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Another Voice: College isn’t the only path for tomorrow’s workers

By Philip Wilcox

Hats off to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership for their proactive and aggressive new efforts to connect workers with available jobs. I’m hoping that parents and schools examine their roles in this critical effort.

Almost 20 years ago, a local labor not-for-profit was involved in focused but limited economic development issues. We led the charge in an early effort to re-license the Niagara Power Project. With support from a local foundation, we formed the WNY Relicensing Consensus Committee, and helped deliver training on how to properly participate in the federal license process.

The results were extraordinary and the settlement agreements that began in 2006 will be invested in local economic and environmental benefits until 2056. The Erie Canal Development Corp. was formed to properly invest a portion of those settlements — with major progress toward what is helping catapult downtown Buffalo into a magnificent destination.

The other work we engaged in that was not as productive was to work with then Buffalo Schools Superintendent Marion Canedo, who invited us to collaborate with the Superintendents Advisory Council on Occupational Education. Local building trades members volunteered their trainers to advise vocational curriculum developers on subjects and lessons to focus on to advance graduates successfully into entry level building trades apprenticeships.

For whatever the reason, efforts were not embraced to their fullest potential. One thing did become crystal clear: By and large, parents looked down their noses at these types of jobs for their children, with college the only consensus path forward to success.

It should be noted that countries like Germany have some of their largest employers, like Siemens and Mercedes, actively invested in school career pathways. By offering skilled evaluations, they help each student assess their propensities and aptitudes for a host of jobs based on inherent talents and interests.

Tours are offered at a young age into plants and facilities to see firsthand what the work is like and understand the paycheck for viable careers that are commensurate or even better than those college grads achieve.

These companies understand that to maintain a reputation for outstanding manufacturing, matching coursework to jobs must come early to harvest a steady supply of talented new employees.

Parents do their kids no favors by mandating college as the only pathway to success. Many would be better served by alternative paths to viable careers.

Community colleges like Niagara County Community College and Erie Community College are increasingly advancing "certificate programs" custom tailored by employers for employers, but major changes should occur at the grammar school and high school levels for this to be even more effective and in the best interest of our youth.

Not long ago, our major angst was our kids moving away to find employment. We can now give them more choice to stay local. A region that gets this right will also be a magnet for more economic growth.

Philip Wilcox is business representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 97, in Pendleton.

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