Matt Glynn's recent article on regional manufacturing captured well the deficiency in skilled workers in Buffalo Niagara. Even as the state, through the regional councils, works to retain and attract manufacturing, the lack of machinists, welders, pipe fitters, etc., is quickly becoming an impediment.
What happened? For decades we've touted our skilled workforce as an asset, highlighting generations of work ethic and craftsmanship leading to a strong manufacturing base. How did we end up short?
First, that reliable, skilled workforce is aging. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership meets with dozens of manufacturers each year and, without fail, what keeps them up at night is that no pipeline for skilled workers exists. One manufacturer told us that the "25 Years with the Company" plaque hanging in his lobby represents 30 percent of his workforce. This generation of workers not only represents manpower, but expertise — both of which must be replenished for sustainability and growth.
Second, there is a small window in which to interest prospective workers in manufacturing trades. In general, it's frowned upon to steer students into careers that don't involve college. Once people are past high school, though, it's a challenge to reach them with information on career opportunities locally. It's why we lobbied for state funding for the "Dream It Do It" program, a private sector-driven effort that aims to recruit the next generation of talent by engaging students about the opportunities that exist in advanced manufacturing.
Immediately, though, we face a paradox: Manufacturers can't find skilled workers, yet there is a growing population of unemployed and underemployed people. Manufacturers are clamoring for workers, some offering to pay up to $20 per hour plus training for people who will simply show up for work, act professionally and work hard. One manufacturer told us that he would pay for college for an effective employee who committed to stay on with his company.
But let's face it — no young person today wants to work in a dusty, grimy, machine shop atmosphere like his or her parents and grandparents did. Here's where a communication gap exists: Manufacturing today is not what it was 50 years ago. In fact, you could probably compare the cleanliness of some of the manufacturing floors we've visited with that of your family's kitchen.
People just don't know these jobs are available and pay well! A decade ago our region had a shortage of nurses. Television ads ran, new degree programs were created and people were recruited. It worked. We're no longer talking about a nursing shortage. Today the challenge is in manufacturing talent. There are strong local technical programs that lead to manufacturing jobs. We must get more people into them.?
Nadine Powell is staff director of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership Manufacturers' Council.