By Jessica Bakeman
ALBANY - There are more than 700,000 people out of work in New York, while there are at least 70,000 open jobs.
If the state's job seekers could fill those available positions, the unemployment rate could be cut by nearly 10 percent.
As the state's unemployment rate slowly declines, workforce development agencies are struggling to match unemployed New Yorkers with businesses' available positions.
"We have a strong group of companies here that struggle to find employees. That's an example of the skills gap, and we have been, for many years, trying to address it," said Todd Oldham, vice president for economic development and innovative workforce services at Monroe Community College in Rochester.
In late June, there were 68,900 available jobs listed on the state Department of Labor website, with more than 24,000 of those in New York City. The number of jobs available on the site was up 4 percent from June 2012.
There were 8,379 open jobs in the Hudson Valley in June, 6,845 jobs in western New York, 5,720 open in the Finger Lakes and 3,081 jobs in the Southern Tier. While not all the jobs available in the state are on the labor department website, the portal offers the clearest picture of the New York's job market.
Meanwhile, the statewide unemployment rate in May was 7.6 percent, with 729,800 New Yorkers out of a job. That's the lowest level since February 2009 and on par with the national rate, the labor department said. New York's unemployment rate had outpaced the national figures.
New Yorkers who lost their jobs due to companies' downsizing described a frustrating, nerve-wracking experience of deciding to change careers, but many were ultimately hopeful about starting anew. Some said they were uninspired in their former jobs and were able to train for a different career that interested them more.
After Rosemarie Williams, 56, of Poughkeepsie, was laid off from her job of 18 years as an administrative assistant last year, she decided she wanted to pursue a career that involved writing.
But the marketing and advertising job listings she encountered required experience using design programs like Adobe Photoshop. She enrolled in an online nine-month digital arts certificate program at Dutchess Community College, and she's hopeful about her future career opportunities.
"You kind of have to do it all. In order to write, you have to be able to do the graphics," Williams said. "I felt like I was behind the ball."
Community colleges and workforce training programs said they're working to update job seekers' skills to attract employers in the state's fastest growing industries.
"We're in the business of trying to deliver programs and services that are going to meet the expectations of the employers," said Tim Vermillion, assistant dean of community services at Dutchess Community College.
Regional-employment experts said the state's job seekers are missing key skills in computer science, manufacturing and technical trades, where qualified workers are in high demand. In many cases, it's a certificate or associate's degree that stands between unemployment and a job.
The Regional Economic Development Council program started by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's aims to put New Yorkers back to work, said Jennifer Krinsky, labor department spokeswoman. In 2011, Cuomo appointed 10 councils around the state to generate ideas and propose projects to grow the economy on each region's strengths.
Krinsky also touted Cuomo's new plan of creating tax-free zones for businesses on college campuses.
"Highly trained workers may not always be in the right place now, and that is what he is hoping to shift with this program," she said in a statement.
The labor department pointed to the work of the state's 91 career centers. They said the centers helped place 250,000 people in jobs last year.
Colleges play a role
Education, particularly the state's public schools and community colleges, plays an important role in preparing the state's workforce, experts said.
Often, the K-12 school system is blamed for graduating students without the reading, writing, math and technology skills that 21st century employers demand. But pointing the finger in just one direction oversimplifies the skills gap, said Melinda Mack, executive director of the state Association of Training and Employment Professionals.
"It's no one entity or one group's problem. It is a systemic issue that we all need to be working to address," she said.
A person with a high-school diploma or GED doesn't usually have the right skills for today's jobs, educators said. But while enrollment in two-year schools has surged in the years since the economic downturn, many students don't need to finish with an associate's degree.
Certificate programs are a popular route for job seekers who need to add to their skill set immediately, educators said.
"It's a quicker fix. You're not making the sacrifice of a degree program; you're going in there, and you're focusing specifically on the content related to that course," Vermillion said.
Medical office assistant, pharmacy technician and medical billing and coding certifications are popular in Dutchess County, he said.
Oldham said MCC tracks employer demand in the Rochester area and enrolls students in the fastest growing fields. Now the top fields are welding, machining and optics for the Finger Lakes region.
"We get calls from companies that are constantly looking to hire our graduates, and there are more calls coming in than we can produce graduates," he said. "That's a great thing for our graduates, but it's indicative that the labor market wants more students than we're producing."
At Hudson Valley Community College in the Albany area, students who train to be electricians and heating and air conditioning technicians receive multiple job offers upon graduation, said Phillip White, dean of the schools of business and engineering.
