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

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Jaelin Grey was in his hospital bed at Erie County Medical Center last year after being stabbed when he decided he needed to change his ways.

“I felt like a victim. I felt like I wasn’t in control of my life,” Grey said.

At 20, he had already been in jail. He had been kicked out of high school but managed to come back to graduate. College wasn’t an option. He had a steady girlfriend and they had a baby together. He was supporting his family doing handyman jobs on his grandfather’s properties but it paid about $13,000 a year. And now, he had almost died after meddling in a fight.

A few months later, he was riding in his uncle’s car on their way to a job when they heard an ad on the radio: It was an invitation to apply to the Northland Workforce Training Center, a new school in the heart of the East Side that aims to annually train 300 to 400 people for advanced manufacturing and energy jobs – jobs that would pay $30,000 to $50,000.

Grey looked up the website on his smartphone and applied in his uncle’s car.

“I felt like they were talking to me,” Grey said. “Hopefully, they are.”

That’s the idea.

Part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion, the Northland Workforce Training Center’s goal is to create a pipeline of workers from disadvantaged communities to good-paying jobs that manufacturers and energy companies are desperate to fill. It’s the centerpiece of the $100 million Northland Avenue Beltline Corridor project to bring back manufacturing to the East Side. Mayor Byron W. Brown, who has shepherded the project, has called it “a game-changer, for the Northland neighborhood, all of Buffalo’s East Side and our entire city.”

The training center brings together four organizations: Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance; Buffalo Urban League; Catholic Charities; and Goodwill Industries of Western New York. It’s offering one and two-year training programs through SUNY Erie Community College and Alfred State College in the kinds of jobs local industries need filled in precision machining, welding, electrical construction and maintenance and energy technology. Students earn certificates or associate degrees.

Construction is underway at the future home of the Northland training center, inside the long-vacant Clearing Niagara factory on Northland Avenue.

The first classes at the center are set to begin at the end of August. Grey plans to be in one.

Filling a need

There are 3,000 jobs open right now in manufacturing and energy in Western New York, Duncan Kirkwood told a crowd at a recruiting event at the Delavan-Grider Community Center on the evening of May 21, a few blocks from the construction.

Employers are having a tough time finding people to fill those jobs, said Kirkwood, the charismatic outreach and recruiting manager for Northland. The audience, composed almost entirely of African-American men and women, nodded.

Kirkwood got a round of knowing laughs as he said a previous outreach effort at a Buffalo church led to him being “bombarded by grandmas” who wanted to talk to them about getting their grandsons and granddaughters into Northland. “They know this is a good thing,” Kirkwood said.

By the end of the session, 72 people had signed up to take the entry test to apply for one of Northland’s training programs.

“A lot of people on the East Side are ready to work hard,” Kirkwood said later in an interview. “But they don’t have the opportunity to be trained. … Now we’re giving them that chance.”

The event was one of dozens held every month since January to identify students for Northland in the Buffalo Niagara region. Recruiters are looking especially for potential students in the neighborhoods around the Northland project that have long struggled with poverty.

More than four out of every five children on the East Side – 84 percent – qualify for Medicaid or some other government health care program for the poor, according to 2016 Census data. That’s compared to 33 percent of all children in Erie County.

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.

Kirkwood, 33, who grew up on Manhattan Avenue in the Central Park neighborhood knows from experience of the poverty and violence that plague the East Side.

“I know what the alternative is for a lot of these kids,” he said. “If we can get them in Northland, they can radically change their lives.”

When people are earning a good salary, they don’t have to be in “survival mode,” Kirkwood said. “You can really enjoy life and you can support nonprofits and go to PTA meetings and be involved in their communities.”

Jaelin Grey manages to get by on his handyman work, he said. Forced from a young age to take care of himself, he’s had all kinds of jobs. He worked at the McDonald’s on Genesee Street and Bailey Avenue as a fry cook. He spent a few months at a call center. “It was an office job,” he said. “I thought it was a step up from the grill.”

But he wants to be able to take care of his girlfriend and daughter, who is now 17 months old. He’s hoping that by learning welding, he can become a contractor.

“I make $13,000,” he said. “$13,000 to $30,000? I don’t know what that actually is? It seems – I can’t think of the right word – promising.”

Looking for workers

Rupa Shanmugam, the president and chief operating officer of SoPark, constantly struggles to fill open positions at the circuit board printing company in Lackawanna.

“Actually, right at this moment, I have eight openings,” Shanmugam said last week. She needs surface mount operators, inspectors and people with soldering skills – but she can’t find people who are trained in any of those jobs. So SoPark started hiring people without any experience and trained them.

It’s not just about the skills gap, she acknowledged. She has a hard time finding people willing to work second and third shifts. She also believes there are misconceptions about working in manufacturing – that the work is dirty, for instance, or that it’s not for women. Advanced manufacturing requires pristine environments, she said. And as for women in the workplace, her factory is split evenly between men and women.

Having a training center like Northland will help her find more qualified workers, Shanmugam predicted. “It makes it easier,” she said. And she can attest that the jobs, at least in electronics, will be there. “I don’t believe Buffalo was big into electronics in the past. But you do see a lot of it now.”

The need is expected to grow as a “gray tsunami” of older workers retire. Northland cites industry studies that show more than 17,000 jobs in manufacturing are expected to open up between now and 2027.

Craig Ray, 45, a married father, is eager to try to grab one of those jobs. He had a tough start to life, moving from city to city before ending up in Buffalo. He graduated from Hutchinson Technical Central High School but his grades weren’t great. “I was kind of … you could say below average,” he said.

