WATERTOWN — Local employers fishing for job candidates from a shrinking labor pool greeted hundreds of employment seekers at the eighth annual Jefferson-Lewis Job Fair on Wednesday.
Retiring baby boomers, an exodus of residents and low unemployment have left companies and organizations struggling to fill vacancies with qualified workers in recent years. About 60 north country employers with a combined 936 openings attended the fair, filling a city center ballroom at the Hilton Garden Inn with rows of booths manned by eager recruiters.
Despite facing a shallower pool of prospective employees, the event sponsored by the WorkPlace, still attracted 300 to 400 job seekers eager to find full-time hours, better pay and benefits, said Workplace Director Cheryl A. Mayforth. Some candidates, including those with resumes in hand, walked away with interviews scheduled and possible offers, and some recruiters found strong applicants who appeared to meet their needs, Mrs. Mayforth said.
Nik Hughes, Watertown, works part-time for Pizza Hut, and said he sought another part-time job or new full-time position. He said he was interested in working with math, driver and hotel front desk roles.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing every time they do it,” he said. “Employers looking to, like, fill positions urgently, this is a great way to do it.”
Maintenance worker, trades apprentice, sales associate, HVAC technician, bus driver, room attendant and registered nurse were among the openings offered by First Student, Hazlewood Mechanicals, Lewis County General Hospital, Spectrum, Comfort Inn & Suites and state Laborers Local 1822. The positions required varying levels of experience and education from a GED to college degree.
Jeremy Bombardier, Watertown, said he wanted to work while studying art therapy at Jefferson Community College, and needed a job that would accommodate his disability, one that did not involve heavy lifting. Mr. Bombardier said he spoke with multiple recruiters, but was drawn to the state Department of Corrections because after serving in the Army, he liked jobs with uniforms.
“I’m kind of picky. I don’t want to work retail or nothing,” he said.
While this year’s fair drew a large turnout with many strong workers, it is still indicative of the statewide shortage of skilled workers. The Workplace’s first job fair in 2011 drew thousands of job seekers for a couple hundred positions, Mrs. Mayforth said.
Melinda Mack, executive director for the New York Association of Training & Employment Professionals, said 41 percent of New Yorkers have a high school diploma or less, and about 250,000 people involuntarily worked part-time. Technological advancements among many sectors has increased the demand for mathematical and other skills that several candidates lack, sometimes due to a lack of post-secondary training, Ms. Mack said. Other barriers to job opportunities include child care and transportation costs that can outweigh the salaries offered.
“Now’s the time to double down on that investment,” in training, she said. “You can create all of the jobs you like, but if you have no people to fill those jobs, what’s the point of economic development?”
Some employers at the fair struggle to find enough applicants to fill their vacancies, while others may draw candidates who lack their desired qualifications.
Recruiters from St. Lawrence Health System sought candidates for 120 positions including registered nurses, clerks, laboratory technicians, house keepers and phlebotomists. A thinning labor market increases competition for job candidates among health care providers, leaving some with fewer prospects, said recruiter Nicholas Maneely. Many also believe hospitals only seek medical professionals, when they actually offer other employment opportunities, said recruiter Sarah LaShomb.
HP Hood, which wanted to recruit maintenance workers for its LaFargeville plant, struggles to find candidates with the required work ethic, said operations specialist T. J. Babcock. Unlike other employers, “application flow is very good” for Lowe’s in Central New York, said talent acquisition partner Greg Patane. After having to wait for a change in its hiring systems, however, the retailer needed to fill 15 to 20 positions at each of its 14 stores in the region, Mr. Patane said.
“We’re looking for those customer services associates to help our customers find what they need from start to finish,” he said.
The shortage of skilled workers is not entirely lost on policy makers and employment assistance organizations.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in May launched a $175 million workforce development initiative to support regional efforts to meet the new industry demands. The state Department of Labor teamed up with SUNY Empire State College to create the Empire State Career Connector, which will provide guidance on the types of jobs available and the education and experience required for them. The Assembly Minority Task Force on Learning for Work was created to address the middle skills gap for positions that require more education than a high school diploma, but not a four-year college degree.
A group of employers and labor organizations, including NYATEP and the Workplace, recently partnered to create the Invest In Skills NY campaign to push the state for greater investment in workforce development. Ms. Mack said the state must provide a permanent investment in bolstering its labor pool and craft a holistic strategy for tackling various workforce issues. BOCES, colleges, career centers and employers and unions must also work together to promote training programs, and have a standardized data collection system on the state’s workforce, Ms. Mack said.
“Workforce development, it matters to our overall economic well-being as a state,” she said.
Employers at the job fair
Arc Jefferson - St. Lawrence
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Disabled Persons Action Organization
Fairfield by Marriott Inn & Suites
Fuccillo Automotive Group
Hi-Lite Airfield Services
IBEW Local 910
Northern Orthopedic Lab