By Paul Post
Some restaurants aren’t serving lunch, Gore Mountain can’t keep all of its lift lines running, and one area paper company is so desperate for help that it’s put up small roadside signs, hoping to attract new workers.
An already serious labor shortage could grow worse, creating serious problems for the Lake George-Saratoga Region economy if the Ukrainian crisis keeps young Eastern Europeans from filling hundreds of hospitality and tourism industry jobs this summer, local officials say.
“Such a heartbreaking situation,” said Amanda Metzger, Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce marketing director. “This could affect a larger region than only the Ukraine. We are prepared to market the available jobs as we had to last year, but it is with such a heavy heart that we prepare for this potential workforce shortage, thinking of what the people of Ukraine are facing.”
In a Facebook posting, the Lake George restaurant 10 McGillis Public House said, “All over the Capital Region and especially here in Lake George, we rely on the international students and J1 Student work program to staff our local businesses and boost our economy. With the exception of the pandemic in recent years, hundreds of students come to our area to work each summer. Most of them work two or even three jobs at a time and they are an integral part of some business’s success for the tourist season.”
Many student come from Poland, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
“Not only do our businesses depend on these students and their hard work, but many of us have made lifelong friendships and remain in contact years after they’ve returned to their home country,” the 10 McGillis Public House statement said.
Many foreign students find local summer employment through New York City-based InterExchange. In a statement, the agency said:
“As we prepare for summer 2022 student arrivals, we are closely following developments in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Given the current uncertainties, with border and U.S. Embassy disruptions, we do not know if participants from these countries will be able to arrive in the U.S.. Though some have arranged visa appointments in other countries, we don’t yet know how many will be able to obtain visas and flights.”
EDC Warren County President Jim Siplon said the larger nationwide labor shortage has been slowly developing for several decades, off the radar of many leading economists.
“For 50 years we haven’t had a birth rate at replacement value and yet we’ve never really talked about it,” he said. “It’s not surprising when you look at the data, but it seems to have crept up on pretty much everyone.
“Clearly the pandemic accelerated some of this,” Siplon said. “What would have been 10 years worth of graceful retirement for people in that 55- to 65-year-old age bracket happened almost instantaneously. They left the workforce and aren’t eager to come back in.”
“So we’ve had that contraction on one end and we don’t have that replacement factor,” he said. “The third facet is that through a series of policy decisions and the pandemic, our borders closed. Of course we have a labor shortage. There’s not enough young people coming in. Old people left at an accelerated rate and we decided not to let anyone in at the border.”
“It’s a perfect storm of events,” said Laura Oswald, Washington County Economic Development director. “There isn’t a business out there I’m aware of that hasn’t experienced difficulty in some way, shape or form with labor shortages. That’s basically all the way from larger businesses like the Fort Miller Group and Irving Tissue all the way down to small businesses. It’s impacting every industry out there.”
A steady exodus of people across New York to southern states with warmer climates and lower taxes has contributed to the problem.
“To a certain extent there are also skills issues,” Oswald said. “There may be job openings, but many people don’t have the right skills. That’s another thing we have to get better at—creating the correct training opportunities to fill the jobs that are open everywhere.”
Both she and Siplon said lack of adequate, affordable housing is one of the biggest reasons for labor shortages locally.
“We have very few rentals in Washington County,” Oswald said. “It’s mostly single-family homes and a lot of that is old. There’s a need to increase the capacity for non-substandard rental properties.”
“Last summer, in all of Warren County, there were less than 50 homes under $500,000 for sale and less than 250 available apartments,” Siplon said. “Meanwhile, at that same time, we had 2,000 open jobs. Glens Falls Hospital alone had hundreds of jobs available.”
“It makes no sense to try to attract new business when we can’t staff the ones we have,” he said. “We have to figure out how to win in the battle for talent, make sure we retain the workforce we have and that we’re able to at least incrementally, even if it’s only modestly, add to our workforce here. The good news is that people want to be here, they’re attracted to the quality of life, and we don’t need 10,000 of them.”
Warren County EDC recently moved from the Travelers Insurance Co. building to the Empire Theater on South Street in Glens Falls, which is better equipped to host virtual and in-person meetings designed to support local businesses. Groups focused on specific issues, such as economic recovery, broadband and housing have been meeting weekly, Siplon said.
“We have to help existing businesses and help them transition to more sustainable business models,” he said. “It’s not just how do we weather the next six weeks or six months, but how do we take the next number of years to position ourselves effectively so that we can play the role we’re destined to play in a very rapidly changing world economy, and having that be sustainable.”
Similar to labor issues, the COVID-19 pandemic also triggered widespread supply chain problems. This greatly impacted the building and trades industry as contractors haven’t bee able to obtain the materials needed to complete construction jobs, or in many cases these goods have only been available at much higher prices.
“The supply chain isn’t affecting any one product or industry, it’s across the board for a variety of reasons,” Oswald said. “Things typically coming from Canada aren’t getting here. Some of it is a change in manufacturing capacity, and there’s a huge shortage of CDL drivers across the country.”
Locally, specialized manufacturers such as medical device firms have been affected, Siplon said.
“Even with papermakers like Finch. It’s not so much that their stock of timber has been affected. Sometimes its the supply of chemicals used in their process, or specialized components they can’t get replacement parts for.”
Hostilities in the Ukraine could exacerbate global supply chain issues, he said. “Components and raw ingredients come from all over. Any time world events like this occur it’s going to cause disruption in those routes, total mounts of supply and transport. There’s no doubt we will have impact. I’m certain they will begin to emerge.”
While there’s no immediate solution, firms should be taking long-term steps to shorten supply chains by providing goods and services for markets closer to home, officials said.
“For example, how do we shorten the path between timber in the Adirondacks and a need for products in New York City closer and tighter? That’s something we’ll be working on for years to come,” Siplon said.