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Matt Glynn: What manufacturers need most: skilled people

When the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance moved into the Northland Workforce Training Center complex last summer, it was more than a symbolic gesture.

There is lots of interest these days in getting people trained for manufacturing jobs, and the East Side complex is morphing into a manufacturing hub. Buffalo Manufacturing Works, which helps companies innovate, and Insyte Consulting, which provides strategic advice, will move in this year. Training classes at the workforce development center, which is a Buffalo Billion initiative, are under way.

The alliance, which has 184 members, has been outspoken about the need to cultivate more manufacturing workers, in order to close the "skills gap" between unemployed people and unfilled jobs. Peter Coleman, the group's executive director, said the issue is top of mind for manufacturers.

"We're desperate," he said.

For someone hunting for a manufacturing job in Buffalo Niagara, there may be no better time than now to be a qualified worker. Unemployment is at historic lows, and companies with openings are clamoring to hire. The alliance has highlighted welders and industrial electricians as among the highest-priority jobs to fill.

It's not unique to Buffalo. IndustryWeek recently referred to manufacturers across the nation facing a "brutal workforce shortage." A study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute estimated manufacturing could have as many as 2.4 million jobs to fill between now and 2028.

There's no denying the sector is smaller than it used to be, as measured by employment. The Buffalo Niagara region had an average of 52,500 manufacturing jobs through October last year, compared to 82,900 25 years earlier. Automation has played a big role in reducing the number of jobs many plants need to run their operations efficiently.

But manufacturers are bracing for a wave of retirements, and need younger, skilled people to fill the void. That's not to mention growing companies that need more people to support their expansion.

Even with greater automation, Coleman said manufacturers still need skilled people overseeing operations. "I don't see there being a reduction in the workforce," he said. "If anything, we're going to be looking for more high-skilled persons."

Companies are tackling the help-wanted issue in a variety of ways, from training their own people to funding employees' education. Northland's program is just gearing up, but is expected to start generating many more trained workers this year.

Coleman says there is much more to the Northland Corridor than the reborn complex that will add tenants this year. He points to other parcels of nearby land, where manufacturers could conceivably set up operations. Vacant, high-quality industrial space in the region is virtually impossible to find.

Coleman thinks long range about a transformation that may not be readily visible.

"We envision Northland, the Belt Line, being what the Medical Campus was 20 years ago, what Larkinville was 15 years ago, what Canalside was five years ago," he said.

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