With nearly one of every three local factory jobs expected to come open within the next seven years, local development officials on Wednesday took a major step toward laying the groundwork toward ensuring that local workers will be able to fill those jobs when they open up.
In the second major project to be part of the “Buffalo Billion” economic development pledge, the Western New York Economic Development Council endorsed a plan to create a workforce training center that will help teach local workers the skills needed in today’s more-advanced factory work.
The center is expected to cost at least $10 million to build, although Howard Zemsky, the development council’s co-chairman, said both its size and location have yet to be determined. A news release from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office said the center would be located in Buffalo.
Zemsky said he hopes the center will open sometime next year. “We’re in a hurry. We’re all in a hurry,” he said.
The center is part of the council’s focus on bringing the region’s job training programs in closer alignment with the skills that are expected to be needed by local employers, especially manufacturers, in the coming years. After more than three decades of steep job losses at local factories and a de-emphasis by high schools on vocational training, manufacturers routinely say they struggle to find workers to fill a variety of good-paying positions, from machinists and mechanics to electricians and welders.
“We have a shortage of skilled manufacturing workers in Western New York,” said Chris Sansone, the Keller Technology executive who is president of the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance.
About 17,000 manufacturing jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region are expected to come open by 2020, mostly due to retirements, even after assuming that factory employment locally will shrink by about 6 percent over the next seven years, Sansone said. About 30 percent of those openings are expected to be in the advanced manufacturing jobs that the council is targeting, with demand forecast to be especially strong for machinists, with 2,900 projected job openings by 2020.
“We’ve reached a critical juncture,” Sansone said. “A manufacturing job posting 20 years ago might have attracted 10 candidates. Today, we’re lucky to get one qualified candidate.”
The training center is one part of the council’s broader efforts to improve the skills of the local workforce. The state Labor Department is expected to hire a “skills broker” in the near future who will help match the skills of local workers with available training programs and the skills required to fill the jobs available at the region’s manufacturers, State Labor Commissioner Peter Rivera said.
The council expects to launch a pilot program in June that would train 50 workers in skills identified by local manufacturers, who then would have the first opportunity to hire them once their training is completed. Six local manufacturers, who council officials declined to identify, will participate in the pilot program.
And the council also is working on the creation of an innovation center that would help small- and medium-sized manufacturers with finding ways to improve their productivity and production processes – a sometimes costly process that puts smaller factories at a disadvantage to bigger competitors with deeper pockets, said Christina Orsi, Empire State Development’s regional director in Buffalo.
It also hopes to develop “quick hit” training programs that could allow workers to upgrade their skills in targeted areas by attending programs that could be completed in less than six months.
“The communities that can solve these issues will be more successful in creating an atmosphere where manufacturers can grow, but also be in a better position to attract new manufacturers,” Zemsky said. “We’re going to give them the tools to grow.”
Worker training is one of the council’s six targeted sectors in deploying the Buffalo Billion that Cuomo has pledged to support economic development initiatives in the region over the next five to 10 years through a variety of existing state programs and some new ones.
With 46 percent of the region’s factory jobs – almost one of every two positions – vanishing since 1990, young people have been discouraged from pursuing careers in manufacturing because of the industry’s persistent job cuts. School curriculums in middle school and high school also have shifted, vastly scaling back vocational training programs as the state has made its Regents requirements more rigorous.
Even though there are modest pockets of demand for workers with specific manufacturing skills, such as machinists, mechanics, electricians, welders, electro-mechanical technicians and quality assurance workers, the long decline in manufacturing over the last four decades has left school guidance counselors and parents reluctant to steer their children into careers in factory work.
“Private industry is craving folks with these skills,” Zemsky said. “It’s not necessarily ingrained in the culture that these are the types of jobs that we want to pursue.”