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Editorial: The challenge of a strong economy

There is a good news/bad news element to every report that comes out these days concerning employment in Western New York. Unemployment is low, but that is accompanied by a labor shortage. Employers can’t find enough people to fill jobs, particularly ones that require advanced skills. That’s the challenge facing businesses and economic developers, and it threatens the region’s long-term prospects.

“We have a very strong economy, and we’re butting up against a labor shortage,” John Slenker, the state Department of Labor’s regional economist in Buffalo, told The News recently. “We’re running up against full employment.”

“Full employment” does not mean that everyone has a job. It’s a term economists use to describe when unemployment has fallen to the lowest possible level that won’t trigger inflation.

Companies have “help wanted” signs up throughout our region. And most of us know someone who is unemployed or underemployed. The way to close that gap and move more people into better jobs is through workforce development and training. If Western New York doesn’t figure out how to train more people for the jobs of today and tomorrow, our region’s growth will stall and put our city’s hard-won renaissance at risk.

The issue has not gone under the radar.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is behind Employ Buffalo Niagara, a private-sector coalition that works with employers to find out the skills they need to fill their job openings, and looks for ways to match employees with those jobs. The coalition is in its second year of operation and has grown to 96 members. One of the smart things Employ Buffalo Niagara does is to focus on barriers to people from underserved neighborhoods getting better jobs, such as a lack of transportation.

Partnership for the Public Good, a community think tank, released a report 11 months ago that stated more than half the jobs in Erie County are not accessible by public transportation. And the jobs that are reachable beyond the city limits take two to three times as long to get to by public transit, which the report called a “travel time penalty” that disproportionately hurts poor people of color in Buffalo. Until our region figures out that problem, too many potential employees will be left behind.

There are high hopes for the Northland Workforce Training Center, a school that will open on the East Side later this summer. The center is part of the $100 million Northland Avenue Beltline Corridor project, backed by the Buffalo Billion.

The Northland center, which will offer one- and two-year training programs through SUNY Erie Community College and Alfred State, will be a boon to East Side residents, with a focus on manufacturing jobs that pay $30,000 to $50,000. However, the center is at most expected to train 300-400 people a year. That’s a good start, but much more has to be done for Western New York employers to cope with the “gray tsunami” of baby boomers planning to retire from the job market.

There are other job training and apprenticeship programs in the area, as well as curriculums at area colleges that focus on manufacturing and technical training.

Part of the responsibility for moving people into better jobs falls on individuals, who need to take advantage of the training that’s available.

“You can make a very good wage and benefit and do very good work in the industrial work force, Peter Coleman, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance, told The News in November. “But it’s almost become unfashionable for young people to go into this line of work.”

That’s unfortunate, because what’s in fashion doesn’t always pay the bills. Manufacturing may not be the powerhouse it was decades ago, but it remains a staple of the regional economy. Part of the goal will have to be demonstrating that to the young people who would benefit.

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