November 29, 2021

On this Labor Day: Where are the workers?

Shrinking Cortland workforce raises challenge to growing economy

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning testing technician Weston Bottom, of Cortland, monitors the readings from an on demand water heater Thrusday at Intertek in Polkville.

Jeromy Snyder, a HVAC performance technician at Intertek, left his job in Syracuse nearly two years ago to work for the product testing facility along Route 11 in Cortlandville.

Before, he drove almost an hour each way, now it’s only eight minutes from his home in Cortland. “It’s a huge factor,” he said.

At Intertek, which employs over 350 people, finding employees for technician and entry level jobs has been tough. There are about a dozen jobs at the company that remain open, said Matt Snyder, director of operations.

While the company has found it hard in the past to find workers, it’s becoming a little more pronounced, he said. “It’s a trend we’ve seen before,” Snyder said.

The labor force has dropped in Cortland County, state data show, that’s the number of people who live in the county and work, or seek work.

But it’s not just here, it’s across the state. Even the nation.

Workers are an asset, one the community needs to maintain. “No doubt a tight labor market could hinder productivity,” said Garry VanGorder, executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp. and Industrial Development Agency.

Fewer workers to hire
Businesses in the county are hiring — entry and higher-level jobs, said Diane Wheaton, the Cortland County employment and training director at Cortland Works Career Center.

However, the number of people seeking work is down, she added. “As far as people just coming in the door and saying, ‘Hey help me find a job,’ we’re not seeing as many,” she said.

The number of potential workers who live in Cortland County is down, show state Department of Labor data: to 22,300 workers in July from 22,700 in July 2017. The number of employed people has decreased, too — from 21,400 in July 2017 to 21,200 in July.

That’s a different number than the number of jobs in Cortland County, which also dropped in July to 18,700 from 19,100 jobs in July 2017. The employment number counts workers, regardless of where they work; the jobs number counts jobs, regardless of where the workers live.

A declining work force isn’t necessarily a sign that the economy is tough, only that workers have either stopped working, or moved somewhere else.

“I think it’s a little cyclical,” Wheaton said. “There are times we are really busy. Right now industry in town is doing really well. Also sometimes when they have ups and downs we see the people. We’re not seeing that right now.”

The entire nation is experiencing a drop in the labor force. “It’s as true everywhere else as it is here,” VanGorder said.

20-year decline
The drop in the labor force has been happening for nearly two decades, VanGorder said. “It’s exasperated by a number of things,” he said.

The labor force is anyone between 16 and 65 who has a job or is looking for one. And the Baby Boom, born between 1946 and 1964, is retiring.

“Ten thousand baby boomers a year are retiring across the county,” VanGorder said., many younger than 65. “That’s taking a big chunk of people out of the labor force.”

Other workers left the labor force at the start of the recession 2008 and never returned. Some left with a disability; other may feel the jobs available don’t match their skills or experience, VanGorder said.

“They went out and they stay out,” he said. “Maybe they just moved into retirement. Maybe they moved from the area.”

Some people may stay in school longer — students are not counted in the labor force.

Workers who have lived in Cortland and commuted to jobs elsewhere — employment has been increasing in Tompkins County and metropolitan Syracuse — and may move closer to work, in a reverse of Snyder getting a job in Cortland because he lives here.

While reports might show the loss in jobs, VanGorder said just ask the employers. “If you go and talk to our employers in town, they’ll tell you they can’t find people,” he said.

Cortland County is seeing its lowest number in the labor force since 1990.
That parallels the total population in New York, which is also declining, said Karen Knapik-Scalzo, an associate economist with the state Department of Labor.

Crafting a solution
The Cortland Works Career Center sees about 800 to 1,000 visits each month, some involving the same people coming back multiple times, Wheaton said.

Some people who may be nearing retirement come in, however, some may feel it is hard to compete with the younger crowd. “Depending on what you’re looking for there is a variety of jobs,” she said.

People not looking for jobs could mean good news. It might mean a lot of people are working, she said — just not here. “It’s some of that good news, bad news thing,” she said.

Some people who are working may be looking for a better job. “We look at people who are working, it’s hard for them to come see us,” Wheaton said.

The center is also looking to see what job training is available in Cortland to identify what skills are needed. “That’s one of the projects we’re working on is to find out from businesses what skills they need and see what training can be developed around that,” she said.

There are jobs open, however, VanGorder feels there is a perception of there not being jobs available. “That’s a marketing challenge,” he said.

Preserving the asset
Workers are also needed , not just to keep up productivity, but to bring in and keep businesses.

“Having a ready, willing and reliable work force is essential to retain and recruit employers,” VanGorder said. “How do we get these people off the sidelines?”

Barriers to employment, such as transportation and child care, need to come down, Knapik-Scalzo said.

But which ones? County leaders need to identify them and find a way to address them, VanGorder said.

Knapik-Scalzo said employers might start looking at some possible solutions, such as:
• Raising wages.
• Adding more on-the-job training.
• Recruiting more.

Flexible schedules, different approaches to benefits and new ways to define qualifications are also some things businesses can do, VanGorder said.

Things aren’t going to fix themselves over night, he added. The county’s population isn’t increasing, and it’s still aging.

“We’re doing everything we can to attract people,” he said.

Improving quality of life could help. “Talking about how you can live locally and work regionally,” VanGorder said..

Whatever it takes to draw people to the work force, VanGorder said: “It’s our No. 1 challenge.”