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Manufacturers battle for the hearts, minds of students

Hundreds of middle and high school students poured through the Northland Workforce Training Center on Tuesday, seeing mills, lathes and welding in action.

The Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance, which organized the event, relished showcasing modern manufacturing to a young audience.

Manufacturers are eager to attract younger workers, to support expansion and fill gaps created by an anticipated wave of retirements. The Northland Avenue training center recently opened to help address that need, with programs designed to give people the necessary skills to get hired.

Manufacturing advocates say it's critical to connect with students at the middle and high school levels, before young people narrow their career preferences. The alliance's Manufacturing Day event catered to them, said Peter Coleman, the alliance's executive director. " 'Creators and builders wanted' is kind of our push."

"The middle school's important because oftentimes, we lose young women when they make the transition from middle school to high school, and they'll kind of gravitate away from (science, technology, math and engineering) or skills-based programs," he said. Coleman said a STEM event at the middle school level might attract 50 percent girls, but that percentage might fall to only 15 percent for a STEM program at the high school level.

"Why are we losing them? Good question," Coleman said. "They may not see themselves in that role." To counter that perception, the tours at Northland included three women who work in welding.

The Northland Workforce Training Center is becoming a hub for manufacturing support. (Matt Glynn/Buffalo News)

Students in middle school are often weighing which high school to attend. "If we can entice them now, maybe they will choose a technical school, and then they'll be able to filter right into our programs here at Northland," said Catherine Muth, the alliance's senior manager of Northland industry relations.

Brian Cregg, president of NYMAT Machine Tool Corp. in Fairport, said he hoped the event would get young people thinking about career options. "Maybe they go work for one of my customers, or maybe they come here to school, get some skills and come to me or any of my customers," he said. "Just in general, we want to see the industry get a resurgence of talent coming in."

More than 500 students visited the center on Tuesday. And about 60 companies staffed booths at a trade show, to share their stories with visitors.

Jacob Donovan, a junior at South Park High School, said he was impressed by a 3D printing machining and a robot arm he saw in action. He also came away with souvenirs: a bottle opener produced by one of the machines, a buffalo head created by a 3D printer.

Benjamin Rand, president of Insyte Consulting, said events like the one at Northland can change perceptions.

"So many people are under the misperception that manufacturing is somehow gone," he said. "It's still a huge employer, a huge business in America. Here, it's one in 10 Western New York jobs, and there are many open jobs right now paying $50,000, $60,000, $70,000, if we just had the right people."

The Northland center revitalized a vacant former manufacturing plant, and there is more to come at the complex. Buffalo Manufacturing Works and Insyte Consulting are scheduled to move in next year.

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