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Building an upstate workforce for the next generation

Recently, a new economic review and plan was completed by the Boston Consulting Group. This report showed our region lags behind our peers in almost all economic terms. The bottom line is we need economic growth for Rochester to remain competitive and, moving forward, we need the right focus and strategy.

Jeremy Cooney

Jeremy Cooney

Every politician talks about bringing technology to our region. But this is so broad it means almost nothing. Instead, we need focus to be successful. Internet pioneer Marc Andreessen coined the phrase “software is eating the world,” meaning it is the fastest growing industry, overshadowing all other technology growth sectors including upstate favorites like photonics (Rochester), nanotechnology (Albany), and solar (Buffalo). These are all noble investments by New York State, but they simply don’t drive the volume of jobs and economic growth to our region. Understand that the lion’s share of wealth is being generated in software; investment in these other technology sectors fail to move the needle. To understand this point, consider the five largest market cap companies in the world are all software companies: Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. Joining this movement and becoming a software hub could add 100,000 jobs to our region. That’s what we need to create the upstate economy for our children and grandchildren.

Aaron Newman

Aaron Newman

Particularly in Greater Rochester, we are well-positioned to be successful as a software hub. Rochester Institute of Technology is one of the top software engineering schools pumping out talent that ends up leaving our region. Additionally, our world-class colleges and universities are producing graduates ready to support technology growth through accounting, human resources, marketing, and sales. In short, our neighbors are highly educated and we have the infrastructure to support this movement.

But we need public and private leaders who are forward-looking and see beyond the traditional methods of economic development, such as tax incentives, real estate development, and grants for power or heavy machinery. These techniques worked for attracting manufacturing jobs, but won’t work for building software jobs here.

We need to focus on what matters. And the only thing that actually matters is sustainable access to talent. Rather than coming up with a new slogan or logo, we need to build a healthy supply of software architects, cloud engineers, software developers, and product managers. If we have these skills, we will bring these well-paying jobs to the region.

We need a concerted effort to be successful, including a focus on workforce training, attracting remote business investment and retaining our graduates.

We need to focus on training our local people with these skills. We need our local community colleges to teach middle-skill cloud and software skills such as those offered in high growth regions, such as Northern Virginia. We need new training programs, incentives, and internships that are not just focused on the old pillars of our upstate economy.

We need to attract existing software companies to open satellite offices here. Our leaders and economic development agencies need to be retooled to understand and target the right organizations. We need to get proactively involved in other communities that are software hubs already and share with them our competitive advantages. Instead of competing with downstate job growth, we must partner and create upstate job opportunities for families that value our quality of life.

We also need to retain the next generation of students we are training. We need jobs here that will make the best-and-the-brightest at RIT and University of Rochester want to stay. This is highly dependent on the previous efforts, as without the best jobs these students simply cannot afford to stay. We must also consider state legislation that will financially incentivize homegrown talent to move back to upstate for remote working opportunities. Other states, such as Vermont and Maine, have been successful at lowering the cost burden for workforce talent relocating from larger metropolitan areas. We should follow their lead.

Importantly, efforts must be made to make sure that every citizen has the ability to participate in the economic recovery of upstate. This means that we must be intentional with making sure job opportunities are made available to all levels of skills and backgrounds and do not result in educational barriers that limit the ability of our neighbors to be employed because they don’t possess expensive software certifications or come from traditional technology backgrounds. In short, if you want to work, we’ve got a job for you in the upstate of the future.

Jeremy Cooney is the former chief of staff for the City of Rochester and candidate for the New York Senate. Aaron Newman is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of CloudCheckr and BlocWatch.

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