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Bob Duffy: Industry councils yield actionable insight

As part of Greater Rochester Chamber’s focus to enhance and strengthen our advocacy capabilities for our membership, we began a series of meetings early this year with the leaders of a multitude of businesses and organizations in the Rochester region. These meetings were organized by our membership director, Kevin Donahue, and were labeled as industry councils that covered the areas of manufacturing; not-for-profit and family support services; health care; construction and contractors; professional services; restaurant, retail, hospitality and entertainment; and professional services in the financial sector.


These meetings brought together an impressive group of leaders in these diverse sectors to discuss their challenges, opportunities, and impediments to success. The conversations were robust, and the candor was outstanding. This level of discussion and information is so critical for us to be able to fully understand and then effectively support these Chamber members.


Some feedback was consistent across all the sectors in terms of commonalities and current challenges. To no one's surprise, they include the tax and regulatory environment, crime and public safety, unfunded mandates, and preparing for the future.


In the manufacturing sector, we listened to consistent feedback about the cost of power, breakdowns in the supply chain, the challenge of not only recruiting but retaining talent, the availability of capital and grants, along with the need for more positive branding for our region.


The labor shortage consists of not only available talent, but talent that will show up to work on a routine basis and be willing to work on site in the manufacturing sector. During our post-COVID period, flexible work schedules and environments are preferred over the routine eight-hour shifts on site every day, so manufacturing has often found itself at a disadvantage when competing for talent with other sectors.


In our non-profit and family support services meeting, there was a consistent message that leadership in Albany is pushing for higher wages and more benefits for employees, while the reimbursement rates and other funding sources have remained stagnant. This, along with the consistent challenge of the availability of labor, has challenged our not-for-profit sector across almost all organizations. The regulatory environment must be changed to support these agencies, who provide vital services to our most challenged and needy citizens.


The construction and contractors’ meeting focused again on the need for talent, given that many of their skilled trade workers are aging out of the workforce and there are nowhere near enough replacements to fill these employment gaps in in the near and distant future. Construction leaders argued that if students chose a career in the trades, they would most likely surpass the income of many college graduates without incurring any college debt. In today's world, it seems like trades are not as attractive of a choice as they once were, though they are critical to our economic growth going forward. These leaders ask for more alignment in terms of workforce development and career marketing services across our region and the state. When it comes to growing our economy and the future availability of skilled construction workers to build and expand our businesses and our homes, we may soon be at a crisis point if we cannot address this critical labor shortage.


Our professional services group focused on the availability of qualified talent, crime and downtown safety, and a workforce that requires more preparation in life skills before entering these organizations. These leaders applaud the Chamber’s Greater ROC Remote program and any effort that is bringing people and businesses to our region, which in turn helps broaden their customer base. They indicated that the workforce development pipeline is not aligned very well and provides very unclear results in turning workforce training into a long-term career.


Our leaders in our restaurant, retail, and hospitality forum referenced the impact of crime and public safety when it comes to getting people back downtown and into restaurants and breweries in the post-COVID era. Many of these organizations have reduced their hours and days open due to staffing and customer shortages and indicated that many of the mandated HR and legislative policies and the cost of doing business in in New York State are having a severe impact on their success. Several also felt that issues such as parking restrictions and enforcement often discourage customers from frequenting their establishments.


While crime and safety are real issues, many felt perception was an even greater issue. That perception fuels fears that prevent people from coming to their establishments, especially if they're located downtown or elsewhere in the city. Without those customers coming in, these businesses will suffer, and many have already closed. The restaurant owners applauded large events like the Jazz Festival and ROC Holiday Village and encouraged the city and our region to keep hosting these events. The more people we can bring downtown, the greater positive impact it will have on their respective businesses.


The leaders of our healthcare organizations focused on stagnant reimbursement rates, which have only increased 1% in the last 14 years, unfunded mandates, including minimum wage, and the challenges in finding and retaining talent. These leaders understand the issues that emanated from COVID, but so many of the policies that have been enacted during and since that time are causing these organizations to become fiscally insolvent. Often, legislation is focused on the employees and customers, without understanding the challenges that the management of these organizations are facing.

Moves to increase wages and staffing ratios without a commensurate increase in funding is a recipe for financial disaster.


The leaders in our financial professional services again focused on locating talent and aired their frustration with the preparation of young talent leaving our colleges, universities, and high schools for work in this area. They focused on the need for much more mentoring and education, as well as the need to overcome the negative perceptions of crime and public safety, which also impacts their customer base and success.


We heard about the need for more direct flights, especially to New York City. Rochester business leaders could connect with counterparts, funders, and customers more easily with additional flights daily to JFK or LaGuardia. One CEO felt, if marketed correctly, these flights could be filled on a daily basis.


From our perspective, these sessions were invaluable. They were educational and impactful, and provided us with a clear picture as to where we need to spend our time advocating for and supporting critically important businesses that mean so much to our regional economy. There are many things to be proud of, but it is abundantly clear that we have work to do.


We live in a world where new laws or legislation are often announced before the impact on an entire profession or organization is fully grasped. One suggestion would be to focus on a goal of strong policies versus legislating based on ideology. We currently have too much on the ideological front that may sound good at a press conference or help with one's reelection but is having a devastating effect on industry. What may seem like a short-term victory for some will become a long-term disaster for business if not corrected.


So many voices today criticize business as being bad, when in fact business provides a majority of the jobs and economic strength of our region, state, and country. There is so much damage being done to the success of these organizations through rules and legislation that are not fully vetted or thought through, but rather are done to gain the support of a certain advocacy group. I would suggest that every decision maker and government leader do what we have done over the last several weeks, which is to sit and listen to those who are leading these organizations and providing these outstanding and much needed services to our citizens. Listen to their challenges and their needs before announcing legislation that will impact these professions.


Campaigning is the easy part in politics. Governing is much more difficult. The loudest voices are driving the types of legislation and unfunded mandates that are harming our businesses or driving them out of New York State. We can't afford to let either happen. Our Chamber team is meeting and mapping out a structured plan to respond to these issues, and to hopefully address and advocate for changes. Any state and local elected official that champions one of these areas would be creating a wonderful benefit for the future of Rochester. There was not one issue raised that could not be addressed through thoughtful debate and leadership.


I recently attended a board meeting of the New York State Business Council and listened intently to a presentation on how damaging governing by ideology has been for businesses across the state. One of the presenters at this meeting discussed his conversation with an influential state legislator. As he made his case about the negative impact that this person's legislation would have on businesses, he was met with a reaction of one that did not care about the outcome. It was obviously more about promoting the ideology and satisfying a small number of advocates versus listening to the cross section of organizations across our state.


Whether it is in business, criminal justice reform, or any area of change in our state, we all will gladly accept growth and progress. We would like to be involved with the discussions leading up to that change to ensure that all voices are truly heard. It is clear right now that all voices are not being heard, only the loudest ones. 2023 is a perfect time to rectify that, and to get back on course for a stronger, more successful New York State from downstate to upstate and everywhere in between. Let's start here and see how it works.


This column originally appeared in the Rochester Business Journal on March 17, 2023.


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