Safeway Taxi of Sullivan County operations manager Lainie Yennie can’t buy a cabbie.
With the busy summer tourism season coming, new businesses such as the casino, and events like Woodstock’s 50th anniversary, Yennie needs to at least double her driver total to 40.
Even with a wealth of fares to pick up, she fills holes in her driver schedule with mass blast texts to a pool of part-timers. Six in 10 of her job candidates are no-shows for interviews, and she barely retains two in 10 hires.
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A strong economy has reduced local unemployment levels to near-record lows, while the workforce continues to grow, as companies expand and long-time unemployed individuals come off the sidelines.
But the positive local economic trends, reflected statewide and nationally, have sent mid-Hudson employers scrambling to find help. Prospective job candidates have become choosier, and some businesses have struggled to improve compensation and benefits, local business owners said.
“It’s been impossible” to hire, said Adam Powers, owner of two Fetch dog-themed restaurants in Warwick and Goshen, plus several Warwick businesses, including Village Billiards, Fizzy Lifting Candy Shop and Baird’s Tavern.
Powers said he needs “everything from bartenders to management, dishwashers and cooks.” But he too struggles, with just one in three job candidates appearing for their scheduled interviews.
“Everybody is looking for work, but nobody wants to work,” Powers added.
Local businesses are floundering, searching for employees in a thriving economy.
Orange County’s 3.3 percent April unemployment rate is the county’s second-lowest for April since 1990, below only the 3.1 percent rate for that month in 2000 and 2001, according to the most recent state data.
Ulster County’s 3.2 percent April unemployment rate is tied for the county’s second-lowest mark, which also occurred in 2000.
And the current unemployment rate is just two-tenths of a percentage point higher than the county’s 3 percent record from 1998.
Sullivan County’s 3.4 percent unemployment rate for April is easily a record for the month, besting the 4.8 percent high from April 2018.
“The problem is the bodies – we need them,” said Maureen Halahan, president and CEO of the Orange County Partnership, a local economic development agency. “‘Do you have the workforce?’ is the number two question companies ask after, ‘Do you have a site?’”
Businesses are struggling to find workers even as the local labor force, or those employed, unemployed or actively seeking employment, grows. The total workforce reached record highs of 182,300 in Orange County and 36,500 in Sullivan County in April.
Ulster County’s April labor force total of 89,200 is far from its record of 94,800, set in April 2010. But the county’s April 2019 workforce total is its highest since it reached 90,100 in April 2013.
Nationally, unemployment reached a 50-year low of 3.6 percent in April, as the U.S. workforce grew for the 103rd straight month. New York’s April unemployment rate, by comparison, was 3.9 percent.
America’s private-sector workers’ hourly earnings, meanwhile, saw solid growth of 3.2 percent in April versus last year.
“What we’re seeing is this positive, broad-based trend in private-sector job growth,” said Johny Nelson, a local analyst for the state Department of Labor. “A lot of Hudson Valley job sectors are participating in this job expansion, and it bodes well for our region.”
Among the hottest growing job sectors in the Hudson Valley are education and health services; leisure and hospitality; professional and business services; and natural resources, mining and construction.
The state defines the Hudson Valley as Orange, Sullivan, Ulster, Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties.
Given an especially acute shortage of skilled tradespeople, manufacturers must remind people, “There are other jobs at which you can be very successful, make a living wage and then some, and raise a family in the Hudson Valley” without a specialized college degree, said Johnnieanne Hansen, director of workforce development at the Council of Industry in Newburgh.
‘Stop looking for that purple unicorn’
Employers such as Powers are not far off when they lament that many workers are looking for work, while being selective about job opportunities.
Many long-time under- and unemployed individuals, including those who typically have trouble finding jobs in tough times, are looking for work, according to state statistics.
Indeed, New York’s under-employment and unemployment rate, for the chronically jobless and those with work below their qualifications, fell five-tenths of a percentage point to 8.1 percent in 2018 compared with 2017, according to federal data. That rate reached as high as 14.3 percent as recently as 2011.
Such workers, who have a difficult time finding jobs in downturns, often include low-skill workers, high school and college dropouts, older individuals and new college graduates fixated on working in certain fields. For a host of reasons, some minorities also commonly face higher unemployment rates.
Local recruiter Cathy Parlapiano counsels employers to “stop looking for that purple unicorn” of a job candidate with years of experience, one or more pertinent degrees and a spotless record.
“It’s not as bad as it was,” said Parlapiano, owner of Here’s Help Staffing and Recruiting in the Town of Wallkill. Employers “are now understanding that the times have changed, the employment pool has changed, and we are not afraid to let them know we cannot fill certain orders.”
Besides considering recruiters, Parlapiano advises employers to advertise and network with local trade groups and targeted job boards, including those run by industry councils and chambers of commerce, while relying on referrals from friends, family and other employees.
