Friday, July 2, 2021

The local labor shortage is the new norm


Look around.


“Help wanted” signs are everywhere.


At most workplaces, those signs have been in place for months and will remain there for many more. Businesses and non-profits in every community and every sector imaginable are looking for workers, lots of them.


But, there are few to be had.


The labor market has become so competitive that businesses are raising their wages dramatically or offering sign-on bonuses in hopes of attracting people. That same labor market is so undersupplied that restaurants are dropping hours and whole days, manufacturers are increasing their lead times by months, general contractors are declining new business, and farmers are letting fields and orchards go idle.


In these dire straits, the default response by employers is that the federal government has been too kind to the unemployed, that recent public assistance has become a lifestyle and not a lifeline. They are right…to a point.


When you take New York’s unemployment payout and add to it the federal $300 bonus, expanded child tax credits, recurring stimuli, and tax-free status unemployment and stimulus earnings, it’s pretty easy for a lot of people to do the math, stay at home, and ride out the pandemic’s aftermath until the well runs dry.


While these folks are (ab)using the system, the number doing so is far fewer than what the knee-jerk reaction might lead you to believe.


Anecdotally, think of how many of your workforce-ready family members, friends, and neighbors are not working. I’ve really had a hard time coming up with any in my circle. I’m sure you would, too.


Statistically, we’re accurate in such observations: In May 2019, when the national economy was doing well, the Buffalo-Niagara unemployment rate was 3.7%. In May of this year, with the economy reopening, it was 5.3%. Those numbers aren’t too far apart.


So, once the $300 sunsets in September, there won’t be as many people looking for work as the popular narrative predicts. It won’t be a flood of job seekers. It will be a trickle. We’re talking about fewer than 13,000 workers across the entire region if we want to get back to where we were in 2019. 


If this current federal government largesse isn’t the cause of the labor shortage, then what is?


It’s past and present government largess and largeness at the state level.


We are now seeing the end result of high taxes, ever-growing regulations, and stymied economic development. We’ve encouraged, by discouragement, people to leave the Empire State.


For years now, we’ve fretted about the changing population and demographics here. The population has gotten older on average. Younger people have left for greener pastures. The number of residents – and especially of working age -- has tanked.


Literally, there’s no one available to work.


Things won’t change in September.


This is the new norm.


This is the way it’s going to be for years.


On the bright side, well into the future, this availability of opportunity might be the thing that finally encourages young people – those born here and those here for college – to stay. But, we have to hope that this seemingly-sudden need isn’t temporary – the lack of workers doesn’t cause businesses to cut back on forward strategies, close, or move. Then, we’re right back to square one. 


Regardless, it’s going to take time.


Employers and policymakers have to adjust and adapt to that.


Businesses looking to get back to where they were or where they one day hope to be are going to struggle if they don’t. Plan now to do more with less, whether that’s more work for the principle and her team but less revenues through lower output or fewer hours, or, in some industries, more revenues through streamlining, automation and investment in personnel.


The State and local governments need to look for these businesses to ensure this labor crisis doesn’t crush them. That can be done in two, very immediate ways.


First off, economic development agencies must put a full stop on courting new businesses to come to New York. That may seem nonsensical, but the reality is, economic development begins at home. They need to focus on making existing businesses whole or better by preparing and providing workers to the entrepreneurs who have already staked claim to New York. They shouldn’t be courting outsiders like factories, call centers, and warehouses to come here – they each need employees by the dozens or hundreds. Where will they get them? Those firms, enabled and empowered by grants and tax breaks, will pirate employees from existing businesses already spread thin.


Secondly, officials must apply significant pressure on the federal government about getting back into resettlement. One thing that saved WNY, and especially Buffalo, from falling into the abyss over the past twenty years was the inclusion of refugees and immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Their influx kept our population decline much lower than it could have been and they’ve kept workplaces like mine going strong. But, over the past few years, we’ve seen very few New Americans come to WNY. President Trump had closed our borders to countries like Myanmar and President Biden has been no friend to refugees, too, because his administration seems overwhelmed by and overfocused on issues at our southern border. One border shouldn’t close all of them.  


As businesses weather this labor shortage, along with the consumers who need their goods and services and the governments who want their sales/property/labor taxes, we have to accept as a region, as a state, that it’s not temporary and that it’s deeper than $300.


This is the new norm. Plan accordingly.   



From the 05 July 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News  

Tourism would benefit from numbered county roads


I often like to tell people I live out on County Road 7. That’s usually met with some head-scratching and confusion because Niagara County is not a place that uses county road signage. Thus, unless you are versed in the County’s history, you will be unfamiliar with the system.


It shouldn’t be that way. Numbered county roads and the appropriate signage serve great benefit.


If you’ve ever been to Allegany County then you know what I’m talking about. There, the attractive blue background, yellow-lettered signs adorn every county road, making it easy for residents and visitors alike to navigate the back roads that are just as much primary roads as the more well-known state routes. For example, if you want to get from Alfred to the Wellsville area, you’d jump on County Road 10 or County Road 12. If you plan to travel from Friendship to Belmont you’d likely use Route 31A.


