Project Chenango: Developing Chenango's Workforce
Published: September 10th, 2015

Project Chenango: Developing Chenango's Workforce

By Melissa Stagnaro

Special to The Evening Sun

CHENANGO – At 5.2 percent, Chenango’s unemployment rate is at its lowest in four years according to the county’s top employment expert.

“That’s a good thing,” said Gary Waffle, who serves as both director of the CDO Workforce Center in Norwich and the executive director of the Chenango County Office of Employment and Training.

Though Chenango’s jobless numbers have been on the decline since the unemployment rate peaked at 8.5 percent in 2012, there is still a pool of approximately 1,900 job seekers, according to Waffle. A number he says does not include those who are currently employed but seeking other opportunities.

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On the other side of the equation are the 300 job openings currently posted through the NYS Department of Labor, along with other position openings posted elsewhere.

With roughly 6 job seekers to each opening, one might think employers would have no trouble filling their open positions. But that isn’t always the case, particularly among Chenango’s manufacturers who say the local labor pool doesn’t always have the specific skills they are looking for.

“Workforce development is an issue that our business continues to find challenging, based on our industry and the specific skills/degrees and work experiences that we need,” said Luke Murphy, Human Resources Manager at Norwich, An Alvogen Company.

According to Murphy, the positions he finds hardest to fill from the local pool of talent are the ones requiring scientific or engineering degrees or backgrounds. Currently, he is recruiting for two such positions: a chemist for Norwich’s quality control laboratory and a research assistant.

Norwich sometimes has to get creative if they can’t immediately find a qualified candidate for a particular role. According to Murphy, the course of action they take depends on their urgency to fill the position.

“We have relationships with firms that provide contractual talent for short term and long term assignments,” he said. “We also have engaged with retirees or vendors that we are using for specific work assignments to come in and assist us in the interim until we can source a candidate for the position.”

Murphy said Norwich has also run into challenges when hiring for more entry-level positions. Some potential candidates are not able to accurate complete an application or are unprepared for the interview process, he explained, which is frustrating for an employer.

According to Waffle, many people that lack these skills walk through the door of the CDO Workforce on O’Hara Drive in Norwich. The facility, which is federally funded, houses a mix of county and state employees, as well as other programs. They work together to serve a wide variety of job seekers – from veterans, seniors and ‘dislocated workers’ who have been laid off from their jobs, to public assistance recipients, disabled workers and others who are simply looking for a new opportunity.

The one-stop job center offers basic training such as resume writing and interviewing skills, and houses a resource center with computers job seekers can use to search for jobs, apply for jobs online, research companies and work on their resume and cover letters, Waffle explained.

In the past, they have also been able to provide funding for on-the-job training programs and tuition assistance for approved training programs, Waffle said. But like many agencies, they’ve seen their funding dwindle over the past few years.

What they can’t provide directly, they refer to other agencies and programs in the area.

The legacy pharmaceutical manufacturer isn’t the only manufacturer in Chenango County dealing with challenging workforce issues. Seven and a half miles south of the company’s North Norwich campus is another of Chenango’s largest employers, Unison Industries. The aviation technology manufacturer currently has 9 positions open and expects to list 3 more on their career page within the next week.

“We recognize that the key to our success is a talented, dedicated workforce that can work as a team and help us meet our needs in a very competitive global market,” said Unison’s site leader, Gary Cummings.

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“Hiring new people that bring the skills we need and who can function in a team environment is the real key.”

Over the past 5 years, Unison has hired 186 new team members.

“We have been able to find a lot of good people to fill our roles,” Cummings said.

But Unison, like Norwich, has also faced challenges with some of their new hires. Basic math, measuring, communication and teamwork are some of the areas in which they’ve needed to provide additional training.

Some of that training they’ve been able to provide through their parent company, GE. They have also developed a partnership through SUNY Broome Community College.

Janet Hertzog, Director of the Continuing Education and Workforce Development at Broome, explained that Unison is one of several manufacturers she works with to provide customized trainings in such areas as lean manufacturing, leadership training, time management and computer skills.

Curriculums for each program are tailored to the individual employer and conducted at the employer’s facility by corporate trainers. The majority of the cost for these trainings is offset by grant funding from the SUNY system.

“These are wonderful opportunities to get workforce development at a very reasonable cost,” Hertzog said.

Offering these types of trainings not only make financial sense, she said, but also offer a number of benefits to both the employee and the employer.

