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Dan Saldana will get his engineering degree from the University at Buffalo this May and take it to the Ford Stamping Plant in Hamburg.

Andrea Pisani will move her management information systems skills to the drug company Merck in New Jersey.

Devon Rodgers is still trying to figure out if there is a job for an aerospace engineer in Western New York, or if she has to leave.

None of the 21-year-olds were featured in the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise's "I Am Buffalo Niagara" marketing campaign, but they could easily be poster children for the region's economic future.

After a decade-long national economic expansion created by technological revolution, skilled workers have become fuel for job growth across the country.

Syracuse University, Rochester Institute of Technology, UB and other upstate New York institutions produce thousands of technologically proficient workers every year, but the region has historically failed at keeping most of them.

New York was the nation's biggest net exporting state of science and technology degrees in the 1990s, according to a study released this month by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

That's a fact both business and educational leaders in Western New York want to change. Now they just have to figure out how.

"Our companies just aren't very good at the recruiting business. They've never had to be," said Dan Ryan, director of career planning at the University at Buffalo. "But the fact is, the rest of the country has had an economic expansion and they've now become much more aggressive about coming in here and recruiting our graduates. . . This is something that's crying out to be addressed."

The number of good jobs available for degreed workers in Western New York has jumped in recent years. Industrial companies, such as Praxair in Tonawanda, computer companies, such as Atto Technology in Amherst, and numerous other employers are gobbling up engineers and computer scientists.

"It constantly seems like we're always struggling with 20 to 25 open positions. We can't hire people fast enough. It's not a question of whether we can find people, it's can we find the right people," said Timothy Klein, president of Atto Technology.

Although the local job market has improved for people with science and technology degrees, a negative perception about the market lingers.

Martin Sweeney, a 2000 UB graduate now working as a process engineer for Motorola in Elma, watched many of his classmates leave for jobs in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and other states.

Some graduates leave because they aren't from here and have no ties to the area, and some young people just want to experience other parts of the country, Sweeney said.

But the area also has room to retain more graduates by changing the misperception about the lack of opportunities and by better linking job fillers and job hunters, Sweeney said.

"I think it's more of a perception at this point (about the lack of jobs), because there really are some opportunities here," he said.

Although Praxair and Atto Technology have ambitious recruiting programs, most other local companies are simply getting beaten to the punch by national competitors, Ryan said.

UB held a technology job fair last October that was sparsely attended by local companies, Ryan said. Big Nasdaq names, such as Sun Microsystems and Microsoft, were there in spades trying to pick off the best and the brightest.

"Sun Microsystems is a big company. Everybody knows them and they're very visible here on our campus," Ryan said.

Student wants to find a job here

The same trends are evident at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where almost two of every three graduates typically leave Western New York, said Manny Contomanolis, director of cooperative education and career planning.

"The big, national corporations start as soon as they can everywhere and that's changed the whole hiring process. Because students are getting job offers earlier than they ever have before," Contomanolis said.

Ford offered Saldana a job in November.

Pisani, an RIT senior who had hoped to stay in Rochester, got her offer from Merck in December. By then, she had already been flown to California, Boston twice and New Jersey twice by other companies courting her computer skills.

Pisani, an Ogdensburg native, also has the unique perspective of having worked as a student in RIT's career planning office.

"A lot of the Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo companies are coming in now looking for employees. By the time many of the local companies come to us, most of the students have already been placed," she said.

Researchers at Case Western's Weatherhead School of Management, using data from the National Science Foundation, determined New York exported a net of 34,362 science and technology degrees to other states between 1990 and 1997.

The state's brain drain far exceeded runner up Pennsylvania, which lost a net of 21,878 degrees.

Case Western also studied 30 metropolitan areas it considers peers to Cleveland. Buffalo-Niagara finished 29th in retaining science and technology graduates from 1990 through 1997 and Rochester was 28th, according to the Case Western's study of National Science Foundation data.

Both UB and RIT are trying to establish closer ties with local industry by expanding internship programs and other efforts.

"I'm looking for ways that we can better reach out to companies and better prepare students locally," Ryan said.

UB held a seminar last fall on "recruiting the 21st century worker" and invited almost 2000 companies. About 60 human resource professionals attended.

Rodgers, the aerospace engineer, is anxious to find a local job. She does not want to move.

"My main problem is most of my job searching is done on the Internet. And the sites I use bring up tons of jobs for me in places like Washington, D.C., and North Carolina," said Rodgers, who had an internship at Prestolite in Arcade and is willing to take a process engineering position.

She recently searched one major Web site for engineering positions in New York and came back with nothing but openings being marketed through employment agencies. She has found an opening at Carrier Corp. in Syracuse and plans to apply.

Few entry level jobs

Both Ryan and Contomanolis said the Internet has became a far more important employment tool than many companies realize.

UB, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and InfoTech Niagara, a local technology trade group, are trying to coordinate one standardized Internet database containing all local job openings.

Not everyone is sold on the Internet as a recruiting tool.

"I have found Internet recruiting to be absolutely useless. The people, as a rule, who put their resumes on the Internet are window shoppers," said Patrick Sullivan, human resources director for Sierra Research.

Sierra Research, Veridian Engineering and many other local companies are trying to add more internships as a dedicated feeder system for new employees.

Kevin Burns, a recruiter for Veridian, said his company is confined by the number of entry level positions available.

"One drawback we have is that we can't often hire a lot of new graduates right out of school. Some of our contracts require a certain level of experience," Burns said.

UB has an Engineering Career Institute & Co-operative which has grown rapidly since 1994 and continues looking for industrial partners.

Ford landed Saldana through an internship program. He never interviewed with anyone else.

"The road has always just been heading for me to continue here with Ford," he said.

Dean Millar, an assistant dean for engineering and applied sciences who manages the program, believes stronger ties between local businesses and universities will be key to the region's economic growth.

"It's always productive for all parties to be aware of things that can be mutually beneficial," Millar said. "Buffalo's got to transition itself from some of its old industries into the new economy and there's got to be some forward thinking. Without any question, the future of our economy is going to be tied heavily to technology."

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