Niagara Falls native Bruno C. Albano came home from Dublin earlier this year with a new appreciation for the Western New York work ethic.
J.M. Canty Inc., a Pendleton manufacturer of fiber-optic cameras and lights that are used to peer inside cylinders, sent Albano to Ireland in 1994 to open a manufacturing facility there. He spent more than four years in a Dublin suburb.
"When you compare the work ethics, it's a night-and-day difference," Albano said. "The people here (in Western New York) seem to work at a faster pace, with a greater urgency. It's also a lot easier to get people to stay at work that extra hour when you need them."
Richard L. Ellwood has similar sentiments about his business experiences in Florida. Two years ago, he moved his medical products manufacturing company, Custom Pack Reliability, from Orlando to Niagara Falls after he had trouble filling positions. He said some employees in Florida seemed to embrace a "beach mentality" when it came to work.
"Many times," Ellwood said, "the attitude seemed to be: 'Maybe I'll be there on Monday and Friday. Then again, maybe I won't.' "
Business leaders have praised Western New Yorkers' strong work ethic as one of the region's most powerful inducements for getting companies to stay or expand and for attracting new development. The script has been recited many times in recent years. When International Data Response Corp. announced in 1997 that it would build a "world-class, state-of-the-art call center" in Buffalo, President Michael J. Meagher cited the local work ethic as a key factor. "Work force is everything," said Meagher, whose company employs about 400 people locally.
When General Motors announced in 1996 that the Tonawanda Engine Plant had won production work for the automaker's new "world engine," a decision that meant job security for more than 4,000 people, executives cited the plant's impressive worker performance.
Business leaders in all sorts of industries insist the work ethic issue is not a fuzzy, tough-to-quantify concept -- it's a real phenomenon.
Just as difficult as quantifying the work ethic is trying to pinpoint its origins. And then there are nagging questions about the future: Is our work ethic changing? How dedicated and productive will our work force be in the new millennium? How can schools and industry foster good work habits?
Bruno Albano thinks his father's background sheds some light on why Western New Yorkers work so hard. Dominic Albano's family emigrated from Italy when he was 9 years old. The younger Albano said his father learned at an early age the value of hard work.
"You're talking about people who emigrated to the U.S. in order to better their lives," Albano said. "They were pursuing the American Dream, and this was a powerful motivation to work hard."
Albano's father, now retired, worked as a millwright for about 25 years.
Buffalo started to become an ethnic "melting pot" more than 170 years ago. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, the Irish established Buffalo's first true ethnic neighborhood. Laborers worked on the canal and related industries, loading and unloading ships.
Many were scoopers, shoveling grain from the holds of lake boats that carried wheat and rye. It was grueling work, but the laborers felt lucky to have jobs.
Over the next 125 years, Poles, Germans, Italians, Jews and other ethnic groups settled in Buffalo, establishing strong communities that emphasized the long-term rewards of hard work.
The stability and relatively good wages provided by heavy industry meant low turnover and high productivity. In an earlier era, it wasn't unusual to find scores of factory workers who had been at the same job for 35 or 40 years -- and who saw their children or grandchildren join the company.
Times have changed. Like many communities, Buffalo has struggled with its transition from heavy industry to a more diversified economy. Employee turnover has increased. Corporate downsizings have been commonplace, as have mergers and acquisitions.
"Companies are changing, not the work ethic. Many businesses have gone to the 'temp' mind-set as they try to reduce fixed costs," said Tod Canty, president of J.M. Canty Inc. in Pendleton. "When companies think in these terms, workers start to think in the same terms. They get away from thinking of companies as long-term fixtures in their lives."
Some business leaders and job-training counselors say the work ethic has been changing over the past decade, but not only in Western New York. A poll conducted this year for Shell Oil found that most respondents think society in general is less concerned about the good old-fashioned work ethic than in previous decades. Other studies have indicated that a growing number of American workers are adamant about preserving their leisure and family time.
Irene E. Cuddihy, dean of business at Trocaire College, heads the institution's year-old Workforce Development Center. She's convinced that the proliferation of two-income families requires breadwinners to make sure they get home on time.
"A person doesn't have the flexibility to work 70 or 80 hours a week when the other spouse is also working, and someone has to be home with the kids," said Ms. Cuddihy.
Does she think the work ethic is eroding?
"We hear from some employers that a lot of young people are not willing to work as hard. We hear about punctuality problems and complaints about high turnover. But we also hear many good things about our students," Ms. Cuddihy said.
Veteran business owners and managers interviewed for this article concurred that younger workers are often more likely to exhibit poor work habits, including high absenteeism and a general lack of loyalty toward the corporation.
"The work force in general just isn't the same as it was when I was in college," said Richard L. Verity, who until recently managed 54 Burger King restaurants in the Buffalo area.
"Maybe we're partially to blame as parents. We try to provide stuff for our children that many of us never had as youngsters. The work ethic can be affected when kids know that they can count on Mom and Dad to toss them $5 for gas every so often."
Verity left the region this spring to buy into a Burger King franchise in Oklahoma. But for 14 years, he operated local fast food outlets that employed 2,500 workers and sold $48 million in Whoppers, fries and other menu items last year.
A growing number of local Burger King employees are senior citizens. By this spring, the 54 area outlets employed about 300 elderly workers, including 82-year-old Frank Hemperly. The Town of Tonawanda resident was lauded by Verity as one of the chain's most reliable and enthusiastic part-time workers. In fact, Hemperly kept cooking at the Burger King on Sheridan Drive near Mill Street in Amherst even after suffering four heart attacks.
"I just can't sit around all day," he said. "I love it here. They call me Grandpa."
Verity said a growing number of service-oriented businesses are hiring older workers, with one goal in mind: "In the retail business, we need to get back to delivering 1950s-style service. You know, big smiles and all that."
Lawrence Lefkowitz has spent 14 years working with numerous job training, counseling and placement organizations. Two of the agencies -- Forty Plus and Green Thumb Inc. -- focus on helping older adults to find jobs. He also volunteers with Job Corps Joint Action Community Services, a program that helps people ages 16 to 24 to find work.
"Some of these young people are extremely sharp and highly motivated," said Lefkowitz. "But in general, the older workers that I've encountered seem more focused on providing an hour's work for an hour's pay."
How can schools and job-training agencies help to install stronger work ethics? Dr. Cuddihy, of Trocaire College's Workforce Development Center, said teaching "self-fulfillment" is a tricky task. She thinks it's best accomplished in the field through internships, apprenticeships and other real-world work experiences.
"Role modeling is critical. Supervisors must bear some of the responsibility for helping to foster good working attitudes. We always have to remember that people tend to imitate what they see," she said.
But Dr. Cuddihy and others are convinced that the Western New York labor pool continues to exhibit a better-than-average work ethic. Tod Canty admitted it might sound simplistic, but he thinks the region's weather might deserve some of the credit. Most of the time-consuming projects at his manufacturing company are tackled between November and April. "During the warmer weather, we become more of a 9-to-5 company," he said.
Dr. Cuddihy said she doesn't think the weather theory is all that outlandish.
"After all," she said, "you can't go to the beach in January."