When I became Rochester Business Alliance/Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce CEO at the beginning of this year, one of my first priorities was to visit each of the nine Finger Lakes counties served by the chamber. I am pleased to report that with a trip to Genesee County earlier this month, we have completed the mission to make a full-day visit to Monroe, Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates counties. A group of Rochester Chamber staff members and I had great stops in each of the counties with tours of chamber member businesses as well as meetings with prospective members, economic development leaders and fellow chambers of commerce.
I came away from these visits completely energized by what I saw. This region has much to be proud of. There are so many businesses and success stories out there that many people aren’t aware of—we need to tell them. We have walked through small, medium and large companies that serve hyper-local to global markets. All of them are creating jobs and economic vitality every day. It was a pleasure to see them firsthand and learn more about how the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce can help them achieve even more growth and success.
One common theme that we heard in every county is the difficulty employers are having in finding qualified workers for open positions. One of the key priorities for the Rochester Chamber is to work with regional stakeholders to raise the level of workforce development in both young people and mid-career people moving into in-demand emerging technologies. Without a successful connection to qualified workers, we have had companies tell us that they plan to expand out of state or send outside the country to find the workforce they need. This is something that should not happen in the Finger Lakes region. The most important thing about workforce development is not only preparing people, but also placing people in jobs and having them retain those jobs. We must also ensure that there are affordable, reliable transportation opportunities available to get workers to and from their places of employment.
We spend a great deal of money across New York on workforce development. It’s now time to look at re-engineering these systems to meet the needs of today and tomorrow. Many career fields, especially technical positions, are often short-staffed because there is no steady stream of young workers coming into these professions. College isn’t for everyone; I would encourage guidance counselors in high schools to expose students to career and technical education to see if that could be a fit for them. Thousands of jobs that pay well above minimum wage are available in technical and manufacturing fields for those with the right work ethic and training. Many companies, in conjunction with community colleges and other programs, offer that training with the promise of a job upon completion. I fear that if we do not fill these needs, companies will choose to move elsewhere in the future.
Another concern that I had on our regional visits was a perception that as RBA rebrands to Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, we would enter into competition with other chambers or economic development organizations. This is absolutely untrue. Our role is to collaborate with all of these agencies. Perhaps one of the opportunities for this region to expand economic growth is to put these silos and turf issues aside across all areas and focus on ways to work together. We have seen enough examples of egos and turf battles that end up diminishing opportunities for this region as opposed to growing them. Let’s focus on a spirit of collaboration and teamwork going forward, where everyone’s success will grow. I’ve reinforced this in every county visit. In some, I feel we’ve been successful. In others, we were not so successful. These fears and concerns exist. They exist chamber to chamber, county to county, academic institution to academic institution at times. As we move into 2016, let’s take advantage of the g
reat opportunities we have going forward.
The last 11 months have been very hectic in terms of scheduling, meetings and visits, but very rewarding. I have listened, observed and learned and return to something I say often. The Rochester and Finger Lakes region is the best-kept secret in New York State and beyond, but it shouldn’t be. We all need to stand up and tell our stories. Traveling across the state as lieutenant governor, I found that people outside our region often don’t know what we have here. I’m a native of this region, and I can assure you that I have learned so much in my short time leading the Rochester Chamber that I never knew before. Collaboratively, we must do a better job of promoting our strengths and assets. We have a story to tell and it’s a great story. If no one hears that story, it is not going to have an impact. Let’s all tell that story over and over again and reap great success in 2016 and beyond as a region.
Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Rochester Business Alliance Inc. Contact him at rduffy@RBAlliance.com.
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