By David Robinson
News Business Columnist
When Grace Tate thinks about the Buffalo Billion, she worries that something as basic as a bus route could keep poorer residents from sharing in the spoils.
As the state’s keystone economic development initiative unfolds – training workers in new skills and bringing thousands of promised new jobs to the Buffalo Niagara region – Tate, a vice president at the Buffalo Urban League, fears that low-income workers who don’t have cars might be shut out of some of these new jobs if they are created far from the urban core, in locations not served by public transportation.
That’s been happening for decades, as factory and service jobs have shifted to the suburbs, where having a car is a requirement for having a job.
If it keeps happening with the Buffalo Billion – and state officials have been promising that making the new jobs accessible is one of their priorities – then Tate fears the benefits of the state’s largess will largely pass by the region’s poorest neighborhoods, where many workers depend on buses and their feet to get to work.
“Once we get individuals qualified for jobs, we can’t get the candidates there,” Tate said.
To be sure, the SolarCity plant on South Park Avenue – and its 1,460 promised jobs – will be accessible. So are IBM’s software development jobs in the Key Center and those at other Buffalo Billion initiatives such as the Buffalo Manufacturing Works testing and research facility and the Albany Molecular Research drug development site on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. But SolarCity’s suppliers, which could provide another pledged 1,440 jobs, could be scattered throughout the region, as could other spin-off jobs.
“Transportation is a big issue,” Tate said.
And it’s the poorest neighborhoods that need the jobs the most. About one of every five African-Americans who wants a job can’t find one, said Henry Louis Taylor, a University at Buffalo professor and the founding director of its Center for Urban Studies.
“We’re not really talking about pockets of unemployment,” he said. “We’re talking about huge holes where there is unemployment.”
The biggest hole is among workers who never finished high school. Unemployment among Buffalo residents between the ages of 25 and 64 who lack a high school diploma is 22 percent – four times the 5.3 percent jobless rate across the entire Buffalo Niagara region, said Gary Keith, the regional economist for M&T Bank in Buffalo. In contrast, city residents with a four-year college degree have an unemployment rate of just 4.6 percent.
Because jobs for workers without a high school diploma or its equivalent are so much harder to find these days, many of those residents have simply given up the job hunt. Only four of every nine city residents without a high school diploma are participating in the local work force, Keith said. In contrast, better than four of every five city residents with a four-year degree is part of the workforce.
“You can’t have an opportunity if you do not participate,” Keith said. “If you don’t have that entry-level skill set, you’re going to be pretty much doomed to not participate.”
That’s because many of today’s jobs, especially in manufacturing, are more sophisticated and demanding than the factory jobs of our fathers.
“The nature of work is going through an enormous shift,” said Richard Deitz, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Buffalo.
“The skill requirements of jobs are increasing,” especially as mid-skill jobs have shifted to cheaper overseas markets during the past two decades. “Workers can either move up the ladder ... or they can fall down into lower-skill jobs.”
Area officials are moving to revamp the region’s training programs, hoping to focus on teaching workers the skills that actually are in demand by employers – a step that requires closer communications between businesses and local colleges and training centers.
“In the future, it’s about knowing how to learn and your ability to learn new tasks,” said Taylor, who thinks existing training programs have lost touch with what employers need.
“They don’t produce folks for specific jobs that are available, so that when they’re finished there’s a job waiting for them,” he said.
Instead, workers who have completed training programs often wind up frustrated because they find they aren’t much more employable than they were before, Taylor said.
And when they do land an entry-level job, it too often proves to be a dead end, with little room for advancement.
“In the African-American and Latino community, people realize that getting into a place doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to move up,” said Taylor, who urged employers to create “internal ladders” to help minority workers advance beyond entry-level jobs.
“I want to measure the Buffalo Billion based on the impact it is having on the neighborhoods right here,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, who late last month organized a forum on the potential impact of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s economic development program.
“When we look back on the Buffalo Billion 10 years from now, we should measure it by its impact on poverty and unemployment in Buffalo,” he said.