Darius Miller isn’t picky.
The 21-year-old Poughkeepsie resident graduated from Poughkeepsie High School last year, but he held off on the job search due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last month, Miller took the bus to the Poughkeepsie Galleria for a job fair. With roughly 20 employers present, ranging from Galleria businesses to major local employers and regional employment agencies, he was determined to find something.
“I’m not looking for any specific job, and I am willing to work any position,” he said.
And positions are available for those qualified and looking for work. Amy Van Tassel, industrial staffing division manager with Ethan Allen Workforce Solutions, said the region has a job-seeker’s market. There is an abundance of positions, and businesses need to compete to attract staff.
“Everybody is desperate for people,” she said. “If you’re looking for work and think you have one or two of the qualities for the position you’re applying for, just apply because chances are you’re going to get a call.”
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After COVID-19 devastated the local and national job market in 2020, the region appears to be bouncing back to something akin to pre-pandemic norms.
The Mid Hudson Valley has seen job growth in most sectors.
But employers say they are having difficulty filling positions. While that has resulted in staffing shortages for some in health care and technology – Dutchess County’s largest employment fields – it’s having a dire impact on smaller local businesses.
Some, after surviving the stress of COVID restrictions, have been forced reduce hours, close or sell their business due to an inability to fill skeleton staffs. Most of the restaurants and shops cannot offer employees much higher than minimum wage in order to maintain narrow profit margins.
“All I continue to hear is that they can’t find anybody, and that is probably a combination of the skills gap that existed prior to COVID and the fact that they may be able to pay their bills based on the aid and regulatory environment,” Hicks said.
Some employers have offered perks and sign-on bonuses to attract candidates. While that’s been the case for higher-level jobs for years, less-likely employers, such as Amazon at its impending warehouse in East Fishkill, have likewise been doing so in recent months. Several municipalities around the region offered sign-on bonuses last spring in order to remedy a widespread dearth of lifeguards.
Nuvance Health, IBM, GlobalFoundries and MidHudson Regional Hospital are among Dutchess County’s largest employers, Hicks said. While each contributes to the local economy, the majority of their jobs require specialized skills, making finding suitable candidates difficult. The stress and challenges of the pandemic have also caused some to leave the health care field.
Another of the county’s largest employers, Gap, with its distribution center in Fishkill, may be able to hire a wider range of applicants, as can Amazon, which is expected to create 500 full-time jobs and 700-part-time positions.
“Looking at the July 2021 job numbers, job growth was broad-based with eight of nine sectors adding jobs, year-over-year, including (the top 3) leisure and hospitality, education and health services, and trade, transportation and utilities,” said Johny Nelson, a labor market analyst for the Hudson Valley region at the state Department of Labor. “Some businesses are finding it difficult to hire new employees across a wide range of industries.”
Those seeking employment are being advised to stay aggressive in applying to positions, as employers may be more likely to take a less-than-perfect candidate.
The unemployment rate for the Dutchess-Putnam region was 5% as of July 2021, slightly higher than the pre-pandemic July 2019 unemployment rate of 3.6%, per the state Department of Labor. However, the Dutchess-Putnam region also has not returned to the same number of jobs as prior to the pandemic.
The median, inflation-adjusted income in Dutchess grew by 23.4% from 2010-2019 according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, from $69,613 to $85,901. Statewide, the median income in 2019 was $72,108, but the state grew by 33.2% from 2010-2019. The minimum wage in Dutchess County, and all of New York outside of New York City, Long Island and Westchester, is $12.50.
Hicks said the reasons for so many job openings vary depending on the job and industry. However, he posited that many are simply reassessing their plans in the wake of a life-altering pandemic.
Some who lost work due to COVID-19 restrictions have been hesitant to reenter the workforce, either due to safety concerns or unemployment compensation that for months has been augmented.
“COVID clearly isn’t going away, so this is something both companies and individuals are thinking about long-term,” Hicks said. “Everyone is thinking: What is my life worth now? What is my job worth? What do I really want to do moving forward?”
Van Tassel argues it isn’t just the pandemic.
“The state says $12.50 is the minimum wage, but nobody is leaving home for less than $15, and $15 is a stretch.”
Theresa Rutigliano is just one example of this. The 56-year-old from Fishkill is reentering the workforce, spurred on by a change in her personal circumstances.
While she is entering the job hunt with an open mind, she needs a full-time position with benefits to make it worth her while.
“It’s great to have a part-time job if that’s all you need,” Rutigliano said, “but there are a lot of people who need a full-time job with benefits, and that’s a bit harder to find, especially when you’re older.”
Struggles finding staff
Samantha Selena, general manager of The Village Restaurant and Pancake Factory, said she kept the majority of her staff through the pandemic.
