I have mentioned many times that one of the chief complaints I hear from Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce members is that in order for them to stay and grow here, they need to have an available and qualified workforce to fill open positions. There is not a lack of jobs in the Finger Lakes region; there is a lack of workers ready to take on those jobs.
Rochester Chamber is developing a system to connect employers seeking workers with programs that prepare our workforce of the future. A job is a way out of poverty. Our goal is twofold: to help Rochester companies meet their employment needs and to help connect those who are unemployed or underemployed with available jobs. It is important for us to look at not only today, but also at the needs of employers five to 10 years down the road so we can get a head start on finding solutions.
Something that really puzzles me is the amount of money our community has spent on workforce development over many years in many different areas, yet we still hear an outcry from employers that they can’t find qualified workers for open jobs. With so many open jobs, we still see concentrated poverty—not only in the city of Rochester, but also in all nine counties that make up the Finger Lakes region served by Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. We have a perfect storm of opportunity here, but somehow we are not making the proper connections. This does not mean someone or some organization is doing something wrong; it means that we must innovate to find ways to make a difference.
There are so many silos and entities that operate with the best of intentions. We need to keep working to break down those silos and work as a team to create and match a qualified workforce with employer demand.
I recently sat on a panel at a manufacturing forum hosted by Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning. An audience member with an education and manufacturing background told us that we have to think about preparing people to work as early as the fourth grade. He said exposing younger children to a variety of careers—ones that parents and guidance counselors may not be thinking about—could spark interest and lead to a very well-paying career with high demand down the road. These opportunities include construction, skilled manufacturing, machining and much more.
Today’s manufacturing floors are not the manual labor workplaces of 30-plus years ago. Technology and robotics have increased productivity but need skilled, trained workers as operators. Many of our schoolchildren would be interested in this technology if they only knew about it at a younger age. Every time I tour a company, I come away fascinated and encouraged by the high level of technology and expertise in our region. Giving children a chance to see this firsthand can make a difference.
On that note, another part of Rochester Chamber’s workforce development efforts is making connections with the education community here to get students more deeply involved in co-op, internship and experiential learning programs—not just in high school, but at the elementary and middle school levels as well. We are not looking to completely overhaul a challenged education system here, but we do see the need to make some changes that help move the needle in a positive direction.
Beyond this, we have to go back to the adage of teaching our children how to work. I have heard from employers several times in just the past couple months that they desperately need workers with the soft skills to show up on time every day ready to work, and they can teach them the rest about a specific job. A “crash course” in soft skills for those in their late teens or 20s cannot have the same impact that teaching those skills from early childhood can have.
We should not have people living in poverty or leaving the area when we have all of these jobs and opportunities here that are either going unnoticed or unaddressed. I’m tired of hearing that people are fleeing New York, when in all honesty we are not doing a very good job of keeping them here.
Let’s focus on our varied assets when addressing our needs now and in the future. It comes down to creating new lines of communication and a much more collaborative atmosphere across the region between schools, employers, government and workforce development entities. We cannot all work in our individual silos and expect results.
Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at rduffy@GreaterRochesterChamber.com.