He fell in with a bad crowd and got arrested for a few minor incidents, but he was never be convicted.  He worked odd jobs – restaurants, collection agencies – and admits he sometimes supported himself as a “street pharmacist.”

But Ray grew up, he said. With children to support, he became a certified nursing assistant, a job he kept for a few years. He then found work at the casino in downtown Buffalo, first in the kitchen and then moving up to security. He lost that job in January. Not long after someone brought in some flyers to his wife, who is an accountant, about Northland.

He applied and said he is thrilled to have been accepted.

“It’s a straight road forward – a road forward doing something I would enjoy. Something I can be proud of doing,” Ray said. “I want to be able to go to sleep dead tired because I earned it.”

The barriers

So if there are all these job openings and all these people who want good jobs, what’s keeping them from getting the jobs?

There are many barriers, said Stephen Tucker, CEO of the Northland Workforce Training Center, and he and his staff are determined to help break those down.

The location itself should make it easier for people on the East Side to get the training they need. The training center is on Northland, between Fillmore Avenue and Grider Street.

It’s also going to be affordable, in some cases covered through scholarships including.

“We want our students to acquire the training at little to no cost out of pocket,” Tucker said.

Students aren’t required to bring school transcripts; all they need to start is an ID. They do have to pass a literacy test – called a TABE test. A number of students have struggled with that so Northland is allowing potential students to retake it, offering sample tests and tutoring to help them.

Having a criminal record won’t automatically exclude applicants, Tucker said. “We’re going to look at you on a case-by-case basis. We’ll give you a shot,” he said.

The students aren’t drug tested but they’re warned from the beginning that any job they apply for will require they pass a drug test. Northland is going to offer substance abuse counseling to help students get clean as well as candid advice about what employers expect.

Northland students can also qualify for free child care and get bus passes if they need them. Classes are offered during the day and evening to allow people to keep their jobs. They also will be offered entry-level jobs in manufacturing while they’re being trained.

The free tuition was a key factor for Jayne Burts, 21, to decide to enroll at Northland, along with the wrap-around services. “They help you every step of the way,” she said.

Burts grew up on the East Side and recently moved just over the border to Cheektowaga with her mother.

Burts studied electrical engineering at Hutch Tech and had planned to pursue a job in the field, but it hasn’t worked out the way she thought it would. She recounted going to the electrical workers union in Orchard Park to take the test and feeling a little out of place.

“Really awkward,” she said she felt. “I was the only girl and the only person of color.”

She failed the test and never went back to retake it.

She also tried to apply at ECC and was ready to start when she found out at the orientation that she needed to pay an $800 deposit within two weeks. She couldn’t afford it.

Burts has signed up for the electrical construction and maintenance program. She sees herself going into business for herself when she graduates.

“I just want to be my own boss," she said.

A new approach

To be sure, there are other efforts underway to try to connect local residents with manufacturing jobs. Even some of the organizations like Goodwill and the Buffalo Urban League have their own job training programs.

But Northland is taking new approaches.

Stephen Tucker, who ran a similar job training program in Cincinnati before coming to Buffalo, said Northland’s partners are working together to develop a curriculum that will train students in the skills they would need to fill jobs that companies know they’ll have open.

“We train you for a job that’s actually there,” Tucker said.

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said one difference she’s seen between Northland and other job training efforts is the way Northland is offering intensive case management for each of its students. “They’re going to be supported through the process in a coordinated way that doesn’t exist right now,” she said.

“Everything is pointing in the right direction right now. It is a bit of an experiment. I am looking forward to seeing the results.”

There’s a lot riding on the success of Northland. Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Brown have championed the project, holding it up as an example of the state and city’s commitment to bring the “renaissance” enjoyed by other parts of Buffalo – Canalside and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus – to the East Side.

“This is probably one of the most transformational projects to happen in this community in decades,” Brown said in April.

But some are cautioning about expecting too much from Northland.

Henry Louis Taylor, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo who is the director of the UB Center for Urban Studies, said the training center is a great idea and commends the creative and aggressive efforts being made to recruit from disadvantaged communities.

But he doesn’t think a school that graduates 300 to 400 workers a year can have a transformative impact on the East Side – at least not without even more ambitious investment in housing and the communities around it.

“This does not belong in the happy-talk lane,” Taylor said. “It’s a good step forward. It will help a handful of workers. We should celebrate that. But let’s not exaggerate and pretend this is a big festival. It’s a small family dinner.”

For the East Side to experience the renaissance that other parts of the city have enjoyed, Taylor said, two things need to happen: government leaders, planners and the community stakeholders coming together to identify ways to lift up the East Side and then having the region’s major businesses create a fund that would the projects.

“The minute we have those honest conversations, then we don’t have to pretend that a really great project like the Northland Workforce Training Center is not Santa Claus. Let’s get honest. Let’s get real and build a real, legitimate plan.”

A new future

Jaelin Grey can’t say if Northland will transform his neighborhood. But he’s hopeful it will transform him.

Grey grew up on the East Side around people, he said, who “were too cool to live by the rules. … They’re not ‘citizens,’ ” he said. By citizens, he’s not talking about what country you’re from. “Citizens are people who vote, go to the library, go to the DMV and pay their taxes,” he said.

That’s what he wants to be, for his girlfriend, his daughter, his younger brother and himself.

“I just hope the past can be the past and the future can be new,” he said. “That’s my biggest thing – a new future.”


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