A patchwork economy

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When I was a kid in Zena, most of the dads in the neighborhood put on their mandatory blue dress shirts and ties and drove off each morning to their jobs at the IBM plant in Kingston. They made good money and their children went to college. When IBM left, the job market for those kids and their dads dried up. My first career job was in the Capital Region. I left Ulster County, too.

Ten years ago I moved back and covered economic stories in the area for an Albany radio station. How to restart the local economy was a recurring question. Government leaders worried about the increasing age of the population, the cost of services for them, and the dwindling tax base.

That’s still a concern. But something else is happening.

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Realtors are meeting young people eager to move to the Kingston area after being priced out of their Brooklyn neighborhoods. “I have a friend,” one client told me. “She told me everyone she knows is moving to Kingston. I think it’s time I joined them.”

But there aren’t enough jobs for everyone who wants one.

Tony Marmo, former head of Kingston Hospital, has owned Normann Staffing on Clinton Avenue in Kingston for about five months. Six to ten people a week walk into his office, looking for work. He knows of openings for perhaps half of them. And none of these are high-paying jobs.

“We need a 900-pound gorilla of a company to come in and set up shop here,” Marmo said. “We’ve got some tech start-ups in the area that are having a modicum of success. But no one’s making huge home runs. There aren’t a lot of 50-thousand-dollar-a-year jobs out there. Most of the openings we have, for temp or permanent workers, pay $11 to $13 an hour. I don’t know if you can make it on that.”

Marmo said health care is still the biggest employer in the area, from hospitals to doctor’s offices to support staff. “There are also 15 to 20 manufacturing companies,” he added, “companies that most people don’t know are here. If they get a big government contract, they hire.”

But Marmo said companies just don’t hire before they’ve got the contracts. Meanwhile, a skilled labor force is waiting. “The qualified workers are here, but many of them are underemployed or sitting on the sidelines.”

MaryKate Burnell, 25, has extensive experience as a writer and expertise in social networking. She’s also my daughter. She wants a career job but realizes she will probably have to move away to find one. She’s still here, for now, but has had to cobble together various jobs to make a barely living wage. She works remotely as a virtual assistant for a few private clients.  She also works in a cafe and sings in a band.

Marmo said remote jobs and freelance workers are a growing sector of the local economy. The companies may not be here, but their workforce can be anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

“My wife works from home for United Healthcare,” he said. “They rent cubicle space for some of their workers, and it’s cheaper for them when they work at home.”

It’s a strange, patchwork economy, one with a large section of loosely stitched freelancers, remote employees, and people juggling two or three low-paying jobs. Many of them are just getting by while hoping for a full-time job with benefits.

 

Shunning traps

John Mower, on the other hand, has worked steadily most of his life while trying to avoid an office job. I chatted with him at the flea market that is held on his in-town property every weekend in Woodstock (except in winter.) It’s just one of the ways he makes a living. Mower, a former Woodstock town supervisor, is also an accountant and a broker.

“I guess it started when I was eight or nine years old,” said Mower. “I was working for my great-uncle Fred at Mower’s Market, dusting the shelves. I wasn’t doing a very good job. I turned around and he was standing behind me. You don’t really want to do this, do you? he asked me. And so the family joke is that I got fired by great-uncle Fred.”

Though Mower may not have liked regimented jobs, he has never been afraid of work. He had a paper route, shoveled snow and as a boy sold beans he picked out of the family garden. When his dad died his senior year in high school, he took over his cigarette vending route.

“I had to support the family,” Mower said, “but it also spoiled me for any kind of office job. I could go out early, work my butt off, and be done and playing golf in the afternoon.”

Mower kept the route for 23 years, marrying and supporting a growing family. While he worked, he chipped away at getting his degree in accounting. After he sold the vending route, he served two terms as Woodstock supervisor, and then went to work full time for an accounting firm.

It was just what he had expected. “It was everything I knew I didn’t like,” he said. “I was trapped from 7:30 until 4 Monday through Friday. I lasted a year and a half. It just wasn’t for me.”

Mower estimates he’s worked a grand total of ten years at what he calls “real jobs” — nine-to-five work with benefits. He far prefers being his own boss. And he enjoys dealing with the people who rent space at the Mower’s Saturday Flea Market.

“For 37 years, it’s been a field-full of by-choice entrepreneurs.” He said. “We all know it’s not easy. You have to be disciplined about putting money away. Vacations are difficult. But we do what we like to do, and we’re our own bosses. It’s worth it.”

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