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COMMENTARY

David Robinson: To grow jobs, Buffalo needs to be cool

David Robinson

Can we get people to move here?

That’s the big question as the Buffalo Niagara region’s job market finally is starting to heat up after decades of disappointment that sent a generation of young Western New Yorkers fleeing for better opportunities elsewhere.

Things have changed for the better over the last few years. Young people are starting to stick around, and there’s a wave of new hiring set to take place in the coming months.

But the pool of local workers is just about tapped out. To grow faster, we need more people to move here.

And for that to happen, the Buffalo Niagara region needs to shed its image as a crumbling Rust Belt city, littered with vacant factories and deteriorating buildings that are relics from our industrial past.

To succeed, Buffalo needs to be cool.

“People don’t move away from somewhere. They move toward opportunity,” said John Slenker, the state Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo.

“You have to make people want to live here,” Slenker said. “If you can’t attract people here from out of the area, you lose.”

The stakes are high. If companies can’t find good workers, they could expand elsewhere, dashing the hopes spawned by the promises of new jobs at Tesla, Athenex, Strategic Financial Solutions and other employers that have announced big hiring plans.

Unemployment already is low, hovering around 5 percent. That means employers looking to hire have their pick from only about 28,000 local workers who are actively looking for a job but can’t find one. That may sound like a lot of people, but the pool of unemployed people has shrunk by 43 percent since 2009. That makes the pickings today much slimmer.

Beyond that, many of the workers who can’t find a job today have limitations that prevent them from being hired at many companies. Some can’t pass a drug test. Others don’t have a car and can only get to jobs that are located on a bus or Metro Rail route. Still others have child care issues, so their job hunt is limited to jobs that pay enough to justify the day care expenses they’d incur. And some workers just don’t have the skills – especially in computers and technology – that are essential in most jobs today.

“We have a crisis in this area, with not enough workers, or workers who don’t have the right skills,” said Heather Gresham, the executive director of the Erie County Workforce Investment Board.

Local training agencies are trying to tailor their programs so they are teaching workers the type of skills that are in demand today, but the public sector can only do so much. Many companies that say they struggle to find workers still aren’t willing to invest their own money to train them, through their own initiatives or apprenticeship programs run through local unions, said Richard Lipsitz Jr., the president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation.

Better worker training will help, but the key to stronger job growth will be attracting new people to the region, building a labor pool that will ease the current hiring struggles employers are facing as the wave of retiring baby boomers shrinks the local labor pool.

For that to happen, people have to want to live here. It starts with good jobs. But it also means making the Buffalo Niagara region a cool place to live. A happening place, where there are places to eat, concerts to attend and other activities that can draw millennials.

The good news is that Buffalo Niagara is starting to see that kind of development happen, from Canalside and Chippewa Street to the Elmwood Village and Hertel Avenue, where new restaurants and nightlife options have opened up.

That’s spawned a big increase in jobs at local bars and restaurants – a trend that sometimes is scoffed at because those jobs tend to be part-time and pay low wages.

But actually, they’re very important in the big picture.

“What that shows is that there has been an improvement in the economy and that people have money to spend there,” Slenker said. “You have to earn money to spend it.”

Beyond that, their growth also is a sign that the region is starting to make progress toward becoming that cool place that economists and development officials say the region needs to be if it hopes to attract the new workers that will be the key to its economic future.

That’s been a focus of state development officials since the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo launched the regional economic development council initiative shortly after taking office. One of the Western New York council’s goals, from the start, has been to stem the exodus of young people, encourage entrepreneurship, and, to borrow a phrase from former Council Co-Chairman Howard Zemsky, make the region cool again for young people.

There already has been some success. The region’s population between the ages of 25 and 44 has grown for six straight years, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by the Cornell University Program on Applied Demographics. The overall population ticked upward during the first part of the decade, although the most recent Census estimates say the decline began again in 2015 and 2016.

Even so, over the last six years, the number of people moving into the region has essentially matched the number of people who were moving out – a big improvement from the days when people left the Buffalo Niagara region at a pace that was on par with the national migration rates, but saw few people move here, resulting in a steady population loss that persisted

The state is backing trendy programs, like the 43North business plan competition, that not only are offering up to $1 million in cash for the most promising startups willing to spend at least a year in Buffalo, but its marketing push has focused heavily on portraying the region as a hip place that is getting hipper. The new private-sector investments to turn old commercial and industrial buildings in Buffalo into trendy, yet pricey, apartments appeals to the urban-based thinking of millennials.

“You have the nationwide phenomenon of people starting to like cities again,” said Sam Magavern, the executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good.

For the Buffalo Niagara region to grow faster, it will have to get people in other parts of the country to start liking it, too.

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