A decade after a recession which took its toll on the upstate financial market, and following an era of flight or downturn of large corporations from the same market, New York Federal Reserve Bank President William Dudley looks to the future with optimism.
Dudley laid out his plans for a bright, healthy upstate economy during a three-stop tour this week. He began with a speech at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse on Monday, followed by stop in Ithaca and he finished the tour in Rochester on Tuesday to meet with the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative and photonics leaders. He said proper institution of workforce development, as well as placing emphasis on investing into burgeoning New York markets, can bring about a second boom era.
“We have lower unemployment rates, sturdy job gains and rising wages, even if those wages are rising a bit more slowly than in previous expansions,” Dudley said. “All those are contributing to lift personal income growth.”
In Rochester, this translates to an ecosystem which, according to the 2016 Department of Labor report, boasts a mean wage of $48,970 across 512,090 employment positions in the Rochester Metropolitan area, a 2 percent increase from the previous year. While lower than state and national averages, it still signifies some level of economic growth. As of August, the unemployment rate for the area stood at 5 percent. The numbers are comparable to the pre-financial crash era. In August 2007, for example, the rate stood at 4.2 percent.
However, it is other facets of this number, Dudley said, which show growing health in Western and Central New York.
“The unemployment rate has come down considerably, not just for whites, but for African-Americans and Hispanics,” Dudley said. “There’s still a gap, and that’s something we need to work on nationally, but it’s getting better.”
In Rochester, that gap can be daunting. According to a 2016 study by ACT Rochester, which factored in Genesee, Wyoming, Monroe, Yates, Wayne, Livingston, Seneca, Ontario and Orleans counties into the Rochester Metropolitan area, a total of 18 percent of African-Americans and 13 percent of Hispanics were unemployed between 2011 and 2015. This number was amplified in the city itself, with a rate of 21 percent for African-Americans and 17 percent for Hispanics in the same time frame. The average was 6 percent for Asians and whites in the region; in the city, it was 9 percent for Asians and 8 percent for whites.
A key note of his speech, and the prime motivator for his upstate tour, Dudley emphasized the need for better expansion of the workforce through careful collaborations between community colleges and the blooming new industries, such as Syracuse’s Tech Garden and Rochester’s photonics industry.
“We clearly have people who want to work, but lack the skills needed to complete a job,” Dudley said. “A skilled workforce that is matched to the needs of employers is necessary for the economy to grow and prosper, and for individuals to reach their full potential.”
The role of community colleges in kickstarting the workforce by preparing students to work in local industries is, as Dudley said, of the utmost importance, a fact not lost on the City of Rochester. In fact, the photonics industry has taken this task head on, lining up manufacturing jobs for students who complete a one-year course or two-year Associate’s Degree at Monroe Community College at local companies such as Optimax, Optipro, Sydor and many more.
For Dudley, this model stands as a potential driver of tomorrow’s economy. As manufacturing jobs in specialized fields require more skilled labor, community partnerships could pave the way to a healthy workforce.
“Workers with years of experience in jobs that are no longer in demand have it especially hard, as their skills will not be efficient or match current opportunities,” Dudley said. “Workforce development therefore must be a top priority between all those involved: workers, employers, communities, government, educational and training institutions.”
For manufacturing jobs, which Dudley emphasizes and have historically played a key role in Western and Central New York economies, the revitalization and training of a workforce is critical when noting the statistical role of these fields of employment. While manufacturing has seen a slight uptick in recent months, according to the Department of Labor, it’s a far cry from its former self.
In August 2007, for example, the number of manufacturing jobs in Rochester stood at 74,400. In August 2017, it stood at 58,000, a 22 percent decrease in 10 years.
Remaking a workforce in steady decline is a tall order, yet Dudley holds fast that, through cooperation and determination to a common goal, upstate will rise again.
“There is unfortunately no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution,” Dudley said. “This is a complex challenge that’s going to need a combination of strategies to be successful.”