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Public-private Partnership Acts to Stem Tide of Talent Leaving Central New York

October 28, 2005
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Five years ago, Peter Soderberg was determined to accomplish two things: aggressively grow his medical device manufacturing company’s business by 15 percent annually, and keep it in Skaneateles, Falls, New York, where it has had its headquarters since 1915.

    Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for him to realize how difficult it would be to have it both ways.

    Soderberg, who was coming aboard as president and CEO of Welch Allyn, saw that Central New York was systematically losing its talent base.

    Employers throughout the region were packing up and leaving--many opting for cheaper labor abroad. Once a major manufacturing hub, Central New York had been crippled by major layoffs as companies such as Allied Chemical and General Electric moved jobs offshore. The region lost 6,500 jobs from 2000 to 2002. With the job losses, people left too. The population was decreasing 5 percent to 10 percent a year. Clearly, Soderberg had reason to be worried about his company’s ability to grow in the region.

    Meanwhile, in Syracuse, members of the Metropolitan Development Association of Syracuse and Central New York, a group of executives from 100 local companies, had been having discussions about what to do to stem the loss of jobs. It was apparent that its previous approach of encouraging investment in research and development was not enough to address a key part of the problem: an outflow of young talent.

    The city of Syracuse and its 12 surrounding counties had 35 colleges and universities with 130,000 students and a workforce that was 20 percent more educated than the national average. Despite this, out of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, the Syracuse suburbs suffered the greatest loss of young people during the ’90s.

    "It was clearly evident to us that we didn’t put enough emphasis on people," says Irwin Davis, president of the Metropolitan Development Association.

    The story of an old manufacturing region trying to reinvent itself and revive its economy is not unique, but what is different about Central New York’s story is how executives and local government officials came together to address the problem. The program they created, the Essential New York Initiative, set out to identify industries most likely to grow in the region and stimulate collaboration among companies. It worked to establish links between employers and universities. It created clear strategies to attract young talent to the region and tried to build a public recognition of Central New York as a distinct region.

    Only in its second year, the program has already generated some results. For the first time in years, the region’s population is increasing, reversing more than a decade of losses. It is also seeing job creation. From August 2004 to August 2005, the Syracuse area alone saw a net increase of 4,900 jobs, a gain of 1.6 percent. Earlier this month, the region hosted its second annual 40 Below Summit, which brought together more than 1,000 attendees under the age of 40 to explore ways to revitalize the area and make it more attractive to both younger business owners and employees.

    A lot of regions will bemoan their problems in generating jobs, "but then they have the business community and the economic development officials working in silos," says Lou Musante, managing partner at Catalytix. The company was hired along with the Battelle Memorial Institute, a technology consultant, to create a blueprint for the program. With the Essential New York Initiative, he says, local government is really listening to the corporate base.

Identifying industry clusters
When Battelle consultants interviewed Soderberg about the challenges facing employers, he talked about the need for companies within the same industry to work together. "It was more likely that we were going to meet a company that we could partner with at a trade fair in Düsseldorf, Germany, than we would in Syracuse," he says.

    Battelle and Catalytix identified the biggest industry clusters within the region, which included environmental technology, biosciences, digital and electronic devices and education. They recommended that employers work together to network within each cluster.

    Jumping on the opportunity, Soderberg and his industry peers formed Central New York MedTech, a not-for-profit trade group comprising executives from 54 organizations, including technology manufacturers, research institutions and universities, to work together on medical technology projects. Rather than view one another just as competitors, the companies have been busy brainstorming on joint ventures. For example, Welch Allyn has teamed up with the State University College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry and Tessy Plastics of Elbridge, New York, to develop biodegradable plastic. Although it is too early to predict how many jobs such ventures will create, Soderberg says that these kinds of relationships would never have happened two years ago.

    Identifying occupational clusters was another part of the consultants’ work for the Essential New York Initiative. Occupational clusters refer to the groups of people that perform a certain function in different industries. For example, 60 percent of people employed in information technology do not work for an information technology company, Musante says. "A lot of these people are working at hospitals and banks," he says.

    By collecting data on the different occupational clusters, Catalytix and Battelle were able to arm the Metropolitan Development Association with statistics that they could use to market to companies considering opening offices in the region, says Robert Simpson, assistant to the president of the Metropolitan Development Association.

    Those statistics were enough to assure Mary Beth Farrell, executive vice president of services at AXA Financial Advisors, which moved part of its service operations from Secaucus, New Jersey, to an existing service center in Syracuse last year. The company had the choice of moving people to its service centers in Syracuse or Charlotte, North Carolina, but the officials in Syracuse won them over, Farrell says.

    "We wanted to know if the state and county would be supportive of the industry and of a company of our size being there, and they convinced us of their commitment," she says.

    Out of the 550 employees working out of the service center, 48 moved from Secaucus and 265 were hired from September through December 2004.

    "We figured that we could hire, train and have people in place at a rate of 30 to 50 people per month," Farrell says, adding that AXA was able to hire 35 employees a month and expects to ultimately have 960 to 1,000 employees working at the Syracuse center.

Under-40 club
    When Metropolitan Development Association officials unveiled the Essential New York Initiative, much of the focus was on the need for employers and universities to work together to persuade young people to stay in the region after they complete their education. Twenty-six-year-old Jessica Crawford, an upstate New York native, could relate to the problem. Crawford, associate director in the government community relations office of Syracuse University, had recently received her master’s degree in public affairs at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and subsequently watched her friends take jobs in Washington.

    So when Simpson, a former classmate of Crawford’s, called her about creating a summit for the under-40 population, she was excited about the idea.

    In November 2004, the Metropolitan Development Association held its first 40 Below Summit at the Syracuse Convention Center. Crawford and Simpson expected a crowd of 200 or so. More than 600 people showed up. The one-day event featured panels on such topics as entrepreneurship and leadership skills, as well as a town hall where 28 local elected officials fielded questions and concerns from attendees.

    A few days after the summit, Crawford and her team came up with an action plan that included the creation of five task forces made up of people under 40 in the region.

    One task force is dedicated to workforce development and training of young entrepreneurs. Another tackles marketing and communications. There is a task force on developing leadership opportunities, dedicated to getting people under 40 on the boards of local entities. An arts task force has a goal of raising awareness about local arts and cultural groups and attracting more artists to the region. Finally, an adaptive reuse task force has the goal of identifying creative uses for abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

    Some groups already are seeing results. The leadership task force has placed 58 people on local boards in the region. Earlier this month, the group held the second annual 40 Below Summit, bringing in about 1,000 attendees.

    Word-of-mouth is working. "I have friends come up to me and tell me that their bosses told them to attend the summit," Crawford says. "The companies want to get involved to recruit people." The summit now has 44 corporate sponsors.

    While Soderberg still has some concerns about Welch Allyn’s ability to find local talent that matches its needs, he remains optimistic. The launch of the region’s first job portal, Essentialnyjobs.com, is one of the many reasons he’s hopeful. The site, which went live in July, is a search engine that merges job posting links for Central New York. The database currently contains 9,204 job links from 450 Web sites.

    "We are not putting all of eggs in one basket," Soderberg says, adding that Welch Allyn just opened a research and development center in Singapore. "But the incredible collaboration and the support the MDA is getting from the government and universities speaks to the quality of the people we have in this region."

Workforce Management, October 24, 2005, p. 50-52 -- Subscribe Now!

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