Editor’s Note: This story was written by Elizabeth Morris for Ithaconomy, an Ithaca College student publication and is republished with their permission.

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ITHACA, NY – For TCAT bus operators, December brings with it a relief from overtime, mandated work days and requirements to work during their time off. While TCAT needs 82 bus operators to be fully staffed and most efficient, they currently only have 73. These work strains had became a common theme for a TCAT employee over the past year.

“We’ve just had difficulty with recruiting qualified candidates,” said Patty Poist, TCAT communications and marketing manager. “It’s a job skill that’s very much in demand  locally, regionally and nationwide.”

TCAT recently hired seven professional transit contract drivers from National Tour for an estimated three months in order to fill gaps in their workforce due to a shortage of bus operators. Because of the skill the contract bus operators have, it only takes a week to train them, in comparison to the several weeks it does for most local labor, said Poist.

TCAT received approximately 100 applications in response to ramping up their recruitment efforts. But it still takes time to process these applicants, train them and help them get the appropriate licensing.

“Then everybody goes through a training session that lasts several weeks,” Poist said . “So you know, we have the contract workers for at least three months, and it’ll take that amount of time to really ramp up.”

Julia Mattick, executive director for the Tompkins County Workforce Investment Board, said the goal of the board is to create opportunities for individuals to enter career pathways in the occupations in demand through a “business-led, demand-responsive workforce development system that’s intended to meet businesses’ needs.”

The board works with mainly the private sector to supply them with trained individuals for those fields. They are also a part of a statewide job bank that allows them to quickly help the unemployed into the open positions.

While the low unemployment rate of 3.9 percent in Ithaca means that most people looking to work have jobs, it also has had a negative impact on businesses. They’re unable to find local employment that fits their job skill needs.

“Employers are — they’re desperate — you know,” said Mattick. “They’re struggling to fill their positions.”

The high-tech industry, manufacturing and healthcare are the three biggest industries struggling to find employees in the area. Only a few select sectors are not suffering from the lack of available talent, said Mattick.

“In the current environment, with an unemployment rate that is so low, not many [positions are easy to fill] because there’s just not a large enough pool of available talent in any field,” Mattick said . “I will say that where we tend to have an overabundance of people is in what I would call administrative support. So, Cornell University, when they have open administrative positions, they tend to have a fair number of applicants.”

In order to accommodate for this lack of skill, many employers, like TCAT, are hiring from outside of Tompkins County.

“Obviously businesses are recruiting from outside of Tompkins County, but the unemployment rate is going down for everyone,” Mattick said. “So it’s getting harder and harder to fill those positions.”

But Mattick pointed out there are also difficulties with recruiting people to work in Tompkins County.

“Recruiting folks to upstate New York is not what I’d say is easy,” Mattick said. “It’s cold, it snows, we’re not close to a major city.”

This is also a factor for students in Ithaca deciding where to go after graduation. Mattick said many leave for bigger cities like Boston, and often it’s because of a perception that there are no opportunities available — a perception Mattick is looking to change.

Many of the employers in Ithaca are struggling to find qualified local labor, but those that are able to find the labor often find employees not up to their standards. Phyllisa DeSarno, director for economic development in the City of Ithaca, said small businesses in downtown Ithaca’s biggest problems are their employees.

“I hear a lot about the work ethic, that that’s a real problem, that people will be hired, and then they don’t show,” DeSarno said. “And they’ll call up and they’ll say they’re sick or they [have] a problem with childcare.”

TCAT thinks there may be another reason for a low workforce shortage – the high cost of living in Ithaca, said Poist.

“It’s becoming more and more expensive to live here, or it is expensive to live here,” Poist said. “So as it is, a lot of our bus operators have to commute from outside.”

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.