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Closing the skills gap for the jobs of today and the future

The RiverBend site in South Buffalo is supposed to be bustling in just 18 months with scientists doing research and laborers producing solar panels that will provide energy all over the country.

Around the same time, area classrooms will come alive with students as young as 6 studying the most basic concepts of production and science. They will start with hands-on activities such as fashioning pipe cleaners into replicas of the compounds being worked with at the SolarCity factory. By the time they reach high school, they may study the actual particles while using professional-grade equipment.

As business and political leaders celebrate the nearly 3,000 jobs that will come with the SolarCity project, they and educators across the state also are looking for ways to prepare a cadre of workers. And in some cases that will start in the earliest grades of the public school system.

Buffalo’s economy is reinventing itself, and with it so are programs in area schools as educators look to prepare students for future jobs in growth industries such as manufacturing, health care and hospitality.

In the next decade, the state Labor Department figures that Buffalo-area employers will need to hire 165,000 workers, and demographics suggest that number could be even greater depending on when baby boomers retire.

Jobs at SolarCity, where state leaders broke ground last week, will range from manufacturing positions that pay $45,000 a year to engineers and researchers making upward of $100,000.

“The numbers tell a story,” said Christina P. Orsi, executive director of Empire State Development Corp. “It’s very eye-opening for school districts and parents and teachers. These are really good-paying jobs. When you start to communicate that to parents, they start to see it as an option.”

Evidence of the educational shift is apparent all over the region.

The Niagara Falls district this year created labs in all of its schools that allow students to study the high demand STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The Cattaraugus-Allegany Board of Cooperative Educational Services is developing a nanotechnology curriculum for students in kindergarten through 12th grade that will be available to schools throughout the area.

Across the state, businesses and school districts are teaming up to launch career-focused programs tailored to modern workforce needs, including one at Buffalo’s Burgard High School that aims to prepare students for jobs in the advanced manufacturing industries.

‘We lost a generation’

State education leaders are also close to introducing a new option that will allow students to take career courses instead of more traditional Regents classes to earn their high school diplomas.

“The career tech programs are being designed and developed in response to employment opportunities — both current and those in the future,” said Donald A. Ogilvie, interim superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools and former superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES, the area’s long-standing provider of vocational training.

“I’d venture to say that’s a departure. In the past, we had a stable economy, and the workforce was pretty predictable. Now, there’s a churning taking place. School districts, workforce developers, students and adults all have to be conditioned to the changing demands of the local and regional economy.”

Business leaders have long voiced concerns that U.S. schools do not adequately prepare students for today’s jobs, largely dominated by science, technology and manufacturing.

“We still have a skills mismatch,” said Howard A. Zemsky, managing partner of Larkin Development Group and key economic adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “Too many businesses looking for people, and too many people without the in-demand skills looking for jobs. This problem is poised to get worse with so many retirements on the horizon.”

The message delivered to students for decades was straightforward: Go to college to be successful. Public school systems positioned themselves to help students reach that goal, loading up their curriculum with advanced courses across a broad range of subject areas.

Related: SolarCity sees growth increasing rapidly

The strategy, however, didn’t keep up with economic realities. Masses of students graduated from high school and went on to college — then left with degrees and loads of debt, but still lacking the qualifications for the jobs available to them.

Students who didn’t finish high school faced an even dimmer outlook.

And prospects became worse for everyone during the recession, fueling in Buffalo some of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

Now, as cities such as Buffalo seek to reinvent themselves — and their economies — business leaders acknowledge their workforce ranks are limited and become even more so as older workers retire with no one to replace them.

“Frankly, we keep hearing over and over that in industry, they can’t find people with the skills they need,” Orsi said. “We lost a generation.”

Area development agencies have been working with colleges, BOCES and community organizations to develop programs — both fast-track and more in-depth — to prepare workers for the available positions.

State leaders several years ago adapted their approach for developing new programs, moving to one that sought collaboration between business and education leaders. Development agencies start by talking to business leaders to identify their needs and the necessary skills for employees. They then partner with educators to develop curricula for training programs. Community agencies play a vital role connecting job seekers with appropriate programs.

