More than 1,200 leaders marched into Bennett High School auditorium for a public meeting at which Labor Secretary Thomas Perez delivered a keynote on the need for jobs and job training to benefit everyone in the region. (see more pictures)
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez summed up the purpose of a public meeting in Buffalo Tuesday in a phrase when he told the crowd that, "Zip code should never determine destiny."
Economic development in the Niagara-Buffalo region is clearly a tale of two cities. But Perez and a half dozen public leaders spoke out with a single voice to support a plan for workforce training advanced by affiliates VOICE-Buffalo and NOAH Tuesday night.
The region has received $5.5 billion in new economic development over the past few years and leaders expect thousands of jobs to come on line in the next couple years, speakers said. But across the region, 37% of African Americans and Hispanics live below the poverty line, compared to 9% for whites.
The jobs are there, VOICE President Pastor James Giles told a crowd of 1,200. For example he noted that in Buffalo the average age of manufacturing workers is 58, so over the next decade or so as many people retire, thousands more jobs will open up.
But, Giles said, “for the African-American urban community, for the Hispanic or refugee communities, for handicapped communities--it has not translated into economic power. What has been missing is the community component.”
Perez, a Buffalo native, had been invited by VOICE leader Paul Vukelic, a longtime friend and local business owner. His presence brought key players together around a plan that is crystallizing to provide soft-skills training and mentorship, add diversity in the construction trades, and provide the region’s sizable refugee community with additional job-training resources.
“This is a group of serial activists, ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Perez told the room as part of a ‘keynote address’ on jobs and the regional economy. "I’ve got unbridled optimism because you have remarkable leadership up hear [on the stage] and the power of we down there [in the auditorium]."
VOICE and NOAH, which together form the regional group Gamaliel of Western New York, are working with Catholic Charities, PUSH-Buffalo, and social service agency Back to Basics on the proposal. It has three parts:
Recruitment, mentorship and soft skills training are the most difficult yet most essential aspects of successful workforce training and placement. Grassroots community organizations and faith-based partners anchored in the community have the relationships to conduct this work most effectively.
NOAH has engaged the political leadership of Niagara Falls and construction labor unions in dialogue and negotiations, and established with Dyster a collaborative that includes Niagara trade union leadership. This task force is developing a pipeline for people of color to pursue jobs in the construction trades. This can be expanded later to Buffalo.
Catholic Charities and Niagara University previously developed and ran a specialized educational training program to help refugee students enter into the hospitality sector of the Buffalo Niagara region. This collaborative can be re-established. Since many of the refugee students who are likely to succeed in the program need additional support before they get to a college readiness program, Catholic Charities would be a major partner and grant administrator to increase their capacity for work readiness and education.
“We talk about physical infrastructure but equally important is our human capital infrastructure,” Perez told the crowd.
Local officials at the public meeting noted their support for the new strategy.
“In some ways these are the best of the times but not none of this means anything to young people who feel they are not sharing in the fruits of the economic development in the region,” Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster told a crowd of more than 1,000.
Dyster pledged to implement a local-hire policy in Niagara Falls, leading the way along with Buffalo’s mayor and Erie County executive. The county will be introducing a “first source” local-hire initiative in the coming weeks.
This event received lots of news coverage, see some of the stories here:
In Buffalo Visit, U.S. Labor Secretary Joins Push Against Racial Inequality, City & State
Labor Secretary Perez touts economic growth and his Buffalo roots, Buffalo News
U.S. Labor Secretary preaches the power of 'we', WBFO public radio
U.S. Labor Secretary Perez addresses workforce bias in WNY, WIVB TV 4 CBS
US Labor Secretary: inclusive growth matters, Investigative Post
Labor secretary expected for meeting on workforce diversity, AP
Perez on importance of Workforce Development, WGRZ Ch 2 NBC