But after several employees left the Pleasant Valley restaurant last spring, Selena said she’s struggled to replace them.
“We put the ads out there – people aren’t answering them,” Selena said, noting competitor restaurants have worked to lure staff away with enticing offers.
Van Tassel said employers should consider adjusting pay and creating better offer packages if they hope to attract staff.
“If you up the pay rate, you can essentially get a better quality candidate that has experience,” she said. “You also have to consider that there are lots of opportunities for higher pay rates, so that person may take your training and go somewhere else.”
Nelson agreed the job market favored job seekers, noting that the greatest competition exists in non-specialized fields.
“Outside of some industries/jobs that requires high education/skills, employers across various industries are now competing for the same class of worker,” he said. “Employers are increasingly competing with their rivals for skilled workers, with some companies offering large bonuses and flexible work schedule just to entice talent.”
Stop & Shop is another example of a local employer looking to fill an abundance of empty positions. The grocery store announced in August that it aimed to hire more than 200 part-time positions in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange and Dutchess counties.
Although the company boasts that positions feature competitive pay, paid training, flexible schedules, a company discount and paid time off, employees can expect to work between 15 and 28 hours per week.
COVID impacts, health care
The lingering threat of COVID-19 could also be a major factor keeping people from actively seeking employment. Nelson said fields that could not transition to remote work were impacted the most.
“Industries where jobs could be performed remotely were less impacted,” he said. “Leisure and hospitality was one of the most severely impacted sectors by the COVID-19 pandemic. As more restrictions around these type of businesses are being lifted, jobs count are trending positively.”
With a rising number of active cases in Dutchess County since July, coupled with concerns over the delta variant, some people may avoid working high-risk jobs.
“I hope we don’t see the lockdowns we saw in the beginning of the pandemic,” Hicks said, “but it all depends on, not just the infection rate, but the hospitalization rate.”
Challenges in hiring and retaining staff also impact specialized fields, such as the health care industry.
“We continue to find limited candidate pools for key open positions, including registered nurses, physicians, patient technicians, medical assistants and others,” said Katie Cullinan, vice president of strategic business partnering and human resources governance at Nuvance, which counts Vassar Brothers Medical Center and Northern Dutchess Hospitals among its many hospitals and medical offices in the region. “The pandemic has caused some talent to leave health care or leverage enhanced unemployment benefits, which has required an increased focus on retention.”
Cullinan said Nuvance has adjusted its strategies to attract the staff it needs.
“The pandemic has also caused us to initiate creative strategies to go beyond candidates currently in the market – we are excited at the opportunity to expand our internal development and training programs while also establishing partnerships with community job training and certification programs,” she said.
Opportunities for workers
It’s a “candidate market,” Van Tassel said.
“If you want to switch the kind of work you do, now is the time to do it and actually make a living wage,” she said.
She points to her own employer, Ethan Allen, as an example. Workers can receive a sign-on bonus up to $2,000 if they find a job through the employment agency, as well as a $2,000 referral bonus.
Employers are offering improved wages and better benefits in order to compete and attract the people they need, she said. At the same time, employers are less picky and willing to hire candidates so long as they meet the basic needs of a job.
“What I would recommend to job seekers is to get out there and start looking for work right now,” she said. “If you are looking to make what you are worth, definitely apply for work now.”
Of course, others are considering whether they wish to reenter the workforce, Hicks said.
“People are reevaluating their lives,” he said. “Is it less expensive for me to create my own business, or to be a stay-at-home parent.”
Prior to COVID-19, Dutchess County’s focus was on closing the skill gap with its local workforce, aiming to get training for people to meet the needs to the area’s employers, Hicks said. Now, the county is changing course.
“We’re pivoting our strategy to a talent attraction campaign in order to get more people into workforce and attract more people from outside of the area to the region,” he said.
By the numbers
Private sector and government jobs in the Dutchess-Putnam region
- 134,000 jobs in July 2021
- 3.6% growth in jobs from July 2020 to July 2021
- 10.3% decrease in jobs from July 2019 to July 2021
- 5.0% Unemployment in July 2021
- 11.3% Unemployment in July 2020
- 3.6% Unemployment in July 2019
Dutchess County economic data, per the U.S. Census Bureau
- $81,219: The median household income, 2015-2019
- $40,093: Per capita income, 2015-2019
- 8.6%: Percentage of the population in poverty
- $12.50: The general minimum wage for New York, outside of New York City, Long Island and Westchester
- $15: The general minimum wage for the state after scheduled annual increases
Geoffrey Wilson: gwils[email protected]; 845-437-4882; Twitter: @GeoffWilson_