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What's at stake in luring talented workers? The future of Buffalo

David Robinson

There's a lot more at stake than filling a few thousand highly skilled and hard-to-fill jobs with Invest Buffalo Niagara's new campaign to attract a new wave of coveted workers to the region.

Simply put, if we can't create the kind of good-paying jobs in growing industries that today's workers covet, then we don't stand much of a chance to break out of the doldrums that have plagued the region for half a century.

So it's good that the struggle to attract skilled workers to the Buffalo Niagara region is getting a new push from the local business development group.

The new initiative, unveiled Thursday and called "Be in Buffalo," targets four sought-after occupations in the engineering, technology, finance and health sciences fields that pay middle- to upper-level wages.

At a time when the pool of unemployed workers locally is at its lowest in nearly 30 years and the region's population is stagnant, attracting new people to the region is an important hurdle that must be cleared if Buffalo Niagara is going to grow at a pace that is anything close to the national average.

To be sure, the region has made significant progress over the past decade. Our population decline has stopped. Our population of younger people is growing again. And our unemployment rate has dropped to a nearly 30-year low of 4%.

But our population isn't growing, and that puts a big brake on our potential to expand our economy. Local companies, like businesses everywhere, are struggling to fill open jobs. Only the struggle is harder here because employers in Buffalo Niagara can't tap into a naturally growing population base.

"Think about what we lost when we lost all of those people of childbearing age who fled Buffalo," said Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who is chairman of Empire State Development. "We didn't just lose them, we lost all of the children they were going to have."

That's why it's so important to attract workers – especially expatriates and the vast pool of local college graduates – back to Buffalo Niagara.

"If you don't succeed in doing that, you really don't have much of a future. And if you are succeeding in doing that, you have almost unlimited potential," said Zemsky, who has been preaching the importance of stemming our demographic decline for years. "It's the secret ingredient for growing the economy."

So the Invest Buffalo Niagara initiative is trying to call attention to job opportunities locally that might be interesting to those tens of thousands of expatriates and local college graduates now scattered throughout the country.

The initiative aims to be more than just a job posting site. While there will be some highlighted job postings, much of the initiative is aimed at touting the Buffalo Niagara region as an affordable, comfortable market that not only is a good place to raise a family, but also offers opportunities for further career advancement.

Moog Inc., for instance, has 170 job openings at its Western New York operations, including 82 hard-to-fill engineering jobs.

"We feel we have a great culture and a lot to offer employees – but in order to attract and retain those people, they also have to want to live in Western New York," said Paul Wilkinson, the aerospace company's chief human resources officer.

Adding further pressure to local employers are the demographics of the Buffalo Niagara workforce, which tends to be older than the national average. That means the wave of retirements as the baby boomer generation ages is having a big impact on employers here, at a time when the stagnant population prevents them from tapping into the growing flow of new residents found in other, faster-growing parts of the country.

"This talent cliff, particularly for some high-skilled jobs, is coming," said Jenna Kavanaugh, Invest Buffalo Niagara's chief operating officer. "Employers were really finding a stress point."

In some sectors, like technology, it will only get worse, especially with M&T Bank looking to hire 1,000 new technology workers for the hub it's planning to open early next year in Seneca One tower. If they can't attract new workers to the region, they'll wind up hiring them from local firms, touching off a bidding war that will drive up wages across the tech sector. It would be a nightmare for local companies and a bonanza for tech workers.

“Compared to many other parts of the country, Buffalo offers a higher quality of life and lower cost of living, and there are greater career opportunities than ever before – but it’s still hard to convince people to consider relocating or returning to Buffalo for a job," said Marcie Vassallo, M&T's director of talent acquisition.

"Every company in Western New York faces that challenge when recruiting new employees, yet every company needs new talent to grow and adapt in today’s digital economy, so we have to work together to make Buffalo a destination of choice and to expand the talent pool,” she said.

The Invest Buffalo Niagara initiative will focus on graduates from the 21 colleges in Western New York. The group also will send newsletters targeting expatriates whose information has been culled from publicly available sites, such as LinkedIn.

The idea is not so much to tout all of the middle-tier and upper-level jobs that are available – Kavanaugh says the listings on the site are meant to spark interest, not be comprehensive – but to let those potential job candidates know what's happening in Buffalo and discuss the kind of life and careers that are possible here.

"They're familiar with it. Maybe they just need to be reintroduced to it," Kavanaugh said. "We think it's a good story."

That story partly will be built around anecdotes and profiles about workers who have moved here and their impressions on what they've experienced since.

The site will tout the region's quality of life. The region's average commute of around 20 minutes, for instance, could be a powerful lure to a worker in a congested city like Boston or Los Angeles, where getting around by car can be time-consuming and frustrating. Another section of the website will highlight things to do in the region, from craft breweries and coffee shops to sports and other things to do.

The initiative also will include a social media campaign orchestrated by Greg Pokriki, Invest Buffalo Niagara's content and digital marketing specialist.

"We're going to have some fun with that," Kavanaugh said. "Accessibility and commute time is a really big discussion point."

Moog's Wilkinson said it's getting easier to sell the region to potential hires. Over the last 18 months, Moog has hired 61 workers who had to relocate.

Still, the campaign's success will come down to whether the region can dangle the type of good-paying jobs that can convince someone to uproot their family and move here. That often means convincing the worker's significant other that they will be able to find a good job, too.

"That's a real thing," said Valerie Hawthorne, National Fuel Gas Co.'s senior manager of human resources.

That's been a big problem for the Buffalo Niagara region, though there are signs that our ability to attract workers from elsewhere is improving. Back in 2010, for every nine adults who moved to the Buffalo Niagara region, about 10 moved away, creating a steady drip, drip of population loss, according to census data. By 2017, the flow had reversed, with slightly more people moving into the region than were moving away.

"You have to engage the whole family," said Chris Beckage, the senior vice president at Acara Solutions, an Amherst recruiting firm. "There has to be a depth of opportunities. People typically work three to four years at a job and then they switch."

Buffalo Niagara isn't alone. Other U.S. cities have been grappling with the same problem, and many have rolled out initiatives of their own during the last two or three years as the job market tightened, said Patience Fairbrother, a national talent attraction specialist at Development Counsellors International.

"We feel we're behind, as a community, in marketing ourselves for talent attraction," Kavanaugh said. "We have to attack this talent problem."

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