Where have all the workers gone? That’s a question employers across the country — and in Westchester — are asking.
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are more than 10 million job openings in the U.S. — but only 5.7 million unemployed workers. Since the height of the pandemic, when more than 120,000 businesses temporarily closed and more than 30 million U.S. workers were out of work, job openings have steadily risen and unemployment has slowly declined. In 2022, employers added an “unprecedented” 4.5 million jobs, the Chamber reports.
But millions of Americans have been leaving the labor force. This began before the pandemic, but accelerated with the post-COVID “Great Resignation.” Today, there are nearly 3 million fewer Americans participating in the labor force than there were in February 2020, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Accordingly, employers in Westchester County are experiencing a worker shortage and struggling to fill positions. “There are gaps across the board in every sector, from construction to hospitality to advanced manufacturing,” says Westchester County’s Director of Economic Development Bridget Gibbons.
The lower Hudson Valley region’s unemployment numbers are at historical lows — just 2.5% in December 2022, lower than the state average of 3.8% — and the second lowest in the state, after Long Island. But that overall number doesn’t reflect every segment of the workforce, some of whom are still struggling to get a job.
“The people who we serve are still finding it difficult to find work,” says Thom Kleiner, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam Workforce Development Board. Entrenched barriers to employment, including transportation, affordable housing, lack of childcare, and other issues has created what he calls “a disconnect between those available to work and businesses having difficulty finding workers. The big-picture issue is trying to reconcile those two phenomena.”
These competing and seemingly contradictory factors have “forced employers to be much more proactive, aggressive and creative” in finding workers, says Jason Chapin, director of workforce development for the Westchester County Association (WCA).
The county has been refocusing its efforts to address that disconnect. “In 2022, my office shifted gears to bringing employers and job seekers together,” Gibbons says, a shift that has included holding a half-dozen or so job fairs around the region recently. “We also pivoted from a sector-based approach to looking at niche populations with high unemployment rates.”
In particular, those with a disability or a history of justice involvement are often overlooked as potential hires. The county is trying to “encourage employers to be more open-minded,” she says. To that end, they have hosted workshops and job fairs specifically to boost these workers. And they are not alone. “Workforce entities are paying more attention to those two sectors now than maybe any time in recent memory,” Kleiner adds.
The county promotes an organization called ConConnect, created by a local entrepreneur named Andre Peart. The Yonkers-born Peart, with his own history of justice involvement, created a platform and website, “like LinkedIn for the formerly incarcerated,” Gibbons says. Peart built his business, which connects and matches employers and job seekers, with the help of Element 46, Westchester’s startup accelerator program. “He has clients like Lowe’s and Amazon,” Gibbons says. The formerly incarcerated, she stresses, “are loyal, hard-working and really appreciate being given a second chance.”
“I think we have to do a better job of helping young adults and even teens understand what opportunities are out there and create more and better career pathway programs. There are many trade jobs out there, and a lot of money in the pipeline for infrastructure will create a significant opportunity for those who don’t want to go to college.”
—Jason Chapin, Director of Workforce Development, Westchester County Association
The county has also held job fairs specifically for the differently and diverse-abled. At a recent fair, such big employers as CVS and local hospitals had the chance to meet and interview about 200 job seekers who were provided support like sign language interpreters, assistance for the blind and accommodations for the neurodiverse. “It was really gratifying to see the activity that happened that day,” Gibbons says. “And there was strong demand for us to do more for that population.”
Chapin notes that there are more than 1 million adults with disabilities in New York State, but only about a third of them are working. “I think employers are recognizing that a lot of them have the skills and the ability to accommodate their disabilities,” he says.
Employers are embracing other accommodations as well. Some are reducing educational and experience requirements for certain jobs, Chapin says, following the lead of some states, like Pennsylvania, that have eliminated college requirements for a variety of state jobs. They are also “making more and better use of social media” in recruiting, he says. “There is a greater focus on local recruiting. It used to be all Monster, LinkedIn, Indeed, recruiting nationally, but that was unmanageable.”
To find local workers, employers are forging a closer relationship with local colleges and universities. “They are more active in on-campus recruiting,” he says, holding events more than just once or twice a year, as in the past. The WCA helped by hosting a “Dean’s Roundtable,” at which colleges and local accounting firms met so the firms got to know the schools and their facilities, while also marketing their businesses to the college’s placement centers.
Firms are also learning how to meet the needs of this younger population of workers.
“Even though the labor market is restructuring, employers are meeting candidates halfway,” Chapin says, by increasing salaries and benefits, offering flexible schedules and remote work, and providing more training opportunities for them to be successful. “In the old days it was, ‘give me someone who is job-ready.’ Now employers are committed to doing more training,” he says. “Companies are also making bigger investments in recruitment and retention. I’ve heard that Gen Z workers change jobs once a year. We are hoping they will see the benefits of loyalty and longevity.”
Another goal is connecting with workers who don’t have advanced education. One-third of working-age adults have a high school diploma or less, Chapin says. “I think we have to do a better job of helping young adults and even teens understand what opportunities are out there and create more and better career pathway programs. There are many trade jobs out there, and a lot of money in the pipeline for infrastructure will create a significant opportunity for those who don’t want to go to college. The whole proposition of going to a four-year college and making that money back is harder. [Job seekers] can do a certificate or credential program, spend a fraction of the cost, and still make a great salary.”
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