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Local wages grow, but skilled labor stays away

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FILE — Workers make final adjustments on the undercarriage of vehicles at the General Motors plant in Lansing, Mich., March 5, 2018. Average weekly wages for workers in Columbia and Greene counties slowly increased from 2008 to the last quarter of 2017.
July 9, 2018 11:14 pm

Local average weekly wages have slowly grown during the last 10 years, a trend that is both a positive and a negative for businesses, local business leaders said.

columbia county

The average weekly wage in Columbia County in the last quarter of 2017 was $813, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average weekly wage in 2008 for Columbia County workers was $697.

During the 10-year period, wages have rolled up and down, but in the end the overall growth was about 16 percent.

“We appear to be consistently in the middle of the pack compared to other counties,” said Columbia County Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Hunt. “In a way that is both a good thing and a bad thing.”

Wages are important for attracting skilled labor, something businesses in the area desperately need, Hunt said.

“We are still having issues here attracting skilled labor,” Hunt said. “We have had concerns about stagnant wages. We may need to bring our wages up a bit.”

The data does not reflect wages this year, which may or may not be affected by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that Congress passed at the end of last year and was signed into law in January. The law overhauled the tax code and provided several tax cuts, while removing some that caused controversy among New Yorkers.

“It will be interesting to see what the wages will be this year and how they will be affected by the tax cuts,” Hunt said. “That is something we will be looking for. To feel the tax decreases, people will need to see more in their paychecks.”

Kevin Alexander, a Capital Region labor market analyst for the state Department of Labor, noted that Columbia County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, which should help with wage growth.

“This typically would result in higher wage growth as we’ve seen in prior years,” Alexander said.

In 2014 Columbia County saw a significant 5.9 percent boost in average weekly wages and then again in 2015 with a 5.2 percent increase.

Greene county

The average weekly wage in Greene County for the last quarter of 2017 was $794, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2008 the average weekly wage was $688.

Overall, wages fluctuated during the 10-year period, similar to Columbia County, but in the end the change during that time was 15 percent.

Greene County Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Friedman noted that the changes in the average weekly wages reflected ups and downs in the economy overall.

“When the data shows wages were down, that reflected when the economy was not doing well,” Friedman said.

Greene County experienced significant decreases in the average weekly wages in 2013 when there was a 7.1 percent decline, and in 2016, when there was a 5.3 percent decline.

Columbia County experienced decreases in 2011, 2013 and 2016, the same as Greene County.

“During the 10-year period there was pretty good wage growth,” Friedman said. “Our local economy is doing well.”

Friedman agreed with Hunt, saying that wages are an important factor for attracting skilled labor and that attracting such workers is a concern in the area.

“Wage growth is important to have, though payroll is the greatest expense for businesses, it is important for attracting a quality workforce,” Friedman said. “It is a significant concern and finding enough staff can be difficult these days.”

But unemployment is down, Friedman said, and the number of potential workers discouraged from seeking work because they cannot find it has also decreased in June to 359,000 from 378,000 in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“People are employed, so that does serve as a bit of a break,” Friedman said.

Alexander also theorized that the Twin Counties’ wage patterns could be the result of a shift in the type of labor force available.

“Higher paid baby boomers are leaving the labor force, while younger or newer workers are entering at entry level, or lower wages,” Alexander said. “Other analysts point to businesses offering better benefits, or incentive bonuses or packages in lieu of salary increases.”

There could be higher wage growth in the future, Alexander said, as high-paying industries grow statewide.

“Our 2016 to 2026 projections show us statewide some of the largest growing industries include those with higher wages: health care and social assistance and professional and business services,” Alexander said. “With employment growth in those high-paying industries it is possible we could see a corresponding increase in overall wage growth.”