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CNY workforce needs a boost before Micron opportunities can be accessible to all

Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul
Governor Kathy Hochul, Senator Chuck Schumer, Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon and Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra announce 100 billion private investment in mega-complex of computer chip plants in Central New York, creating 9,000 jobs over 20 years.

Rob Simpson grew up in Utica, New York. He was always told he had to leave the Upstate area to make something of himself.

 “I clearly internalized it because I left Upstate New York. I left for seven years. And it took me awhile to realize what I had left and what I was missing,” Simpson said.

Simpson now is the President and CEO of CenterState CEO. He said Central New York has an honest, simple ethos without pretentiousness. That ethos is one of factors that led technology company Micron to choose White Pine Commerce Park in Clay as the home of their new semiconductor chip plant. Simpson said it will change how people can imagine their future in the region, including his ten-year-old son.

Katie Zilcosky
A sign for White Pine Commerce Park in Clay, NY sits in an empty field, October 12, 2022.

“He's not going to be told he has to leave here to find a job or to get opportunity. He may choose to leave for his own reasons to go and grow. But it will be his choice, not because he has to. And I think the same can be said for every other young person in this community, they will have opportunity here guaranteed now in a way that they haven't in probably two generations. And just as a father, as a community resident that feels amazing,” Simpson said.

Micron estimates the plant will generate 50,000 in the area, including 9,000 directly at Micron. Their $100 billion plans to open up shop in Clay is the largest private investment in state history. But the current workforce will need a boost before the area can meet this opportunity fully and equitably.

CenterState CEO Vice President of Economic Inclusion Dominic Robinson said the local workforce doesn't currently have the bandwidth to accommodate the jobs to come. Organizations will have to scale up workforce development efforts with a commitment to equity for people newly entering the job market, but also those already in it.

“It is our imperative to make sure that people who are currently on the margins of our economy are going to benefit from this opportunity. Right? The good news is, is that they're out there, right? We have a lot of untapped talent,” Robinson said.

Robinson notes that nearly 40% of Onondaga County’s current workforce could be classified as “under-employed,” or they’re working but likely rely on some public assistance to make ends meet. Robinson said these are people with a good work history, often working multiple jobs at once, with transferable skills. They could be well situated to take advantage of upcoming opportunities, but there needs to be more training and supports to make sure they can.

“We need to look for infusions of money. We need to bring in more talent to help support this work. But the good news is we already have a pretty strong roadmap,” Robinson said.

Within that roadmap are programs like Syracuse Build and ERIE21. Director of ERIE21 Amanda Miles said the program has trained over 600 community members to enter the technology economy since their pilot launched in 2018.

Miles agrees that the infusion of opportunity Micron will bring coupled with current job offerings is exciting. But scaling up to meet the demand can be tricky.

ERIE21 and many programs like it works primarily off grant funding, which has limitations and an expiration date. There are also institutional restraints on individuals, such as how much a person can make before they lose essential benefits.

“You think you could open these opportunities, and people would be banging down the door to get in. But there's a lot of structural change that has to happen to make sure that we can continue to scale and serve the individuals on this community,” Miles said. “I think the more opportunities that we have to get together and kind of evaluate resources and see how we can work together to make these programs happen. will break down that barrier of making it really difficult to grow.”

Addressing those barriers and making needed changes were on the agenda of a recent event hosted by Greater Syracuse Works and PEACE, Inc. Dozens of workforce development professionals gathered for a conversation on how the Central New York workforce ecosystem can be more equitable and effective.

Maribel Arce is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Syracuse Community Center Collaborative. Arce said her ongoing conversations with direct service staff revealed the fragmented nature of the workforce ecosystem and the need for a holistic approach that addresses basic needs of workers, such as housing and transportation.

She points out there isn’t one solution. It’s going to take continued communication about the system’s current obstacles in order to resolve them.

“I think we need to have these difficult conversations about race about equity, about barriers, and what are the barriers in place that need to be lifted? And what are the best channels to do it? And we also need to talk about what are the supports that are needed that currently don't exist. So I think there's a lot of conversations to come,” Arce said.

There’s still time to have these conversations before Micron arrives. They intend to start site prep work in 2023 and construction in 2024. Many like Arce are hopeful that partners across the region will use that time to break down the silos and step up to build an equitable technology economy.

Katie Zilcosky is WAER’s All Things Considered host and features reporter. She also co-hosts WAER’s public affairs show Syracuse Speaks. As a reporter, she focuses on technology, economy, and identity.