Northland training center answers manufacturing’s call

Story originally ran on Sunday, January 26, 2020 in The Buffalo News

Facility filling growing gap left by retiring workers

By Matt Glynn
NEWS BUSINESS REPORTER

Just outside the classrooms at the Northland Workforce Training Center, job recruiters from Niagara Transformer Corp. in Cheektowaga were seated at a table, making their pitch.

New manufacturing workers are in great demand, and this is one place to find them.

One of the recruiters, Kelly Benzo, praised a Northland graduate now working as a tester at the company. She recalled when the same person was working at a supermarket deli counter. Niagara Transformer was hoping to find more success stories in the making.

“We are sorely lacking some of these vocations,” said Benzo, senior human resources manager. “That’s why we thought it would be a great fit to come and talk to Northland students.”

Stephen Tucker, president and CEO of the Northland Workforce Training Center, smiled as he took in the scene. For all of the thought, effort and investment poured into Northland’s training facilities, this is the outcome he has foremost in mind.

“Everything at Northland, we want it to lead to a job,” he said.

Manufacturers face a pressing challenge: A wave of experienced workers are nearing retirement, and too few candidates have the right skills ready to replace them. Unemployment – hovering around 4% – is low, and a generation of workers across Buffalo Niagara has been discouraged from seeking careers in manufacturing, at a time when two of every five manufacturing jobs have vanished since 1990.

Factory employment has stabilized in recent years, but the exodus of older, experienced workers continues.

“We have a lot of people that are aging out,” Benzo said. “We need more young people.”

The question is, where to find them?

The Northland training center is designed to be part of the solution, with its programs in electrical, machine tool, welding and mechatronics. The electrical program has a waiting list. An additional training program, focused on energy, is on the way.

As of late last year, the training center had about 200 students. About half of them were minorities, and 10% of them were women, Tucker said. An additional 60 students were set to enroll this month.

Tucker would like the center’s enrollment to grow to 300 or 350 students. But finding qualified instructors – individuals with experience in their trade and the ability to manage a classroom – is difficult.

“It’s a very unique skill set,” he said.

 

David Soggs, a second-year student at the Northland center, pauses to inspect his work last month while joining sections of pipe in his stall in the welding technology program offered through Alfred State College.

Meanwhile, demand from employers to hire Northland graduates runs high. Guy Allan, placement manager for the training center, helps students get and keep jobs once they complete their technical training. One company that contacted him was trying to hire 11 welders.

“The amount of jobs that are out there are so plentiful, and as the employees are aging out and retiring, there’s no backfill,” Allan said. “So this is the perfect opportunity to backfill these jobs.”

Tucker said the Northland training center’s approach goes beyond teaching students an occupation.

“I think this is a model that provides a comprehensive approach, with the wraparound services,” he said. “We don’t just enroll a student in class and leave it up to them. We support them along the way” as students cope with issues like child care and transportation.

The training center is the anchor of the revitalized former Niagara Machine and Tool complex, but it is only part of the picture. Insyte Consulting and the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance moved their offices there. Buffalo Manufacturing Works, a resource to help manufacturers innovate, recently arrived.

“We’re going to create an ecosystem that’s going to be very attractive for manufacturers looking to locate in our region,” Tucker said. “Because now we have all the services that they say they need, whether it’s access to a qualified workforce, research and development and prototyping at Buffalo Manufacturing Works, process improvement with Insyte Consulting.”

The Northland complex has brought together different manufacturing-related organizations into one spot. Insyte and the manufacturing alliance were in the Larkin at Exchange building. Buffalo Manufacturing Works used to be on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

It’s now much easier for all of those different parties to meet up, said Ben Rand, president of Insyte Consulting. “It deepens the relationships between the organizations.”

At the same time, the rejuvenated Northland complex has bolstered a section of the city historically lacking new investment.

More is on the way. SparkCharge, the 2018 43North champion, is leasing space at the complex. SUNY Empire State College has formed a five-year partnership with the training center, joining Alfred State College and Erie Community College.

Chloe Black, below, works on an assignment in the welding technology program.

Students Desmon Palmer, left, Charles McCain, center, and Tristan Walczak set up a motor during a class project in the mechatronics program.

Chloe Boka installs a variable frequency drive during a lab. About 10% of Northland’s students are women.

Evin Bernard, left, consults a wiring diagram while installing a variable frequency drive with Alex Ferrucci during a lab in the electrical construction and maintenance electrician program last month.

Evan Lenhard, a student in the welding technology program, uses a grinder to clean off his workbench.

Amanda Myke installs a variable frequency drive during a lab session in the electrical construction and maintenance electrician program offered through Alfred State College at the Northland center.