

There was a different excitement at the 34th Annual Strictly Business Forum. Last year’s gathering was the first time we were together after COVID. We banded together over the shared suffering of the pandemic’s wrath and were re-energized by the comradery in the room. This year, amidst the shared condition of workforce challenges, there was a glorious optimism for our business community’s ability to thrive. Our table was a thoughtful, engaged group of industry leaders.

Of the twenty-two first timers at the Forum, six were at

our table.

Lisa Brown, CEO/Founder of CST Group Inc., has built a company that provides technology services to clients while assisting small to medium sized businesses in understanding their technology needs.

Amber Douglass, Vice President of Strategic Operations for ETS, Inc., brings her lifelong love for learning to help create the future for ETS and its role as a dynamic workforce solution for businesses.

Steven Frederick, Vice President for Institutional Advancement/Executive Director, CCC Foundation returned to Clinton Community College this year after a four-year adventure at other higher education institutions. Steve’s love and passion for our region, accompanied by his dogged pursuit of greatness in all his does, has brought a welcome breath of fresh air.

Patti Hammond, EVP/COO of Hudson Headwaters Health Network started her career as an intensive care nurse and through hard work, grit and determination has built an impressive leadership record serving hospitals and health care organizations from Albany to Malone

Christine Peters, Commissioner of Social Services for Clinton County accepted the challenge of her new position just ten months ago. A lawyer turned leader, she brings a unique perspective to the work after ten years of oversight of Child and Adult Protective Units, as well as Child and Adolescent Preventive and Foster Care/Adoption Units.

Todd Sample, is the owner of Bee Line Logistics, a more than 20 year old trucking and warehousing company Farmers, with a side of mechanical engineering education, turned logistics experts; the Sample family prides itself on its North Country work ethic and customer service.

At our table we also enjoyed one SB Forum veteran.

Justin Ihne, CEO, Plattsburgh YMCA, came to the North Country seven years ago and has achieved “community staple” status. Hailing from Brooklyn, Justin has put the YMCA brand in the spotlight of community needs, offering a refreshed vision for the future, and working tirelessly to make that vision come to life.

We began our morning discussion recapping 2023.

Ihne reported for the second year in a row, YMCA programs have grown, “another thirty percent in memberships, an explosion in youth sports participation and our exceptional childcare programs remain full with waiting lists. We are working as hard as we can to help improve childcare desert conditions.”

Douglass brought news that ETS, Inc. has “built out our teams in all three locations – Plattsburgh, Central/Capital Region New York and Burlington, Vermont, with a promise for a fourth location opening in 2024 in Florida.”

Hammond elaborated on Hudson Headwaters Health Networks expansion in primary care for the North Country, “two new brick and mortar health centers. Our 22nd health center, Glens Falls Family Health, and 23rd, Family Health at Malone.” In response to the challenging health access conditions in the Tri-Lakes area, HHHN “added 2,000 square feet and additional providers to Saranac Lake Family Health, expanded hours in Tupper Lake and has plans for a new primary care center in Lake Placid.”

Frederick provided insight on conditions in higher education. “Higher Ed is experiencing an evolution. Declining enrollments have applied an interesting pressure to the system. For community colleges, the essential safety-net we provide for learners in need of smaller learning spaces and more attention, as well as non-traditional students is irreplaceable in this workforce-driven economy.”

Peters delivered a sobering message “DSS is a huge economic driver, providing millions of dollars in medical services, SNAP benefits, income maintenance, and childcare subsidies. Childcare has been a focus area, doubling our budget for subsidy to $2.3M. Expanding the eligibility criteria for a subsidy has allowed many people to return to the workforce.”

Sample relayed that business is good “We have no space! Warehousing is strong and we specialize in food grade services. We built a new 12,000 square foot garage to support our growing trucking and logistics division. We have expanded and diversified our services. All of our new business is coming from Montreal.”

Brown discussed a extraordinary 34% growth for CST Group “We want to help small businesses connect with the appropriate levels of IT support services before they have a problem. In this global economy, businesses need to be even more diligent with their security efforts.”

The Workforce Economy

Each employer at our table acknowledged the enormous impact of a changing workforce environment and agreed there are common experiences – fewer employees available for the jobs we have and changes in the expectations of employees.

Peters: “There is a disconnect between leadership and the workforce that needs to be addressed. We have to do better to have a shared expectation.”

