ProTrain Bridges the 'Skills Gap' in Syracuse

Kira Crawford and her collaborators are in the business of challenging assumptions.

Many Central New Yorkers believe that regional manufacturing is a thing of the past. Well-paying factory floor jobs have disappeared in today’s global economy, leaving behind only abandoned streets and rusting infrastructure.

In reality, about 38,000 Central New Yorkers work in the manufacturing sector, accounting for about 9% of our region’s total workforce. Companies like Anaren, which produces microelectronic components for the space, defense, and telecommunications industries, as well as Knowles, a Cazenovia-based business that builds high performance capacitors, are two of the many high-tech manufacturers in Central New York.

“We have a thriving tech corridor, but not everyone sees it,” says Crawford.

Another pervasive assumption? Businesses like Anaren and Knowles aren’t interested in hiring and retaining local talent, and the only available positions at these companies require expensive, specialized degrees.

Again, Crawford notes that many manufacturing companies not only have entry-level positions available, they’re eager to hire and develop local talent. Manufacturers like Anaren have several managers and executives that started their careers out on the production floor. Furthermore, these companies are not exclusively searching for candidates with four year degrees.

Manufacturing in Central New York and across the United States is not defunct, but it has changed. The sector currently suffers from a ‘skills gap’, where companies are unable to find qualified individuals to fill open roles, especially in middle skill positions. High tech manufacturing demands a different set of skills than those that guaranteed factory jobs in the past. Moreover, the skillsets needed for success in today’s manufacturing sector are often absent from traditional educational settings.

This is where Crawford and her team comes in. Crawford oversees ProTrain, the newest program out of WorkTrain, an initiative sponsored in part by Centerstate CEO. Crawford describes ProTrain as a ‘bridge’ connecting some of Central New York’s manufacturers with individuals interested in a manufacturing career. The ProTrain ‘bridge’ takes the form of an intensive six week program, featuring a curriculum specifically designed to meet the needs of manufacturing companies. The employer-based pedagogy ensures that students hone the specific skillsets needed for long-term success partner companies like Anaren.

ProTrain recognizes that education doesn’t take place in a vacuum. External concerns like childcare, housing, and transportation all affect students’ ability to fully participate in the classroom and in the workforce. That’s why ProTrain, in partnership with SUNY Educational Opportunity Center (EOC), offers individualized case management and other supports to ensure that ProTrain students are able to focus on their classes.

One such support for ProTrain students is the Cooperative Federal Car Buyer Program. The program emerged in response to students’ difficulties in securing reliable transportation. Most manufacturing jobs are located outside of the city of Syracuse, and many are not easily accessed by public transportation. Upon reaching the end of the program, many ProTrain students weren’t sure how they would get to their new workplaces.

The WorkTrain team and Syracuse Cooperative Federal Credit Union leveraged their collective resources to launch the Cooperative Federal Car Buyer Program. The program combines financial education, counseling, low cost lending products and relationships with car dealers to help ProTrain students buy a car before their first day of work. The program has helped six people purchase cars thus far, and illustrates ProTrain’s commitment to student success both inside and outside of the classroom.

The six week ProTrain program is jam-packed. Students engage in hands-on technical training, OSHA certification classes, and coursework designed to strengthen professional communication skills. Team building exercises help classmates come together to learn conflict resolution and stress management skills, essential for long term success in any workplace. Students are encouraged “to treat the program like a job”, says Crawford.

ProTrain’s students span Syracuse’s demographics: students range in age from early twenties to late fifties, and vary by race, ethnicity and country of origin. Crawford notes that a few students were formerly incarcerated, and that the program is starting to appeal to members of Syracuse’s refugee communities. Female ProTrain students shatter the stereotype of manufacturing as a man’s world. “Women are very well suited to opportunities within the sector - they do very, very well,” says Crawford.

Crawford also notes that many people don’t realize that their existing skillsets and hobbies can be parlayed into a manufacturing career. A woman with a knack for braiding hair, for example, could draw on those same fastidious efforts and fine motor skills as a manufacturing employee. The diversity of manufacturing jobs across Central New York businesses further increases the likelihood that ProTrain can match individual’s interests and skillsets to a specific position.

Three ProTrain graduates at their new employer, Knowles.

Since launching in 2017, ProTrain has graduated three cohorts of students. Eighteen of the nineteen graduates were hired by a manufacturing employer partner; the sole outlier returned to his original job that offered better benefits. Crawford and the WorkTrain team are continuing to refine and grow the program to enroll more students in each cohort; they’re also considering replicating ProTrain’s dual-client model in other sectors. HealthTrain, another dual-client program out of WorkTrain, is experiencing remarkable success in preparing students for jobs at workplaces like Loretto and St. Joe’s Hospital.

ProTrain’s healthy retention rate - 72% of entering students complete the program - also bodes well for the future of the program. At the end of the day, though, Crawford insists on the larger value of cultivating a diverse and inclusive workforce in Central New York: “It’s not just about the number of people placed in jobs, but the deeper impact that these new training programs can have on the broader community”.

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