A numbered highway system makes it easy for connecting the dots on your travels, meaning you don’t have to remember lengthy road names which often change when travelling through various towns. Plus, the junction signs that come with such a practice further the convenience of travel. It’s really tough to get lost.   


This has proven to be a major asset and a tool for the various businesses in Allegany County that rely on tourism. The county’s tourism department uses the numbered system in its brochures to promote the ag, arts, and scenic trails while also using it as an aid for parents who might be visiting their kids at Alfred University or Houghton College.


Such a way of identifying our roads would prove quite meaningful in Niagara County. Here, tourism defines our economy, rather than complimenting it, and we are much more than Niagara Falls. Tourism experts make sure that Niagara Falls is just one stop of a multi-faceted experience and they have been sending tourists further out and deeper into our county, whether it’s to enjoy the gastronomic fare of Lewiston, the fishing in Newfane, the waterfront in Olcott, the locks in Lockport, the Niagara Wine Trail, or the agritourism in places like Gasport.


Getting people to those locations requires an infrastructure with ease of use. Sure, a lot of people have GPS systems and smartphones, but few rental cars come equipped with the former and many of the latter are not used, except on wifi, by foreign visitors who would incur dramatic data costs here. And, many Niagara Falls visitors originally didn’t expect to leave the City limits until the options were presented to them. We need to make it simple for them to enjoy all of the great things we take for granted.


It’s not so easy to navigate a whole new world when we throw a map at them or they go to a website and they read and have to remember names like Upper Mountain Road, Lockport Road and Slayton Settlement Road. It would be much simpler if they could reference and retain County Roads 5, 6, and 7, respectively.


That’s especially important when they don’t speak English (but everybody “speaks numbers”). On busy summer days in Olcott I can often count up to 6 different foreign languages being spoken by tourists. How did they get there and did we make it easy on them?


Being an international destination we have to be embracing and accommodating…and it starts with our highway system. All of our county roads are well-maintained by the County’s excellent road crews and they have seen years of investment from residents. Why not capitalize on all of that and promote these thoroughfares accordingly? Not only will the tourists benefit, but so will every one of our wineries, restaurants, shops, and farms.


From the 29 June 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Monday, June 28, 2021

Experiencing a labor shortage? Ban the box


Employers across the country have been hit with a labor shortage.


As the economy reopens in whole, it seems that no one can find willing and able workers. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about retail, hospitality, manufacturing, or back office – every workplace is wanting. That has led to dramatic supply chain issues such as shortages, delays, and inflation. It has also caused many restaurants to cut back on tables, hours, and even days in order to keep, and keep sane, what workers they do have.  


Businesses have gotten creative in their efforts to fill payrolls. They’ve instituted everything from higher wages to more benefits to flexible schedules. Still, the shortage persists.


Some of those employers in dire need would be well-served by hiring workers who are right under their nose, workers that they may even turned up their noses to: Those with criminal records.


It’s prime time for businesses to ban the box when it comes to their hiring practices.


There’s been for some years now a “ban the box” movement spearheaded by civil rights groups that is aimed at persuading employers to remove from their applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record. The use of those initial disqualifications for any position under the sun has forced many human resources managers to look at one-time lawbreakers as having the plague.


In some municipalities, banning the box is more than a suggestion – it’s the law. Buffalo, Rochester, and New York City, for example, all have laws on the books prohibiting that line of questioning, joining 150 cities and counties having such laws in place.


It’s rather unfortunate that these laws exist. Interviewing and/or hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds should be at the sole discretion of the employer.


Most employers should have such openness and willingness in their HR toolbox. They’ll discover that when they are given that chance to work, those with checkered pasts succeed. They want to overcome their histories. They want to make good on their lives. They want to raise perfect families. They want to contribute to society. They want to work.


Ex-cons and individuals on probation have been some of my best coworkers. The determination they possess to become new men, to stay clean and better themselves (and their families) furnishes an incredible work ethic. At one point in time, maybe 10 years ago, over a quarter of my workplace had criminal records and about a third of that group had considerable time in prison under their belts. 


I see the value in society’s investment in ex-convicts (the US prison system costs taxpayers $300 billion per year) and cherish the redemption and reformation of men when given steady, gainful employment (and hope).


Some detractors will says that within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners are rearrested. I would argue, though, that it may be attributed to the stigma employers have placed upon them -- here in New York, more than 60% of ex-cons remain unemployed 1 year after their release because of their records. A return to crime is a self-fulfilling prophecy by and for the society that denies opportunity to those who want it and deserve it.  


1 in 3 American adults has a criminal record. While felonies and hard crimes represent a smaller percentage of that total, who are we to judge?


Employers should judge for themselves. This shortage is as good time as any to rethink their employment practices and change their views of the men and women who were once deemed “unworthy”. They’ll find that hiring the formerly un-hirable will do more than benefit their businesses – it will greatly help that individual and society, too.  


There may be a shortage in labor, but there should never be a shortage in heart.



From the 21 June 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News