There were a record 9.3 million job openings across the U.S. in April, the highest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the data in 2001. The Niagara County Department of Employment and Training held a job fair Wednesday in hopes of helping local employers fill some of those openings.
Debbie Buckley and her 28-year-old son James Buckley were at the job fair in Oppenheim Park in Niagara Falls, going table by table, making introductions and collecting business cards.
“I saw the job fair posting,” Debbie Buckley said. “And I said, ‘Maybe that might be something you might be interested in.’”
“So I figured I’d stop by and check it out,” James Buckley added.
He had been working at Pizza Hut, until the chain closed all Western New York locations last summer. Now that the COVID-19 positivity rate in New York is below 1%, he hopes to get a part-time job while going back to school.
“So I'm looking again, now that it's almost safe, basically,” he said.
Local employers hope they’ll be more people like James Buckley looking for a job this summer, as the region moves on from the worst of the pandemic.
Unemployment in the Buffalo-Niagara region is currently at about 6%, while the New York State Department of Labor reports at least 12,000 job vacancies in Western New York, including over 1,000 openings alone in fields like health care and manufacturing.
“It just doesn't seem like there are enough candidates out there to fill the jobs that are open right now,” said Donald Jablonski, Niagara County’s director of employment and training, whose department has held four job fairs since the pandemic began. “(Employers) are expressing extreme difficulty at the moment. Despite unique recruiting efforts, up to and including sign-on bonuses and flexible hours and trying to introduce some sort of childcare, they just can't seem to find the quality candidates that are necessary.”
While some have blamed the weekly $300 dollars in federal unemployment benefits, Jablonski said it’s not just increased benefits that’s keeping workers home. Some had legitimate concerns about COVID, while remote learning and daycare shortages have forced many working mothers out of the workforce.
“So the women in the workforce are particularly hard hit,” he said.
Jablonski was encouraged that half way through Wednesday’s job fair, over 100 job seekers had already attended.
That was good news for the 40 employers who set up shop, like New View Alliance, which operates everything from residential treatment facilities to children's group homes.
Tim Chavers, a recruiter for New View Alliance, said it’s always difficult to fill jobs in human services, but he’s seen as much as a 75% drop in new applicants since the pandemic began, and that there’s 30 open positions at its Lockport and Williamsville locations alone.
“Human services is notorious for not having the highest-paying job, unfortunately. It's a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless,” he said, adding New View Alliance recently re-negotiated its hourly rates to be higher. “But I think we're pretty competitive in the field.”
He welcomed the chance to meet candidates in person, especially for entry-level youth support positions.
“[For those positions], it’s less about the credentials and more about their personality and their ability to connect with people,” he said. “And so having a situation like this, where you can chat with people, gives an opportunity for them to really shine where they might not do that otherwise, say on a resume or an application.”
It also gave employers a chance to dispel what they say are misconceptions about their industry.
Officer Ryan Phelps, of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said the department may hire up to 1,000 corrections officers across the state this year, as well as a couple hundred parole officers, but acknowledged some job seekers may have a negative view of corrections and law enforcement in general.
“We can explain to them the job might not be what you see on TV or read about in the news and things like that,” he said.
He told candidates how the job comes with a decent paycheck, benefits and a favorable retirement package.
“We have 25-year retirement. There's no minimum age to retire. So you could start off at 21 years old, work 25 years, be eligible for retirement potentially at 46 years old,” he said. “So that's nice. Start early, get out early.”
For the Buckleys, James Buckley was interested in job openings for van drivers and a dental laboratory production company. His dream job is to work in the film industry, and is enticed by the two proposed film studios coming to Buffalo.
“The film studio, when it opens up, you have to get all the training you need to do that,” Debbie Buckley said. “So he's going to go back to school at the same time looking for a part-time job.”
The Niagara County Department of Employment and Training is offering companies up to $5,000 to help offset the salaries of new workers, as well as scholarships of up to $4,000 for students.