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To thrive, manufacturers need skilled workers, government support

Manufacturing is not dead in Upstate New York. It is alive and well, especially in the Rochester and Finger Lakes region. In my travels to visit Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce manufacturing members, I am amazed by the technology and skill, incredible capital investments and futuristic operations that abound. Some are well-known, others are not so well-known, but I believe this is a hotbed for manufacturing, and we can thank our incredible colleges and universities and talent from some of our legacy companies for helping to make it happen.

As we look to the future of manufacturing in Rochester, the AIM Photonics Testing, Assembly, and Packaging facility is slated to open here next summer. This will bring a whole new level of packaging manufacturing to our region.

However, two issues that we continually hear about from our manufacturing business leaders are a lack of support from our state, federal and local governments and a shortage of qualified workers to fill open positions. In terms of workforce development, I have visited companies that expanded out of state in order to find the skilled workers that they need. One company even brought in workers from Mexico to get the job done. Bottom line: If companies can’t get their workforce here, they will go elsewhere.

There are skilled trades like tool and die, welding and machinist that these enterprises need, but they’re not getting enough young people going into those fields. I never thought about welding when I was in high school, but if I were looking for a job now, I would learn it.

Why are so many bright young men and women choosing different careers when manufacturing can be a great choice?  You have to go back and challenge school districts, guidance counselors and even parents who see sending students to a four-year college or university much more desirable than going into a certificate program at Monroe Community College or a similar school. That certificate program at MCC could open up a career for that young person whose earning power may go higher than if they went to a four-year school and incurred hefty college debt.

As we ask schools and parents to be more open to technical careers, the manufacturing community should also much better market what is out there and start telling a better story about the types of jobs available in technical fields. If moms and dads and counselors don’t know that these opportunities exist, we have to work to let them know. Manufacturing is no longer the manual labor of putting a screw into a camera or assembling parts. Young men and women with great creativity as well as computer and engineering skills can thrive in the manufacturing field. These jobs can create great earning potential and quality of life.   

One suggestion that Rochester Chamber has received regarding the workforce of tomorrow is bringing high school co-ops and internships to our manufacturing floors. I believe paid internships could be a big draw for these fields. We would have to do it the right way, keeping labor laws in mind, but what a great way to develop this exposure that is now seriously lacking. We call upon the state Education Department to look for ways to fund and promote high school co-ops and internships in the manufacturing field. These experiences could be built right into the curriculum. The students will earn money, which builds an incentive to gaining experience in jobs to which they may have never given a first or second thought. Then, after high school, these students could go on to the workforce or pursue further education to better prepare them for their chosen career path.

Rochester Chamber is also committed to taking every opportunity to connect our local manufacturers with government and economic development leaders to keep and expand these operations and jobs in the Finger Lakes region. Incentives available to outside companies being recruited to move here should be equally available to companies established here for decades or generations. These companies are often not on the government’s radar screen. Any HR professional will tell you that it is cheaper to keep the talent that you have than to go out and recruit new talent. It is no different with companies. It is more cost effective to keep the companies we have in New York than it is to recruit new ones.

Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce also needs all of its members to work alongside us to foster a more business-friendly regulatory climate in New York. On a visit, a manufacturing executive told me that if a worker is worth $15 an hour, he will pay $15. However, if that worker’s skills are worth $9 an hour in a highly competitive marketplace, the government puts him in a bind by artificially determining a wage. When public policy dictates how much companies pay their people, the unintended consequences can cause that company to lose to a competitor.

If we grow manufacturing, we will grow service, support and other jobs. Think of it as throwing a pebble into a pond. With an initial splash by manufacturing, the ripples carry to all edges. You may hear that the Rochester economy has shifted to the service sector. I disagree. In many ways, manufacturing has simply not gotten the attention it deserves. 

No, manufacturing is not dead here. It’s only been declared dead by some people who really haven’t seen the inside. I urge our government and economic development leaders to take the time to walk inside, talk with these CEOs and hear first-hand what they need to keep thriving.

Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at rduffy@GreaterRochesterChamber.com.

11/18/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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