WATERTOWN — Don’t tell Cheryl A. Mayforth people just don’t want to work anymore.
It’s a remark that gets Mrs. Mayforth, director of the Jefferson County Department of Employment and Training at The WorkPlace, stirred up.
She maintains that the north country’s job market has gone through many changes since the COVID-19 pandemic began three years ago, and that the market was changing before that.
There’s simply not enough people to fill the available jobs, she said. Jefferson County currently has 3,000 job openings without the 3,000 people to fill them.
“Where are the people?” she asked board members of the Watertown Local Development Corp. on Thursday.
During the past 10 years, 10% of the area’s workforce has been lost, she said, attributing much of that to baby boomers leaving the job market for “shorts, sandals and bright-colored shirts” in retirement.
Baby boomers are retiring at the age of 55 because they can afford to do so. Other north country residents are moving away, where they can get the same job but get paid more, she said.
The board of the local development corporation, also known as the Watertown Trust, asked Mrs. Mayforth to attend its meeting on Thursday morning to find out about what’s going on with the local job market and how members can help.
The local restaurant industry has been hit hard by the nation’s labor shortage even after the pandemic, she said.
In late November, she expected that 23 employees laid off from the local Denny’s restaurant would be contacting her office about job prospects for them.
It was about the same time that Popeyes was looking to fill 60 jobs at its new restaurant, just down the street from Denny’s on outer Arsenal Street, she said.
And Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse and other restaurants along Arsenal Street’s restaurant row continue to have hiring signs hanging in their windows.
But the Chick-fil-A got the job done when the restaurant opened — between the old Denny’s and new Popeyes along Watertown’s restaurant row — in late October.
The franchise owner needed to fill 134 jobs for the new Chick-fil-A. They did so by hiring people from outside of the area, and paying shift supervisors $23 an hour, she said, calling it “moving up the ladder.”
“They know what they’re doing,” she said.
Businesses throughout the area’s job sectors, such as the health care industry, are also having hiring issues, she said.
Nurses are going out the back door at a higher rate than nurses entering the front door. That’s happening at the same time area nursing training programs are at full capacity, Mrs. Mayforth said.
She doesn’t blame the job shortages on the area’s workforce. More than 41% are the working poor and 12.4% live below the poverty rate.
It’s hard to find workers when the north country’s unemployment rate is at 3.8% and full employment is considered around 5%, she said. Nationally, there are 11 million job openings.
“You can go where the jobs are,” she said.
Watertown Trust CEO Donald W. Rutherford wants to know what the agency can do to help. He also hopes the Watertown Trust can do more to keep retiring Fort Drum soldiers in the area after they leave the military.
Board member Dawn M. Cole, CEO of the United Way of Northern New York, said economic development leaders need to remind businesses that it’s less expensive to retain an employee than it is to hire a new one and train them.
Board member David J. Zembiec, CEO of Jefferson County Economic Development, said Fort Drum leaders have told him that one-third of those retiring soldiers are going home no matter what, a third want to stay here and the remaining third will go wherever the jobs are.
But 232 retiring soldiers recently attended a job fair and only one wanted to stay in New York, Mrs. Mayforth heard.
There are other variables and barriers that cause the labor market to change — people leaving the workforce altogether during the pandemic, mainly caused by the lack of affordable child care available, she said.
Cost of living is increasing and housing is expensive here, so “it’s hard to make ends meet,” she said.
The pandemic has changed the way people look at their jobs. Those who are unemployed tend to wait the full 26 weeks before going back work, she said.
The extra $600 a week that many were paid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, didn’t go to cover rent but to furniture and other high-end items, Mrs. Mayforth said.
The labor shortage also is impacted by the way different generations look at work and life balance. Older workers live to work, while Generation Xers work to live, she said.
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