MEDINA, N.Y. — Industry experts say there are thousands of skilled manufacturing jobs in Western New York, but the problem is finding enough workers to fill open positions. A relatively new program at Orleans-Niagara BOCES aims to fill the employment gap by training students early and creating a pipeline between the campus and regional businesses.
"What you're getting from a student at Orleans-Niagara BOCES or any other BOCES we're in, you're getting someone who is skilled, who's knowledgeable. Who, at 17 or 18 years old will be able to come into your shop, learn on a machine and really hit the ground running," said Rich Turner, director of workforce development for the Rochester Technology Manufacturing Association and Finger Lakes Youth Apprenticeship Program coordinator.
High school juniors and seniors can job shadow, and seniors can even get paid co-ops at regional manufacturing companies.
They're using the skills they learn at BOCES — machining, welding, grinding — and applying them in the real world.
Turner works with BOCES, area schools, teachers, and businesses to identify job opportunities and to match students with the right company.
They even held a "signing day" to celebrate the students and their new opportunities.
"We do it like the NFL draft, NBA draft, where everyone is a first round, first overall pick for their respective companies. We celebrate them, and it is really bringing awareness for manufacturing careers for young people," said Turner.
Senior Charles Rickard is a part-time CNC machinist at Custom Laser Inc. in Lockport, but he was just offered a full-time position after he graduates. He says he's never liked sitting and learning in a traditional classroom. Instead, he excels in the shop and "learning by doing."
"Your teacher gives you something and says here go figure it out. You have to learn by yourself, and it's a great learning opportunity to be able to figure things out by yourself," said Rickard. "I think it's an amazing opportunity that I get to walk in here and get hands on experience for two years, and I'm going to be walking out of here certified and ready to go."
Student Jacob Lundy is a CNC setup machinist and operator at Niagara Precision Inc. where he makes parts for the automotive and aerospace industry.
He became interested in the program after visiting the machine shop at BOCES during a 10th grade field trip.
"I'd say the biggest thing it has done for me is it has given me an outlook into the future. Even with COVID and hybrid learning, this was something I could look forward to. It gave me some stability in my life, and it gave me a future," said Lundy.
Turner said the average age of skilled workers in Western New York is 56. They have decades of experience, but time is running out to find and train people as the older generation retires.
Program participants get 200 or more hours of on-the-job instruction, and they can go on to take college courses — for free — thanks to dual enrollment grants from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation.
"This year out of all of our students that have done job shadows and co-ops, they have taken over 225 college courses, free to them and free to the schools. [It's] in manufacturing related instruction, which is actually good for a certificate, degree or NYS registered apprenticeship. That's a huge advantage when someone can leave high school with two, three, four college classes under their belts," said Turner.
William Rakonczay has been teaching a machining class at BOCES for nearly three decades. He's seen hundreds of students go on to successful careers in the manufacturing field, but especially in the three years since the apprenticeship program started.
"I've got kids that own their own companies right now. I've got kids that are big time engineers. I've got kids running all types of cool, latest equipment. It's really good to see them successful, and it all started here," said Rakonczay.
The apprenticeship program started three years ago. In the first year, four schools, 15 businesses, and 32 students participated. Eight of 16 seniors got jobs when they were done with school.
In the second year, the number of participating schools, students, and businesses doubled, and 13 of 34 seniors were working in the manufacturing field. Now they're up to 17 schools plus homeschool students — 168 students got job shadows and paid co-ops. Of those, 77 are seniors, and at least a dozen have landed jobs.