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Northland plans to fill industry sectors with qualified workers

There are 3,000 job openings in advanced manufacturing and energy in the Buffalo-Niagara area right now.

And over the next decade, industry experts expect 20,000 job openings in the region.

"Those industry sectors have an aging workforce and a nonexistent pipeline," said Stephen Tucker, president and CEO of the Northland Workforce Training Center.

The goal of the training center, which offered its first semester of classes in the fall in the old Niagara Machine & Tool plant on the East Side of Buffalo, is to help fill that pipeline with well-qualified workers.

Students get hands-on training in welding, electrical construction and maintenance, machine tool technology, energy utility, mechatronics and CNC precision machining – all trades that offer wages starting at a minimum of about $40,000. They can earn certificates and associated degrees through the courses that are offered through SUNY Alfred State College and SUNY Erie Community College.

Sparks fly as student Jaelin Grey, 22, uses a grinder to smooth out his weld while practicing for a test in his stall at the Northland Workforce Training Center on Dec. 14, 2018. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The training center is the centerpiece of what is now a $120 million project funded by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Buffalo Billion and shepherded by Mayor Byron W. Brown.

"We want to transform this community into an advanced manufacturing and energy corridor where people can not only get training, but ultimately get the jobs," Tucker said.

The idea is to mirror what was done to create the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus north of downtown. "Imagine what the campus used to be before it became the campus," Tucker said.

Northland's staff has recruited heavily in the neighborhoods around the school, which have long struggled with poverty.

It’s not that East Side residents aren’t working. Nearly two thirds – 64 percent – of people between 20 to 64 years old who live on the East Side are in the labor force, according to Census figures. But many are underemployed. And many don't have the skills to take those jobs that manufacturers desperately want to fill.

Potential workers, especially those from poor neighborhoods, also face other obstacles, like not having a car or being able to afford child care.

To break down those barriers, Northland offers its students an array of services to make sure they can complete their training through their alliances with the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance, Buffalo Urban League, Catholic Charities and Goodwill Industries of Western New York. Students get one-on-one help with getting financial assistance for tuition, as well as career coaching. They also are offered tutoring if they're struggling.

"Our goal is not to exclude people," Tucker said.

To get students some work experience, Tucker is working with local and national companies to offer internships and co-ops over the summer.

"It's try-it-before-you-buy-it," Tucker said. "Students get experience and businesses can see if it's a good fit."

So far, Northland has been a good fit for Jaelin Grey.

The 22-year-old Buffalo man, who currently works as a handyman for his grandfather, is in the inaugural class of the two-year welding program. He was pretty excited about his first report card that he got in December: He got a 4.0.

"This is the first time I've ever done good in school," Grey said. "I feel different. Like I'm walking a different path."

Every day starts with a lecture with his 15 classmates, followed by several hours of hands-on work in the welding lab.

"This is the best learning environment I've ever had," he said.

All they needed was a break; Northland is trying to give them one

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