Policy

Building Buffalo: Will there be jobs after the construction?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo stood at a podium at the RiverBend site in Buffalo early this month to proclaim a victory for the city’s economic turnaround.

Cuomo told the crowd of construction workers, developers and government types that for too long Buffalo and the rest of upstate had been neglected. His administration, through his Regional Economic Development Council, the Buffalo Billion initiative and other programs, was able to reverse that trend, he said, and the RiverBend site, soon to be home to one of the world’s largest solar panel manufacturing facilities, was proof of that sea change.

“It was an infusion to make up for all the years of abandonment,” Cuomo said during the topping-off ceremony marking the placement of the final steel beam at the 1 million-square-foot plant. “But at the end of the day, it’s working. It’s working. You see it here today. You see it all over the region.”

And indeed, construction at the site has kept the trades unions busy, with well over 1,000 men and women at work on that job alone. Meanwhile, construction continues at multiple sites on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and other sections of the city. Many of the unions report being at or near full employment.

But some have asked whether the permanent jobs at these sites will go to people from the area or if people with specialized skills will need to be brought in from the outside to handle the work at places like the SolarCity plant. 

Chris Schoepflin, Western New York’s regional director for Empire State Development, said he believes the region’s workforce, one of its selling points, is highly adaptable and will be able to handle the shift in industry focus.

Some of the more advanced industries that are coming to the area – like solar and biomedical – will require workers with specialized skill sets, but training programs for those jobs are taking shape, Schoepflin said.

“I think, largely, we have a ready and able workforce to fill the vast majority of the jobs being created,” he said.

Richard Lipsitz Jr., the Western New York Area Labor Federation president, said the construction boom has been great for members of his organization, an umbrella group that brings together many of the area’s unions.

And it doesn’t appear that work for the trades will be slowing anytime soon, with more work on the medical campus, SolarCity-related projects and presumably more large-scale developments on the way. 

“This is not minor construction,” Lipsitz said. “These are major, major building projects. That’s a lot of work and they are all going to take quite a while.”

More importantly, he added, the buildings they are putting up will be filled with employees working at jobs with good salaries and benefits.

“There’s going to be thousands of permanent jobs in all this stuff,” Lipsitz said. “Thousands of permanent jobs and many of them are going to be good-paying jobs. This is not something to sneeze at.”

The RiverBend site alone is expected to create almost 3,000 permanent manufacturing jobs. And Cuomo’s office projects that between now and 2020, between jobs created and those left vacant through retirement, about 17,000 manufacturing openings will become available in the area for those with the required skills. 

Still, Lipsitz said, his group will remain vigilant, working to provide opportunities for workers at these new facilities to unionize and making sure that the state follows through on the promises of delivering quality employment. 

“You can rest assured that the union movement is very interested in making sure that those become permanent, good-paying, good-benefitted jobs that will improve the economy of the entire region,” Lipsitz said. “That’s our job.”

But several community groups like PUSH Buffalo and Community Action Organization of Buffalo have raised concerns that those jobs will only benefit people already solidly in the middle class. People living at or near the poverty line will not have the skills to qualify for the advanced manufacturing jobs and may be left out of all the economic activity, the groups have said during several recent community meetings.

But Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, whose district includes some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, pointed to a variety of programs being built up or already underway that offer training opportunities to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds that will make them eligible for the new jobs.

She cited the Workforce Development Center, set to open in her district in 2017, and the nanotechnology and semiconductor programs at Erie Community College.

SolarCity has been working with Erie Community College to form a pipeline from the school to employment, and ECC recently received a $5.75 million grant for new equipment and labs to speed along the growth of its programs and ensure students are accustomed to state-of-the-art facilities. While there are only 35 students enrolled in the nanotechnology and semiconductor programs, college officials say interest has skyrocketed, with more than 150 people attending a recent open house.

All of this gives people access to an affordable education that can help them get into the new job markets being created, Peoples-Stokes said. 

“There have been a number of initiatives that focus on preparing the workforce that the school system didn’t prepare to go to work in the new economy that we’re building,” she said said.

The purpose of the Buffalo Billion and other economic development programs is not to solve societal problems in the region, the assemblywoman said – the county runs a social services system to handle those things. The purpose of the state’s economic development efforts, she said, is to bring in work so that people can use the educational services provided to lift themselves out of poverty – something that could not happen at all if these companies were locating elsewhere.

The purpose, Peoples-Stokes said, is “to go around the country, the world actually, and find businesses that will come here and build on the economy that we’ve created as the result of a specific strategy that came out of the Regional Economic Development Council.”

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