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Another Voice: To accelerate growth, make the workforce stronger

By Sean Sullivan and Thomas Kucharski

Our region continues to evolve with investments in people, infrastructure and businesses. And companies are choosing to operate in Western New York – Bridgestone, Athenex, FedEx and BlackRock, among others, chose to invest in new facilities in Buffalo Niagara last year.

However, as we continue to attract businesses large and small, we need to address challenges and capitalize on opportunities for employers and their employees.

Commissioned by Invest Buffalo Niagara and conducted by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, “Labor Market Assessment 2017,” released this month, tells us the majority of our industries experienced job growth over the past five years, with expanding industries adding over 25,000 jobs since 2009. Between 2009 and 2014, industries also became more specialized, particularly manufacturing and leisure/hospitality.

We are the largest economy in the state outside of the New York City metropolitan area, with over 672,000 jobs, nearly 38,000 firms and a labor force of nearly 735,000. We are an economy poised for growth. The proportion of workers ages 25 to 34 has been on the rise – now nearly on par with national numbers.

Still, workforce development is key to ensuring success. We must address the needs of existing and prospective employers and expand our pool of high-quality talent. Buffalo Niagara’s labor supply is stronger than in 2010, but with an estimated 132,000 individuals underemployed – nearly one in five – we need more training for the hard-to-fill jobs that employers have available today.

Across all regional industries, nearly 138,000 workers could retire over the next 10 years. Emerging and existing labor force participants, both unemployed or underemployed, could fill most of the vacancy created by the next retirement surge. But only if specialized skills are cultivated for target industries.

We all need to contribute. Educators and trainers can support capacity building where training gaps are widest and where we produce a deficit of graduates. Economic developers and marketers can leverage identified strengths to grow industries and attract new companies. Employees can use job projections to train for high-demand, good-paying jobs. Organized labor can inform best practices to strengthen companies and target industries. Elected officials can support policies that leverage strengths and tackle challenges.

By taking a close look at our labor market, we as a region can assess the strength of our economy and connect employers with the high-quality, affordable workforce they need. For companies, the availability of in-demand talent is often the most critical factor when faced with the choice of whether or not to do business in Buffalo Niagara.

As we continue our collective pursuit of a stronger, more prosperous region, nourishing our labor force could make all the difference.

Sean Sullivan is vice provost for academic planning at the University at Buffalo. Thomas Kucharski is president and CEO of Invest Buffalo Niagara.

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