“It’s a much more holistic approach to connect people with jobs,” said Alphonso B. David, the state’s deputy secretary and counsel for civil rights.

The state targeted areas with the highest unemployment numbers to offer this kind of strategic support. As part of the governor’s Buffalo Billion initiative, it launched the Advance Buffalo Program, which recruits and trains interested workers.

In the last 14 months, that initiative has recruited 2,000 people for job-preparation programs. Of those, 700 workers have already been placed in positions.

“Folks are graduating from colleges and universities, and they have degrees that don’t actually translate into jobs,” David said, contrasting the old and new approaches. “We’re looking to deconstruct the process so when these folks graduate, they have a piece of paper that translates into employment.”

State leaders now expect the Buffalo program to play a key role recruiting employees for SolarCity, and eventually want to expand it to other parts of the state.

As programs like Advance Buffalo target more immediate needs and focus on current workers, business and education leaders are also looking to prepare the next generation for the jobs that will be available when they graduate from high school or college.

Along with helping fill workforce needs, educators point to research that shows students who participate in career-focused programs graduate from high school in higher numbers. In New York’s large urban school systems, about 84 percent of students in career programs finish high school, compared to about 57 percent of the overall population.

Eyeing those kinds of results, business and education leaders partnered to launch a new advanced manufacturing program at Burgard. The program, unveiled last year as part of the Buffalo Billion, enables students to graduate within five years with both a high school career certification and an associate’s degree from Alfred State College in a related field. The program started enrolling students this school year.

Elsewhere in the state, school districts are launching similar partnerships modeled after the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, which operates as a partnership between the New York City schools, IBM and two area colleges. Students who finish the program are first in line for jobs with the company.

The state awarded grants to each of its 16 economic-development districts to replicate the program, and locally the Lackawanna school district partnered with BOCES, Trocaire College and Catholic Health System to create one focused on health care professions.

Some districts are even trying to target students at a younger age.

The Western New York Regional Economic Development Council’s “Dream It, Do It” programs connect teachers and schools with industry to help them learn about trades and even incorporate professional skills into their teaching.

Teachers might go on tours of manufacturing facilities, or invite a professional into their classrooms to speak with students. The program also offers manufacturing and tech camps, which allow students to learn more about everything from robotics to engineering and biomanufacturing.

BOCES Cattaraugus-Allegany’s nanotechnology — anything that measures less than a millimeter — curriculum will offer schools a framework to introduce the concept to students all the way from kindergarten through high school.

“It’s a hard concept to get your brain around, that’s why we want to start at a young age,” said Matthew Clark, a teacher who helped develop the program. “You just start by teaching students to think about the smallest thing that they know. We just want kids to start thinking about these things.”

The agency is getting ready to promote the program to districts that might be interested, and then roll out full programs in the schools next year.

The WNY STEM Hub is also working to connect businesses and educators with each other, and resources. The newly formed group is also sponsoring robotics clubs and putting together a WNY STEM Trail that will give students and community members a chance to learn about science in their own communities.

‘Transformation happening’

“It starts early with the natural curiosity and creativity that young people bring to their learning,” said Michelle Kavanaugh, facilitator of the WNY STEM Hub. “It’s about cultivating that so that students are curious about what opportunities might be available in the real world.

“This is transformation happening under our nose. It’s not a coincidence this is happening.”

Educators say the goal of such programs is to provide students with a solid foundation of skills they can build on, whether in college or the work force. And those who do go on to college would be able to apply their skills on the job, while pursuing their education.

After years of considering a plan that would allow students to take a career program instead of other Regents exams, the state Board of Regents appears to be close to approving that option.

“I’m getting letters from school districts saying, ‘Finally, thank you, we’re ready to go,'” said Robert M. Bennett, chancellor emeritus of the Board of Regents, who hopes the option will be approved in time for the next school year. “The sooner we can get them exposed to the real world of employment, the better prepared they’ll be.”