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Area wins spot in workforce development program

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said she’s been hearing for years from CEOs about their difficulties finding workers equipped with the skills they’re seeking.

And while many programs exist to train workers and develop skills, none have brought together leadership groups from across the country to share how they address workforce development challenges.

She said that changed with the recent launch of the Communities That Work Partnership, a 15-month program being led by the Aspen Institute Strategies Initiative that is funded by a grant from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. The Buffalo-Niagara Falls area is one of seven regional sites chosen to participate in the program focused on fostering talent and workforce development strategies, and then sharing best practices among the seven sites.

Each site involves a collaboration among three or four organizations with backgrounds in business, education, economic development and, in some cases, government. The Buffalo-Niagara Falls groups involved are the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the Erie County Executive Office and National Grid.

The participating groups won’t receive direct financial support through the program, but they receive technical and strategic assistance from national experts in workforce and economic development, and representatives will attend a pair of national meetings with other participants to share their progress and exchange ideas.

Pritzker said some of the regions involved have chosen to focus on a particular sector, while others, including Buffalo-Niagara Falls, are more broad. The Buffalo-Niagara Falls groups are focused on health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing, energy and tourism. Each site is encouraged to promote training, Pritzker said.

Thirty-seven regional partnerships submitted proposals to be considered for the program. Other regions chosen were the Northwest Georgia, New York City, Phoenix, San Francisco, Houston and Washington, D.C., areas.

“The selection criteria is the partnerships have to have an ability to impact the region and have a record of success in collaboration,” Pritzker said in an interview. “And they have to be realistic about the challenges they face.”

For the Buffalo-Niagara Falls region, Pritzker said that means addressing the city’s underperforming education system so that the population has the opportunity to become a part of the local and regional workforce.

Dennis Elsenbeck, a National Grid regional executive for Western New York, said the company has a history of collaborating with other institutions regarding STEM education and technical education.

He said those types of programs are critical to help the region continue to advance in technical fields.

The Communities That Work Partnership is particularly valuable, he added, because it’s centered on employer-led skill development. That will help ensure that the training is tailored toward potential open jobs or skill sets valued by growing local industries.

Pritzker said success for the program would be defined in a couple ways.

“Did local teams or partnerships learn from each other and come away with new ideas of how to do a better job? And second, can we describe best practices and share them with other communities?” Pritzker said. “I think also it’s important to learn what are the common problems being faced.”

The first retreat that representatives from each site will attend is scheduled for Sept. 14-16. Various other webinars and information gathering sessions are planned for the initiative, with a final report on the efforts being written and distributed within each region in September 2016.