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Editorial: M&T’s plan requires a larger, well-trained workforce

It’s a good problem to have: Will Buffalo Niagara’s workforce be capable of filling more than 1,000 jobs that M&T Bank plans to bring to the region for its new downtown technology hub?

René F. Jones, the bank’s chairman and CEO, gave our region a heads-up when he stated on Tuesday that M&T intends to hire that many people here over the next five years, starting with about 250 in 2019.

Many of the positions would be for software engineers, web developers and other digital designations.

Finding that many qualified people could be the long pole in the tent for M&T’s ambitions. Hiring isn’t easy these days. Our region’s population is holding steady, but the increasing number of baby boomers entering retirement is putting pressure on the labor market. A Buffalo News story in March showed that in the last year, the number of unemployed people has dropped by 22 percent in Buffalo Niagara. Workers with sought-after skills are in short supply, creating a war for talent.

Two things need to be done, for M&T’s tech hub and for the region in general. We need to attract more working-age adults here, and we need to keep ramping up local job-training initiatives.

Some new employees will be lured to Buffalo by the prospect of good jobs, affordable housing and our other amenities. Millennials, in particular, are interested in the lifestyle advantages of medium-sized cities compared to what can be a grind in the larger metropolises.

Immigrants are another piece of the puzzle. Buffalo has been a welcoming place to people from dozens of different countries, but there is ample room for more. A recent report from the Economic Innovation Group in Washington proposed a program of “heartland visas,” to provide work visas to skilled immigrants on the condition they live in a county facing demographic decline. John Lettieri, president of EIG, suggested three- to six-year visas for the program.

The report singled out Buffalo as one of the cities “with strong anchor institutions and deeply proud histories of resilience and reinvention,” and that could benefit from the visa program.

All hands need to be on deck for workforce training. That begins with educating students properly, preparing some for college and giving vocational training to others.

There are high hopes riding on Northland Workforce Development Center in Buffalo, which will focus on skills for manufacturing and the energy industry. And New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul last month

announced $1.4 million in state funding for seven training programs grouped under the umbrella “Thrive Buffalo.” That included money for Northland, for the Buffalo & Erie County Workforce Consortium, and five other organizations, many of whom connect potential job applicants with support services in addition to training.

“We don’t really have a true integrated talent pipeline continuum here in Buffalo and Erie County,” said Michael Weiner, president and CEO of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, which has overseen the genesis of the Thrive Buffalo initiative.

“What we want to do is make it easy for people who are already working, who are in financial hardship because they’re in minimum wage jobs ... we want to help them connect with these job opportunities,” said Weiner.

M&T’s Jones pointed out that technology skills used in banking are similar to those needed in health care, manufacturing and other industries. When M&T establishes its downtown tech hub, other companies may want to locate nearby. That kind of synergy can only be good for Buffalo’s economy.

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