"You've got to match up the skill sets with what the employers are looking for," White said.
The Business Council of Westchester is starting a clearinghouse this fall of internship programs available locally for college students. The goal, organizers said, is to link students with local businesses and retain young people after they graduate.
Marsha Gordon, the group's president, said the programs are increasingly aimed at training the local workforce to match the skills of the open jobs.
"That's why it's so important for there to be the link between the colleges and the business community," she said. "The colleges are now developing curriculum based around the needs of the workforce."
Flexibility key for job seekers
Terry Stark, executive director of the Broome-Tioga Workforce Development Board in the Southern Tier, said job seekers routinely come to her without the skills necessary for most jobs.
"We still have large numbers of people who come into the career center who are not computer literate, who also lack a high-school diploma or a GED," she said. "And unfortunately, that's holding back a large number of people from applying for jobs where that's the entry criteria."
She said she has seen an unwillingness on the part of some unemployed people to update their skills. The center offers computer courses, like training in Microsoft Office software, for free, "but we don't have lots of people that are applying for those jobs or asking about that kind of training," she said.
Several job-training leaders said unemployed New Yorkers need to be more flexible in considering new career paths. Job seekers shy away from jobs that offer less compensation than they're used to or have different demands on their bodies or their time.
Stark said there are many job openings in transportation in her area, requiring a commercial driver's license, but even those who complete the certification are wary of the travel requirements.
Peter Pecor, executive director of RochesterWorks, a career center, said layoffs from Kodak have flooded the labor pool with workers who are accustomed to pay and benefits that might not be available in today's job market.
In the difficult economy, employers can be more selective, Pecor said, and newly laid off workers are choosier, too. He said he has seen those attitudes change recently.
"I think there has been a loosening of that. Employers are willing to take on new employees that are trainable," he said. "On the other side, the job seekers, whose expectations may have been a little higher as far as the type of work they were doing, their income expectations," are willing to compromise, too.
While technical or manufacturing fields are growing rapidly, the most job openings in almost every region are sales, clerical and health-care jobs, according to the labor department's listings.
The labor department shows Rochester General Hospital and Highland Hospital as among the employers with the most job openings in the Finger Lakes. St. John's Riverside Hospital and Health Quest have the most open jobs in the Hudson Valley.
Educational institutions have a high number of openings, too, including for administrative positions. Ithaca College and Cornell University have the most open jobs in the Southern Tier, and the University at Buffalo has many openings in western New York.
Kent Gardner, an economist with the Center for Governmental Research, based in Rochester, said retail jobs, often low paid, are always the most plentiful.
"There tends to be high turnover," he said.
Unemployment 'depressing,' freeing
Bob Murray, 45, of East Irondequoit, Monroe County, had worked for Frontier Communications for 26 years when the company downsized in 2012, laying him off as a data analyst.
With some help from a local workforce development agency, Murray decided to pursue a certificate program in machining from MCC.
He's learning how to program machines to perform tasks in advanced manufacturing, like drilling a hole or cutting a piece of metal at a certain angle. He'll be placed in a job upon completing the program, but he doesn't expect to receive the same compensation that he enjoyed at his former job.
"I'm making a conscious decision to start over in a new career, making less money than I was before but with more potential," he said. "I'll be less concerned about continued employment by changing industries."
James McGrath, 45, worked in information technology and management for the Toys R Us headquarters in New Jersey for 23 years and moved to New Windsor, Orange County, last year.
Much of his training had been on-the-job, so when he was laid off last year, he worried that he lacked the credentials to get another job in IT.
"If I put my resume in, it would not be impressive at all," he said. "It was a little depressing, because it was pretty much half my life working for the same company."
Now he's working toward a hospitality degree at Rockland Community College. He's now more confident about his place in the job market, he said.
"I have a few job offers with some people, and I would also want to open up my own place," McGrath said.
About this series
This is the seventh installment in a yearlong Albany Bureau series "Rebuilding New York's Economy," looking at key factors affecting the state's economic recovery and whether it is succeeding. Previous installments looked at New York's farming boom, whether the tax cap is working and how colleges are improving the upstate economy. Upcoming installments will look at whether upstate casinos will help the economy and whether the state's regional economic development councils are succeeding.
Find a job
Job seekers can find a listing of statewide openings at www.newyork.us.jobs. To locate a careeer center near you, visit www.labor.ny.gov/workforcenypartners.