The Buffalo Niagara region needs to focus on technology and innovation in order to successfully compete for workers, said René F. Jones, M&T Bank Corp.'s chairman and chief executive officer.
Jones said the region has fared better than most other mid-sized regions economically, but it will take a "sustained, collaborative effort" to grow the area's labor force and stay relevant in technology.
"One thing's for sure, if we're going to be able to sustain the strong [economic] growth, we can't do that without growing a talented workforce," Jones said Thursday at the Prospectus Premiere, held at Salvatore's Italian Gardens.
Prospectus, a business forecast publication, will be published in Sunday's Buffalo News.
Making the region competitive for workers — at a time when unemployment is low — depends on three factors, he said: giving workers already here a reason to stay, attracting talented new workers to the region and providing "the disadvantaged members of our community with the opportunity to fully participate."
Technology will be essential to those efforts, he said.
Jones said demand for tech workers is soaring nationally. But, he noted, the Brookings Institution ranked Buffalo 97th among metro areas for tech job growth, and the institution said the region lost tech jobs between 2010 and 2015, during a boom time in that sector. Meanwhile, the state's Department of Labor has estimated the region will need an additional 2,600 workers in computer-related fields over the next five years.
"My concern is that, as a whole in Western New York, we're not going to have the necessary available workforce to actually fill the jobs that we'll have available," he said.
The Buffalo area has grown into a financial services hub, and technology is critical to companies like M&T. The bank last year hired a chief information officer and is exploring the idea of bringing together its tech workers in the Buffalo area in one downtown location.
The challenge for the region, Jones said, is to make the Buffalo area an attractive destination for "innovative, tech-savvy people." He cited short commute times, a low cost of living and arts and culture as among the factors in its favor.
Promoting a strong entrepreneurial culture also helps, Jones said.
"If our goal is to attract innovative young people to Buffalo, we need to continue to support organizations like 43North, Invest Buffalo Niagara and others who bring capital and talent," he said. "We need to do more to support entrepreneurs in our own community through efforts like Ignite Buffalo, inviting companies like Facebook and Amazon Web Services to foster a new energy and a true spirit of innovation."
Jones said he believes it's the next generation "that really needs to lead the ship in order to make this reality happen over the next 10 years."
"Most of us will be able to support it, but those entrepreneurs that are willing to start businesses and take risks, and those individuals who are willing to come here and start a career, those are the true leaders," he said.
Jones, 54, was named chairman and chief executive officer of M&T in December 2017, following the death of Robert G. Wilmers.
Last year was Jones' first full year at the helm of M&T. The bank, which has about 17,000 employees across its territory, reported record-high profits of $1.9 billion in 2018, up 36 percent from the year before.