By KEN ROSE
The American workforce has long been the envy of the world for its productivity and passion. In Upstate New York, those workers and the companies that employed them formed the backbone of communities from Buffalo to Albany. Our workers are what made New York the Empire State. Yet in recent years that narrative of hard work and economic progress has shifted to population decline and economic stress.
That shift has in part been the result of decades of prioritizing four-year, liberal arts degrees over vocational training and skilled labor trades. Too often, these trades and manufacturing jobs are viewed as lesser vocations than those that require one or more degree from an institution of higher education. That view is at best shortsighted and at worst insulting.
Today, that formal-education centric philosophy has left communities across Upstate and beyond with a generational gap that has skilled-labor employers struggling to find workers. Those deficiencies have left vacant storefronts on our Main Streets and abandoned factories. Nationwide, more than 500,000 manufacturing jobs, many of which require training, are unfilled because of the skills gap.
This year, as part of his Executive Budget proposal, Governor Cuomo has advanced a plan to launch two new “Future of Work Centers.” Described as partnerships between the private sector, community-based organizations, and SUNY/CUNY, these initiatives, if well implemented, have the potential to bring New York to the forefront of meeting the needs of job seekers and employers in the modern economy. It would fill the gaps by building a skilled workforce that could help us grow the economy and give more people the benefit of a stable career.
Montgomery County is particularly ripe to serve as a home for this initiative. Companies here are creating jobs faster than they can fill them. Major brands like Target, Dollar General, and Sticker Mule have invested millions of dollars in local facilities and they’re creating new, good-paying jobs.
Beech-Nut Foods, which has called our county home for more than a century, has also made the decision to stay here, building a new state-of-the-art food processing facility. NYC-based brands like Bluffworks and Executive Group have also located operations in our county, fueled by lower-cost facilities, readily available space and easy access to Northeast transportation corridors.
The jobs are here. What we and other communities often lack is the skilled labor to capitalize on these opportunities. The economic growth we are experiencing cannot be sustained unless workers learn new skills, adapt to changes in industries and can adapt to new technologies.
We’re already taking action here, making every effort to address this critical imbalance between the needs of our corporate citizens and the county’s workforce. Locally, the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES recently started a dialogue with the Business Development Center, employers and others to recraft its curriculum to better meet the shifting needs of our economic reality. The BDC has also secured millions of dollars in state resources and other grants to help support industry and ensure our economic development project sites are ready for investment. We’ve also pursued digital marketing, outside development expertise and other avenues that will help us attract workforce and employers to our communities.
But more needs to be done and a new “Future of Work Center” would have Montgomery County and the Mohawk region primed to build a cutting-edge workforce for the 21st Century. We applaud Governor Cuomo’s recognition of this pressing challenge and we share his goals. We know that when State and local government economic development efforts work together we can drive success in Upstate New York. We’ve done it.
Now is the time to capitalize on those efforts and prove that Upstate New York’s future really is bright, despite the negative narrative. If the Governor takes an honest look, he’ll see that Montgomery County is ready to take a leadership role in creating a new workforce, that will again be the envy of the world.
Ken Rose is CEO of the Montgomery County Business Development Center (MCBDC), leading a comprehensive economic growth effort that has brought thousands of jobs to the Capital Region.
***This column appeared in print in the Saturday, March 7 edition of The Recorder. The original version of the column can be found here: https://www.recordernews.com/opinion/columnist/174164.