While Oneonta manufacturers want more workers, city lacks housing for them

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Local leaders and manufacturers want to expand the workforce in Oneonta, but a lack of workforce housing poses barriers. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—Manufacturers in New York want to compete with companies overseas and localize production. They’re limited, however, by hiring challenges and a lack of workforce housing.

Chad Hall started his career in manufacturing at a job that didn’t require a college degree. He has since earned a degree in engineering, and worked his way up to oversee sales operations at IOXUS. The Oneonta-based technology company makes high-capacity batteries that can store renewable energy used in eco-friendly projects, like wind turbines and hybrid buses.

Hall said it is an industry where people can make a good living. Positions for those with and without degrees are readily available at IOXUS.

But finding people interested in these roles has been a challenge. There have been five positions open at IOXUS for more than a year.

“I don’t think people see manufacturing as sort of the ‘sexy’ place to be,” Hall said. “But at the end of the day, everything has to get made somewhere, and there can be really good careers paid in manufacturing.”

More workers are needed, but can the city fit them?

Earlier this year, Oneonta’s new mayor, Mark Drnek, told WZOZ he wanted to add a thousand new workers to the city’s population “as soon as possible.”

That goal could benefit manufacturers. But the city’s lack of workforce housing has limited the extent to which IOXUS and other businesses can successfully hire workers.

Hall said employees in corporate roles at the company had trouble finding homes nearby upon first arriving.

“None of them ended up moving into Oneonta. They moved to surrounding areas, because there was housing available,” Hall said. “A lot of the money that we brought here could have been spent even more locally if we could have had housing.”

Sean Lewis had trouble finding a house in the City of Oneonta, too. He moved back to the area from the Midwest earlier this year, to take the job as president of the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce.

Lewis instead found a house in the Town of Oneonta. But he added, a lack of workforce housing is felt throughout the entire county.

“There’s a lot of housing devoted to the baseball families in the summertime. There’s housing devoted to the college students during the school year,” Lewis said. “Other than that, there’s not a whole lot of housing options out there.”

The Lofts on Dietz, a 64-apartment, mixed-used complex with affordable housing, lofts and a Hartwick College food sciences facility, is expected to open later this year in downtown Oneonta. On Main Street, Springbrook* is expected to renovate the Ford Block building for a couple dozen apartments.

It’s unclear, however, if those projects will keep up with the demand for workforce housing, especially as companies seek to expand New York’s manufacturing capacity.

Bringing the supply-chain upstate

Hall and other industry leaders say expanding the state’s manufacturing presence also requires investing in computer chip research and production, in part to reduce supply-chain issues.

IOXUS’s products rely on computer chips often made in other countries. Just as global shipping delays have halted production for everything from cars to iPhones, they have made it harder for the company to fill orders.

Hall said parts that used to take about a month to ship from China to Oneonta, now take close to five months, and are often held for weeks at ports and rail yards waiting to be shipped.

“At the end of the day, that really dramatically changes how we can react,” Hall said. “A customer calls up and wants something, we now have lead times that we haven’t had before.”

Shipping costs, too, have skyrocketed, Hall said.

He and other industry leaders spoke about the need for local chip production during a panel in Oneonta last month, hosted by Hudson Valley Congressman Antonio Delgado (D-19).

The Democrat, whose district includes Otsego and Delaware counties, has backed the America Competes Act, aimed at boosting U.S. production on a global stage. The legislation includes a provision that would invest $52 billion into domestic chip production and research.

It passed in the House of Representatives earlier last month.

“We have the capacity now that can have a profound effect on our economy, that can have a profound effect on American jobs and American manufacturing,” Delgado said. “But we collectively have to be in a position where we’re willing to push our resources in that direction.”

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate are expected to negotiate the bill soon.

*Springbrook is a WSKG underwriter.