Where are all the unemployed people?

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Scott SittigDid you know that the Finger Lakes Region is number one in New York State in sales of milk, fruits and nuts, corn and organic products?  I didn’t until recently.  Many of us know intuitively that agriculture is important to our region’s economy, not to mention our health and well being.  Just ask my wife who regularly braves the large crowds on Saturday at Rochester’s downtown farmers market for our weekly supply of produce.  Our region is rich in productive farmland. Despite a relatively short growing season, we produce one-third of the State’s ag output by value, benefiting people all over the country.

All of this makes the Agriculture and Food Processing “economic cluster” a critical component to our region’s discussion of how to win the $40 million of economic development money being dangled like a fresh carrot in front of the regions of NYS.  I recently attended this cluster group’s meetings and came away fascinated by one question everyone was asking, “Where are all the people who don’t have jobs?”  Despite 9% national unemployment and 7% unemployment locally, the number one complaint of ag and food processing business owners is that they can’t find workers.  Can’t find workers?  The owner of one well-respected food processing company shared that he actually scuttled the opening of a plant in a rural area of our region because he could not find enough qualified workers.

This is not an unfamiliar refrain.  I have heard this theme in the advanced manufacturing and tourism sectors as well.  There are simply not enough qualified people in certain market niches for these companies to hire.  What is that niche?  It is described as “middle-skill.”  These are folks who need a two year associate’s degree at best or applicable trade skills and some basic training in machine operations.  The August 2011 BLS data revealed that those with some college education up to an associate’s degree were unemployed at a rate of 8.2%.  Where are those people?

It is hard to imagine that these folks don’t know the jobs are being offered.  What many business leaders have realized is that there is a skills mismatch between what we are training young people for and what the marketplace needs.  Our region has begun in small ways to address the skills gap.  Finger Lakes and Monroe Community Colleges have created some trade level programs designed to fill this “middle-skill” tier of talent.  But the ag folks believe there needs to be a better pipeline starting in grade school that promotes the industry as a profession.  More kids in grade school need to see that manufacturing, agricultural production, agricultural research, food processing and the like make for great professional opportunities.

Middle-skill technicians are not highly prized in our society and there is a stigma associated with not pursuing a four-year college degree.  Yet, many of these middle-skill jobs will earn decent wages and will be staples in our economy for many years to come.  As technology advances in each of these industries, they are going to need folks to run their machines and make these businesses competitive.  If we can grow a talent pool that matches the needs these industries have, then we may be able to give not only our region but also our State a competitive advantage. It may not result in the immediate return of jobs, but it will contribute to a long term economic benefit for our region.