Employers have long struggled to fill manufacturing and technology jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region.
The problem: Not enough skilled workers to fill existing openings, or to entice growing companies to expand here.
The New York Power Authority board of trustees approved $1.2 million in funding to help the Northland Workforce Training Center launch a training program for automotive service technicians.
Now, a newly formed coalition is aiming to boost job growth in those two important – and good-paying – employment sectors.
If successful, the Western New York Manufacturing and Tech Workforce Coalition will bolster the number of trained workers and connect them with good-paying jobs at local employers. It is a pressing issue, with the region’s historically low unemployment rate limiting the number of workers available to hire.
“Everything we do, we want to be driven by business and industry,” said Stephen Tucker, president and CEO of the Northland Workforce Training Center. “Because at the end of the day, they have the jobs and we have to make sure we’re preparing the talent to meet their needs.”
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The coalition consists of 13 partners from education, business groups and training organizations. The initiative will receive $29 million over three years from Empire State Development and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.
Tucker is executive director of the coalition. The University at Buffalo Regional Institute will handle research and data collection, and a new nonprofit, the Center for Regional Strategies, will “connect the dots” between participants.
Tucker also expects to bring about 20 area businesses into the effort. He said those relationships are crucial to ensure the training workers receive lines up with what employers are seeking.
The manufacturing and tech sectors both have pronounced hiring needs, but their respective challenges are different.
The manufacturing sector is facing a severe “retirement cliff,” with 31% of its workers 55 or older and approaching retirement, according to the coalition.
The training center, in conjunction with SUNY Erie Community College, is developing plans to train automotive technicians.
And not enough younger people are getting hired to take their place. Over the last 23 years, more than 1 of every 3 local manufacturing jobs has disappeared, a loss of nearly 29,000 jobs, according to state data. Those trends have made it difficult for younger people to consider manufacturing a viable career option.
But lately, the tide has turned. Over the past five years, the region has gained about 2,400 manufacturing jobs – a nearly 5% increase. It is one of the few segments of the local economy that now has more jobs than it did before the Covid-19 recession.
It is a turnaround Tucker said he sees firsthand, with a high percentage of Northland graduates getting hired immediately after completing their training.
The region’s tech sector is in a different situation. It is vastly undersized, compared to the rest of the country, meaning the region has missed out on one of the biggest sources of job growth across the country. Tech companies say in order to fuel their growth plans, they need more workers to hire.
Laura Quebral, director of the UB Regional Institute, said tech jobs show up in all kinds of industries, including information technology, health care, hospitality and advanced manufacturing. So, the need for trained tech workers is widespread.
“The market shifts,” she said. “When M&T announces all those tech jobs, it changes the market immediately and it changes the need for labor, so you have to track those things pretty closely.”
Karen Utz, Empire State Development’s regional director for Western New York, said the emphasis on tech hiring is especially timely, given that Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse were recently designated a “tech hub” by the federal government. That designation has put the three-region bid in the running for up to $75 million in federal funding to develop the semiconductor industry.
The workforce coalition says there are 10,500 tech job postings and more than 17,000 manufacturing job postings across Western New York. And the average salaries in those sectors are high, about $70,000 for advanced manufacturing and nearly $83,000 for tech, Tucker said. That’s well above the Buffalo Niagara region’s average annual wage of $57,700.
“It just makes sense if we want to strengthen our economy, get people prepared for work, let’s focus on those two sectors first,” he said.
But the competition for talent is fierce.
“Employers are not only competing between themselves within the industry – they’re competing against other industries,” Tucker said. “They’re also competing against the gig economy: the Ubers, the Lyfts, the Door Dashes.”
The coalition’s objective is to support worker training through multiple pipelines. Among the partners:
The Northland Workforce Training Center is adding a training program for “clean tech” jobs, including wind, solar, microgrids, battery storage and electric vehicles. The training center intends to partner with Alfred State College on a one-year certificate program and launch the training in fall 2024.
- plans to add a branch in Buffalo early next year and hire a local leader for its program. Per Scholas has a presence in 23 cities, with a focus on under-represented communities, Quebral said.
Per Scholas first looked at Buffalo eight or nine years ago, she said.
“We didn’t have enough tech jobs when they first looked at Buffalo,” Quebral said. “That growth has risen to the occasion for them.”
- The “Dream It, Do It” program, which introduces young people to modern manufacturing careers, will expand to Erie and Niagara counties.
- A host of training providers are part of the coalition, generating newly trained tech and manufacturing workers through their programs.
Quebral said the coalition’s three-year funding model is essential, keeping the partners’ focus on developing talent.
“We want them to collaborate and say, this is a three-year run, at the very least, with each other,” she said. “So if they’re out of that competition mode, out of fundraising for themselves, and purely in implementation. We want them to stay focused on rolling up their sleeves and working together.”
The multiyear funding approach also gives the coalition time to show results, Utz said.
“We believe in two years, in three years, we going to be able to have really important quantifiable data to show that this approach of organizations working together throughout a geography is going to demonstrate not only folks are getting jobs coming out of training, but they’re getting better jobs,” she said.
The UB Regional Institute is looking at developing a data sharing agreement with the Labor Department to follow trained workers’ progress in jobs, wages and promotions, Quebral said.
“We want to track that more closely and circle back to this coalition and say, how did we do?” she said. “And really take a closer look at the numbers.”
The coalition relies on a combination of public and philanthropic dollars, giving the state a stake in the initiative’s outcomes.
“The continued success of Western New York’s economy is dependent on building a highly trained workforce that is ready to take on the in-demand jobs of the future,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said.
How will the workforce coalition measure success? Tucker said it comes down to the number of new career pathways that open up, and the number of people trained for jobs leading to middle class, sustainable wages.
“We know that if we place somebody who is unemployed or underemployed into a career path where they can make $70,000 or $80,000, there is an exponential return on that investment,” he said.
There’s a larger benefit to the collaboration that the workforce coalition calls for, Quebral said.
“It will make us more competitive,” she said. “Every time we’re trying to recruit a company to this area, we’re trying to win federal dollars, we need to demonstrate that we’re thinking and doing together, successfully. These models are not being done in many places.”