A disconnect between employees and employers is keeping Western New York natives and graduates from finding jobs in the region.
"As a Western New York employer, people often ask me, 'Where are the good jobs at?'," said John Darby, president of the Niagara Transformer Corporation. "I ask them, 'Where are the good employees?' Sometimes they're taken aback."
Darby was on a panel of people discussing the future of the upstate New York workforce Friday as part of Accelerate Upstate, a two-day conference designed to generate ideas about improving upstate's economy and coping with decreasing representation in Albany because of a shrinking population.
Employers and potential employees have differing perceptions of what the work world is like, said Jeremy Cooney, chairman of We Live NY, a group trying to attract and retain young professionals.
Young professionals want work-life balance with the potential for growth, and they want to start their careers in a management role, Cooney said. Employers are looking for a longer and larger commitment than many new hires are willing to give.
"How do we change the perception that there are six-figure jobs waiting for every graduate?" Cooney said.
People who have a hard time finding a job generally aren't equipped with the right skills, said John Twomey, executive director of the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals.
The problem starts in middle and elementary school, but it continues all the way through college, he said. Students aren't being challenged to excel, he said, and are not being directed toward higher-paying career paths.
"The people that are graduating still don't have the skills, the reading and math background, to get jobs in this increasingly technical society," Twomey said. "Other countries are investing and succeeding, and we don't see that we have a problem."
The college system could be improved through collaboration and competition, said Jeff Tredo, director of Western New York colleges for Bryant and Stratton College. Colleges need to compete more against each other and collaborate more with private industry.
"I think we need to realize that competition in post-secondary education is not a bad word," Tredo said.
Businesses like Catholic Health Systems have contacted universities about deficiencies they see in graduates, said Michael Moley, senior vice president of human resources at the nonprofit health provider. He has also spoken with colleges and universities about offering more specialized courses in the medical field.
He said changing higher education and other professional development systems is like turning the Titanic with a rudder, very slow and work-intensive before any results can be seen.
"As employers go out and talk to the development institutes, they're listening, but they're not hearing what the need is," Moley said. "Oftentimes institutions are very slow to react you can't have systems incapable of responding in real time."
There needs to be a change in the dialogue starting in middle school, many of the panelists said.
High school students need more guidance to make the right choices, Tredo said. Students may pick high school classes for their friends or the teacher, when they should be concerned about the career path they are starting.
"We do need to engage in real conversation about paths for the population that is here," he said, "to create skills that lead to meaningful, gainful employment."
He said many Buffalo-area residents do not have the skills to enter college, something which prevents them from earning as much as they could.
Only 25 percent of jobs are available to people with a high school diploma or less, Twomey said.
"There are 2 million unfilled technology jobs, but we don't have the people being grown organically," Darby said. "Our future is innovation. Where is the next Alexander Graham Bell? Where is the next Thomas Edison? Where is the next Steve Jobs?"