“For the employee, they are gaining skills and tool sets that make them more successful,” she explained. These added skills can make their jobs less stressful, and employees who feel their employer is investing in them are generally happier and more productive.

Employers see greater productivity, a reduction in lost time and better retention rates, she added.

Succession planning is also a concern for Unison. According to Cummings, the company stands to lose a wealth of knowledge in the coming years as 12 members of their leadership and technical team and more than 50 of their skilled tradesmen near retirement. This is particular troubling on the manufacturing side, he explained, because many of those machine shop and tool room staff learned their trade through machining courses that no longer exist.

This is on top of the fact that Unison is already having difficulty finding skilled machinists to fill their openings.

“Finding candidates in our area with this specific skill set is limited,” Cummings said, speaking of mechanical aptitude. “We as a company are anticipating a major shortage of talent in the coming years.”

To help address this concern, Unison is working to develop an apprenticeship program.

There may soon be another program to help funnel qualified candidates their way, as well. That is if a potential partnership between the Norwich campus of Morrisville State College and DCMO BOCES comes to fruition.

“I think there is a real need for manufacturing technology,” said Steve Palmatier, who is working closely with Morrisville on the project. The curriculum would include modern manufacturing topics like lean manufacturing and continuous improvement as well.

Palmatier, a consultant retained by Chenango County as a workforce and industrial development liaison, has 30 years of experience in manufacturing, specifically in the aerospace industry. Drawing from his own expertise, he has been working to understand the needs of area employers, especially Chenango’s manufacturers.

Palmatier is refining a skills matrix based on his findings. At the base of this matrix are the personal life skills needed to manage things like transportation, housing, personal finances and relationships. The second level includes the core workplace skills – such as communication, time management, basic math, computer and reading literacy skills. The third level includes the industry specific skills required to do a particular job, followed by the leadership and management skills necessary for higher-level roles. The fifth and final layer is comprised of the business acumen and entrepreneurial skills for the highest levels of leadership and business ownership.

He cited the return of a welding program to the Norwich DCMO BOCES campus as one win for local manufacturers. Palmatier hopes grant funding will help expand this program beyond structural welding to include the specific skill sets needed to weld in a pharmaceutical, dairy or food-processing environment.

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Palmatier is also consulting with several school districts on projects such as helping to align STEM subjects with job opportunities and mentoring and internship opportunities. The latter is at the core of a program he’s helping the Oxford Academy and Central School District launch within the coming year.

Another collaboration is the 2014 College and Career Connection, an event being sponsored by Commerce Chenango and America’s Best Communities and hosted by Morrisville’s Norwich Campus. It will take place from

According to Commerce Chenango’s Audrey Robinson, the event will combine the elements of a traditional college fair and job fair. The goal is to allow students and job seekers alike to see both educational and potential job opportunities in one place, so they gain better perspective as they embark on or change career paths.

The event will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, October 14 at the Morrisville State College Norwich Campus. It is free and open to the public.

Palmatier has many collaborators as he works to address Chenango’s workforce development needs. Those partners include a sampling of businesses and manufacturers, staffing agencies and educational institutions. Cummings, Murphy and Waffle are all involved with these discussions, as is Bill Berthel, human resource director at Golden Artist Colors in Columbus.

While Berthel said workforce development isn’t Golden’s number one challenge – that honor goes to rising healthcare costs – it is a concern for their business. The reason lies in the special skill sets required for the company’s unique manufacturing processes. Like Unison and Norwich, the positions that require highly technical or specialized skill sets are the ones that are the most difficult for Golden to fill.

Because those skills are not readily available in the pool of local talent, Berthel said they must either train and develop their workforce themselves or recruit from outside the area.

The training and development opportunities the employee-owned company offers their employee owners goes above and beyond basic workplace skills. Continuing education and tuition reimbursement are one of the benefits of working for Golden. That includes leadership training, nationally recognized certifications and even college-level courses.

Currently 14 to 15 employees are enrolled in a Composition 101 course taught on-site by instructors from Morrisville State College’s Norwich Campus.

“We have always had a strong relationship with Morrisville,” Berthel explained.

In special circumstances, when an employee’s role is changing, a full academic plan may be developed for the individual, he said.

Needed training, comes first, of course, but Berthel said they recognize that almost any furthering of an employee’s education comes back to benefit the business as well. That’s why they support not only an individual’s work related goals, but also take their personal goals into consideration. They also encourage their employees’ passion for the community.

“It’s all woven in there, you can’t separate the two,” Berthel said.