By Dan Miner, originally published in Buffalo Business First on Sep 21, 2018, 2:14am EDT.

State of the Region: Skills gap remains a major issue in Western New York

It’s fairly easy to identify workforce issues facing employers in Western New York.

But solving those problems is a difficult proposition, requiring broad cooperation ranging from executive to educator.

That was the message at a Sept. 11 event titled “State of the Region: How Will Education Supply Meet Business Demand?” The event was hosted by Phillips Lytle LLP.

The workforce pipeline has been a much-discussed issue in Western New York over the last decade, as the expected wave of baby boomer retirements washes over industries that often can’t find adequate replacements for highly skilled workers. 

Part of that has to do with perception.

“If you were to tour an automobile manufacturing facility 25 years ago, it would have been a dirty, dusty, grimy place,” said Kevin Quinn, head of HSBC corporate banking in Upstate New York and New England. “If you tour one of those facilities today, you will see an enormous amount of robotics and computerized capabilities. It’s a fascinating field and people need to fully understand the opportunities that are there.”

An experienced recruiter working on one of Buffalo’s highest-profile projects said workforce issues manifest themselves in specific needs.

“The biggest skill gap is that mid-level technician in a manufacturing environment,” said Kevin Reger, a Tesla Inc. recruiting manager who focuses on the South Park Avenue factory. “The average age on the manufacturing floor in Buffalo right now is 55 years old.”

He and Quinn were joined on the panel by Richard Hershberger, chief academic officer at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Institute, and Thomas Kucharski, president and CEO of Invest Buffalo Niagara.

Career & Workplace

Higher education panelists included three college presidents: Kenneth Macur of Medaille College, Gary Olson of Daemen College and Satish Tripathi of the University at Buffalo.

Macur said baccalaureate colleges generally take a broader view of student pathways than simply training them for the first job, drawing a distinction between higher ed and workforce training programs. 

But each college president said their institutions pay attention to local economic trends that affect decisions about programs and curriculum.

In the meantime, they emphasized the importance of a more holistic post-secondary experience, mixing training in liberal arts with classes that teach technical, engineering or math-based financial skills.

Olson said Robert Wilmers, the late M&T Bank chairman and CEO, told him that the bank had trouble filling certain positions.

“He didn’t mean he couldn’t find a few more MBAs; he meant he couldn’t find the right people,” Olson said. “There’s a lot of research that (shows) business executives are dying for people with skills above and beyond their particular business.”

He continued: “They want people who can think critically, who can communicate well verbally and in writing, who have social graces. They want people with the ability to be innovative and creative. These are the things an undergraduate education can and should be leading students toward.”

Kucharski said the region has coalesced around major workforce efforts in recent years. He mentioned the state-funded Northland Workforce Training Center – effectively a community college for industrial occupations – which recently opened on the East Side. The region “was late to the game, but a lot of the leaders at the table have taken it very seriously and now we’re back in the game,” he said. “We’re taking it very seriously.”