Douglass: “The current state of the workforce has been deemed ‘The Great Reshuffle’. Employees have new priorities. Hiring efforts should focus on a strategic plan to meet candidates where they are. Employers shouldn’t lose sight of their current teams, prioritize employee engagement and invest in work readiness/emotional intelligence training and development.”

Sample encouraged employers to lead with leadership. “At Bee Line, I will work side by side with our crews coming in on Saturdays to show them we are all in this together. It sets an example of leadership for our people to see firsthand. Additionally, we have more part-time people than ever.”

Hammond explained HHHN’s multi-point plan for addressing workforce challenges that includes “Flexible work schedules – more part time positions, continued education investment, promotion from within for a majority of roles, supervisory development – Boot Camp and a “Coach on Call” program.”

Ihne echoed the sentiments of our group. “The workforce ethic has changed. Employers are feeling the challenge of that change.”

Frederick’s glass is (always) half full, “Higher education professionals still in the field have a huge dedication to the students we serve, often working longer hours and taking on more responsibilities.”

Brown offered “CST Group’s focus for 2024 is managed services. Remote work is the norm in our industry.”

The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Dance

Our group acknowledged diversity, equity and inclusion issues in the North Country present more in the spaces of economic diversity and sexual orientation. Comments were reflective and aware, with an understanding there is great opportunity to explore how we expand our DEI activities to help build a stronger community.

Frederick and Peters explained CCC and CCDSS have adopted a “change in our application policy to a blind review, removing any information that might present bias or judgment.”

Hammond was quick to offer ”HHHN has a CARES Task Force (Culturally Appropriate and Responsive Education and Service for health equity, established in 2019) that drives initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion.” With more than 1,000 employees HHHN “conducted a yearlong project with a DEI consultant [to] identify areas where we need to focus on being more inclusive and have generated training programs at all levels.”

Brown was adamant that CST Group embraces diversity. “We look at the skillset of our prospective employees and find the very best person for the job.”

Diving into Digital Transformation

Collectively our group agreed that continued expansion of digital offerings is part of the solution for a strained workforce.

Ihne had “ a VISTA student update the internal structure for the Y, expanding our use of the G-suite applications and WebEx interfaces to streamline communications.”

Sample relayed that “truck trackers and software upgrades have help position Bee Line for greater efficiency.”

Hammond expanded on “demands for primary care have continued leading to a rise in telehealth services to connect patients to providers throughout the Network, resulting in fewer wait times. In 2023 more than 30% of our patients had a telehealth visit. We use an e-consult service that leverages the expertise of physician specialists in provider-to-provider communication. We have a robotic process pilot to automate prior authorization work which reduces administrative headaches for staff and offers greater focus on individualized patient assistance.”

Douglass revealed an impressive slate of digital improvements. “Our website is robust with our job postings and our on-line application process auto-populates our database. Our live Chabot (ETSbot) serves as an immediate response platform to address job seekers, employers and employees’ needs. Recruiters are working around the clock through email and text to connect people with opportunities.”

Frederick shared, “Our student customers are forcing us to change. They do not want email or phone calls. They want to use text, Snap Chat and Tik Tok to communicate. We attended the “SUNY in the City” recruitment event in New York City this fall. More than 6,000 prospective students attended. Students had their information loaded into their phones and were able to scan a QR code at the table of any school they were interested in, immediately sharing contact information.”

Brown provided a cautionary tale about digital transformation and automation. “Automation will absolutely increase, as will VOIP (voice over IP). Rural locations without fiber will fall behind. In many locations, fiber has been connected to residences while businesses have been left out. The extreme need for appropriate protections to guard against cyber threats and attacks is paramount!”

So much has changed in the past four years. The post-COVID world brings a cautious vision for the future, yet the spirit and intensity of comradery and commitment to “what’s next” brings out the very best in the business and community leaders of our region.

Resounding at this table was a call to employers to increase their efforts in training and education. IT cybersecurity issues and blending a constrained multi-generational workforce with very different workplace values sit at the top of the list of risk areas our region will need to face. Regardless of the hurdles and challenges this community has faced, the intellectual choice to be and act with optimism has been one of the North Country’s greatest asset.

Back Row: Patti Hammond, Betsy Vicencio, Justin Ihne, Steve Frederick. Front Row: Christine Peters, Amber Douglas, Lisa Brown, Todd Sample

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