Plus, she tells businesses to track the local economy and their fields, including monitoring competitors’ strategies and pay, while finding ways to increase compensation, benefits and perks such as food, tuition money and child care.
As for employers who say they do all that and still struggle, “I’d like to see what they mean when they say they’re offering a ‘full’ or ‘generous’ benefit package,” said Sam Fratto, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 363 in Harriman.
“Most employers are not actually looking at and revising their wage structure in a way that could really attract good employees,” Fratto added.
Marc Baez, president and CEO of the Sullivan County Partnership, agreed that pay raises are critical. His nonprofit encourages economic development.
Employers on tight budgets have to ask, “‘Is there something we can give you other than cash that will keep you here? Is it benefit package, health care, some type of incentive, a perk like child care something that helps you stay?” said Baez.
“The flip side is that if you let them go and hire people who aren’t as good, you lose productivity anyway, so you may as well pay them more and ensure the business is doing as well,” Baez added.
Upping pay is exactly what Middletown’s HONOR EHG shelter has done for recruitment and retention. And those are no easy tasks, said Liz Schmidt, the shelter’s chief of staffing and employee development.
Employees must patiently and compassionately feed, house, treat and help vulnerable individuals, who often suffer from mental-health issues or struggle to recover from addiction.
HONOR employees have typically seen 3 percent to 5 percent annual raises in recent years, and, two years ago, the shelter began offering more generous health insurance and contributing more to 401(k) retirement accounts.
“Our motto is ‘hope through hospitality,’” Schmidt said. “If we’re trying to provide that, having someone (apply) with a customer-service background means we can hire and train them. … We’ve gotten really creative, looking at people who haven’t worked in human services, but they have the heart to do so.”
Pay, perks and promotions
The soup du jour is the perk at the New Munson Diner in the Village of Liberty.
Employees at the diner, which has a rich history including appearing on the show Seinfeld, have nearly unfettered access to free restaurant food. Plus, management makes schedules flexible.
Server Kaitlyn Kessler, 21, of Roscoe, said the best managers communicate well and schedule humanely to “create a good environment where people want to work.”
“In the beginning, it was tough retaining employees,” said owner Hristos Kritikos of the restaurant’s opening a year and half ago. “But everybody here stays because it’s busy, they’re making money, we treat them well, and the area has a lot more value, with more positive (economic) things going on than even a year ago.”
Local employers said retention also requires staying patient and poised, giving new hires more time to improve, and quickly offering promotion opportunities and raises.
Patience is the name of the game for Rudolf Nuo, owner of Sorrento’s Pizzeria & Restaurant in Goshen.
The 18- to 22-year-old employees he typically hires often want to stare at their phones, scrolling through social-media applications, texting, or playing games, even after being asked to do tasks.
Nuo said employers must give young people more time, kindness, encouragement and guidance to help them build soft skills.
The employee abilities that business owners like Nuo said they covet most and see the least involve collaboration, empathy, interpersonal communication, politeness, problem solving, professional presentation, social graces, timeliness and time management.
“It’s as simple as picking up the phone, and taking an order, and somehow people know how to mess it up,” Nuo said. “I don’t even know how, but I had given an address, and the delivery guy went to Middletown instead of Goshen the other day.”
For their part, employees want to know that their employers care about their workers’ goals, said Matthew Dowling, 18, of Goshen, Nuo’s newest pizza-delivery person.
Can a delivery person become a cashier, a chef, a server, a manager or even a co-owner? Does the employer make the worker feel valued? Those are questions Dowling challenges employers to ask themselves.
The best employers, Dowling added, retain good workers like him by wanting to know “What do I want to accomplish?” They also “act fairly, treat workers with respect and provide opportunities.”
Kenan Porter shares Dowling’s philosophy. Porter owns two brewery-restaurants, Clemson Bros. in Middletown and the Guilded Otter in New Paltz, and he plans to build a Clemson Bros. location in Warwick.
Porter advises employers to ask interview questions that closely match a candidate’s attitude with the mission of a business, while creating a clear, timely and generous evaluation system.
Just as important, Porter said, is that 40 percent of his 95 employees are now salaried, from brewers to servers and distribution people. It’s not uncommon for them to earn $65,000 or higher salaries, well above Middletown’s median household income of $52,021 in 2017.
By identifying workers who care and monetarily rewarding them accordingly, “We’re creating a team of passionate people, who unite their passion with every sip of beer,” Porter said.
To Yennie, the operations manager over at Safeway Taxi’s Liberty offices, bonuses and other tactics to lure and keep employees only work so well.
She encourages local politicians to lower taxes, reduce regulations and improve roads to keep New Yorkers from leaving, so she has more job candidates.
“After so many years of people moving,” local businesses like Safeway Taxi “weren’t prepared for this” level of development and prosperity, Yennie said. “Our turnover is high, our reach is great and our need is high.”