Workforce coalition makes headway in identifying needs of employers

When it comes to addressing workforce development for Buffalo’s business community, collaboration is the best approach.

That’s the strategy being implemented by a regional coalition of business, government, philanthropic, and nonprofit organizations to identify job opportunities, benefitting both Buffalo’s workforce and employers.

Employ Buffalo Niagara, led by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, is an employer-led collaboration of entities seeking to streamline policies, skills training, and workforce funding to better connect all people in the community to careers with local employers from small entrepreneurs to large regional companies.

“Systems change in workforce development does not occur overnight, and it will take a while to make high-level changes,” Laura Smith, vice president of economic development for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said. “But I think we’ve made great progress so far. This is a new approach to workforce development, and we have a strong coalition across private and public sectors.”

The program works to more efficiently tap the potential talent pool in a range of sectors, from tourism to healthcare to manufacturing. When employers do a better job of honing in on what skills and competencies are truly required for open positions and communicate them in aggregate more clearly, agencies and training entities that help individuals into positions will be able to better respond. Smith stressed the importance of workforce development for the incumbent worker, too. This is a “push-pull” strategy that, to be truly effective, will help employers “upskill” individuals to move from entry-level into a higher-skill position, opening up opportunities at the lower-rung for the underemployed in the community seeking higher-paying, career-tracked jobs. That leads to healthier communities across Western New York.

Smith said the program’s development has been evolving for about four years, which involved research analysis, background work, and observation of trends both locally and nationally. Employ Buffalo Niagara is based on models used successfully in other communities, including Houston, Texas. The U.S. Dept. of Commerce has recognized Employ as a model program at the federal level.

“The process is totally scalable,” Smith said. “It’s pretty exciting. There’s an appetite for it in the community and in New York state as well. It’s something our region is piloting.”

A major component of Employ is growing opportunities for the region’s working poor and minority populations, which face barriers in transportation and training in earning livable wages in career-tracked positions. If a segment of the population is working multiple jobs to make ends meet, how can they find time to participate in additional training without a significant loss in wages? These are some of the overarching issues Employ seeks to address.

Beyond that, Employ works to improve communication and marketing of these programs to high school and technical school students, to put young people on track for high-growth careers.

Its work is done in tandem with the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable, and workforce training for minority populations has been a priority of Buffalo City Mayor Byron Brown. “To get folks out of poverty, they’re going to need jobs,” Smith added. "That’s really where coming up with creative solutions is important.”

Employ Buffalo Niagara looks to build efficiency through the interactions of a wide spectrum of agencies, Smith said. Other workforce programs, like the Northland Corridor workforce program, focus on specific sectors in a specific neighborhood. That is part of the flow and is complementary to Employ’s goals, Smith said.

With agencies collaborating, specific skills and needs can more readily be identified. “It really is about identifying what are the job openings, who else shares that, and how do we leverage that,” Smith said.

Approximately 82 individuals sit on the Employ Coalition, which meets again in February. Entrepreneurs and startups play an important role on that board, Smith said. If they need to fill staff, from coders to administrative assistants, Employ is building an infrastructure from which startup leaders can draw.

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