Businesses grapple with skilled worker shortage

Brian Williams of Kucel Contractors of Gloversville cuts a length of exterior trim for a porch in Mayfield. Demand for skilled workers in the trades has increased. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first of a three-part series on the shortage of skilled workers in the trades and manufacturing.

Twenty to 25 years ago, when Stan Kucel, second-generation owner of Kucel Contractors in Gloversville, advertised for people skilled in building, he got “bombarded” with 30 to 40 people.

These days, when he advertises in newspapers and online for a month, he’ll “get maybe one or two people” who are not very skilled, he said.

Kucel’s experience is not unusual.

“I can’t find people,” said Derrick Brown, manager of Fuccillo Collision in Amsterdam. “I’ve been looking for a guy for almost a year.”

“I cannot find service technician people who want to work on agricultural machinery,” said Tom Head, service manager of Randall Implements in Fultonville.

Beech-Nut Nutrition on the Route 5S side of Amsterdam is always looking for workers for production and mechanical and electrical roles, holding job fairs monthly and hiring seven to 10 people for its three 24/5 shifts, said Erin Clemens, vice president of human resources.

The company is even willing to train up and advance people on its Allen-Bradley & Rockwell automated production system. Typically, most manufacturing nowadays requires more technical skills than manual labor. Sadly, Beech-Nut still loses 10 percent of its employees to other companies because the workers gain transferable skills and move closer to home, she said.

“There is definitely a [skilled labor] shortage in the Mohawk Valley,” she said. “We’re exhausting the labor pool. The population is not growing. Unemployment is low.” Public transportation is also unavailable, she added.

What they are experiencing is a nationwide problem affecting some states more than others—skilled tradespeople in construction and remodeling and manufacturing are aging out and retiring, but fewer people are taking their places.

“Employers throughout New York State currently report they are facing labor shortages as they attempt to hire workers in the skilled trades,” according to the “Skilled Trades in New York,” a June 2016 report by the state Division of Research and Statistics.

“These worker shortages are expected to worsen in the coming years due to a combination of demographic (e.g., retiring baby boomers) and economic (e.g., increased demand for workers in the skilled trades) factors,” the report states.

Compared to the average age of all workers in the state—42, the average age in the construction sector is 43 and in manufacturing, 47, the report says.

It goes on to say that data from Economic Modeling Specialists International shows the greatest age concentration in these industries is between 45 and 54 years old—29 percent in manufacturing and 28.4 percent in construction.

Brown, of Fuccillo’s, said he’s close to the age of 50 while his three workers are 61, 50 and 49.

Nationwide figures are even starker, with 56 being the average age of a manufacturing worker, said Martha Ponge, director of apprenticeships with the Manufacturers Association of Central New York, an affiliate of the Manufacturers Alliance of New York State.

Every five manufacturing workers is being replaced by only one worker, leaving 3.5 million positions to be filled by 2025, she said. At the current replacement rate, 2 million will go unfilled, she added.

Tomorrow’s story will examine the causes of the shortages.

By Josh Bovee

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