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Local businesses identify recruiting, keeping workers as top concern

Help wanted — lots of it.

Local businesses surveyed by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership said their top concern is difficulty finding or keeping qualified talent.

Employers are scrambling to fill jobs as the local unemployment rate has fallen below the 4 percent rate for just the second time in the past 28 years. The competition for workers is on top of another concern that manufacturers in particular are bracing for: a wave of retirements that will create vacancies.

The changed labor picture is forcing employers to be more creative and aggressive in their recruiting, including signing bonuses and referral bonuses. "Our members who are in the headhunting business say business is very robust," said Dottie Gallagher, the Partnership's president and CEO.

The labor shortage is a growing concern among businesses. When the Partnership surveyed its members last year, it ranked third on the list of worries.

The region's wages, stagnant for so long, might finally be on the upswing. The latest local data, from the first quarter, showed the average weekly wage rose at an annualized pace of 5.2 percent.

Other responses are taking shape. The Northland Workforce Training Center has opened on the East Side, aiming to train people in the skills employers want in new hires. The Partnership supports an industry-led coalition called Employ Buffalo Niagara, designed to match employers with workforce agencies trying to place people in jobs.

Fifty percent of Partnership members who responded to the group's survey called workforce development a "pain point" right now, up 12 percentage points from a year ago. If that pain can't be cured, there's a larger concern for companies considering expanding here, she said.

"The bottom line is, if they can't fill the jobs here, the jobs will go elsewhere," Gallagher said.

The tight job market isn't just a Buffalo Niagara concern, though. The national jobless rate also is below 4 percent.

At the same time, the city is still struggling with poverty, and the region has a below-average workforce participation rate, Gallagher said. Individuals who are out of the workforce, or who are working in low-wage jobs, could become part of the solution if they get trained in the right skills, she said.

But attracting more people to the region will also have to be part of the answer, in light of impending retirements and the local population's average age, Gallagher said. "We just are not going to do this based on the people living here right now."

Some other survey results:

•61 percent of respondents said they planned to add new employees in 2019, down from 66 percent a year ago.

•81 percent of of the business executives responding said they had a very favorable or favorable perception of the region's business climate, virtually the same as last year. But 77 percent said they felt the state's business climate has either not changed or is becoming less business-friendly, up 16 percentage points.

The Partnership uses its annual "member pulse report" to help shape the advocacy agenda it releases each year, which spells out local employers' local, state and federal policy priorities. The group in mid-September distributed the survey to 1,000 member companies and had a response rate of 10 percent, said Grant Loomis, a Partnership spokesman.

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