Job training and opportunity intersect to help workers move into the middle class
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
On Buffalo's East Side, placement and retention fuel Northland’s success
In October, we published a story about steelworkers and a lifestyle representing another era. When iconic steel mills like Bethlehem and Republic closed, economies around Western New York suffered the fallout, and were forced to adapt. What was once a massive workforce in Buffalo for decades leading into the 1980s — numbering in the thousands — now exists only in small pockets.
This story addresses a logical follow-up. As industries evolve and economies shift, how do workers and business leaders embrace the future? Here is one example from Buffalo’s East Side, where the past is being reimagined to prepare young people for today and tomorrow: training for careers in construction and technology, while being proactive to eliminate obstacles that hinder employment.
Welcome to Northland.
The renovated building that once housed Niagara Machine & Tool Works on Northland Avenue has a modern-looking facade. It features peaks on an accordion-shaped ceiling, high windows designed to allow natural light in and release rising heat from the factory floor. A giant mural stretches along the depth of the open lobby. Composed of four-foot square panels, the artwork is a conversation starter, created by young artists who used scrap material that was once manufactured on the property.
“What you’re looking at is an abstract map of Buffalo,” explained Lonnell Williams, Manager of Outreach and Recruitment at Northland Workforce Training Center. “The big circle with the British flag is Niagara Square. The red arch represents the Peace Bridge. There’s the old Central Terminal on Memorial Drive. This is looking at our city from a bird’s eye view, surrounded by train tracks.”
Niagara Machine & Tool Works has been gone from the building for decades. Today, a different type of production takes place here. By reusing an existing location to train students for sustainable careers, Northland is symbolic of Buffalo’s rebirth. Since opening in September 2018, employees, teachers and students are reconnecting with the legacy of the neighborhood.
“We used to make stuff in this area, and for a lot of reasons, we got away from that,” Williams said, standing in the lobby and gesturing like a conductor. “In one direction on this street was Curtiss-Wright Corporation, who made jet engines. In another direction was the Otis Elevator Company. In this building, they made a lot of heavy equipment, which is why we have a 30-ton crane above us. We wanted to preserve it as a reminder that we are reconnecting. But we can’t do manufacturing as it used to be done. We’ve got to do manufacturing as it is.”
State government divided New York into 10 economic development regions, deeming that the greatest need in Buffalo was manufacturing and hospitality. Funded in part by the “Buffalo Billion,” Northland offers degreed programs run by SUNY Erie and SUNY Alfred State College. Northland’s services, however, stretch farther than simply a classroom education.
“The colleges teach the courses, and Northland is here to support students,” Williams said. “That’s all we do. In addition to making sure our students have the skills to get in the door, and soft skills that are going to keep them around, we also want to make sure we’re connecting the right person to the right opportunity. Even if they’re making a lot of money, if they hate their job or the people they work with, it’s no good. So we connect people.”
The program is working. Recently, while participating in outreach at Martin Luther King Park, Williams was stopped by a former student.
“I’m $60,000 richer since I met you,” the young man said. Northland had trained and placed him at a company, where he enjoyed his new career.
One of Northland’s goals is to see graduates slide into middle class by achieving economic stability.
“What we do around here is change people’s lives,” Williams reflected. “That’s one of the rewards for doing this job. If they’re willing to put the work in, some of these students are going to make more money than their parents ever made.”
Jahaan Williams (who is not related to Lonnell) is one of those whose life has changed. He attended Northland, graduating from the Alfred State welding program two years ago. Now 30, Jahaan spent last summer working at his alma mater as a welding instructor for the youth program.
“I grew up in the neighborhood and was looking for a career path,” he said. “I always did construction and wanted to separate myself from just being a general laborer.”
He was inspired to take up welding after learning that his late grandmother, Andrea King, had worked as a welder in a small shop years ago. She died when Williams was 13.
“I never knew her to do that,” Jahaan said. “But it opened up a world. If she could do it, I could do it. They gave me a two-year scholarship. I didn’t have to pay tuition. Coming from the situation I came from, my career coach helped me through it. That was three years ago, and I’ve been progressing pretty good. I’ll stick right here with Northland.”
A certified outreach worker in Buffalo, Jahaan was eager to share his knowledge with kids. He created a six-week after-school program, titled “Welding to Inspire,” in which young people design individual metal projects that involve cutting, grinding and fabricating. Last summer, approximately 100 kids filled five different classes, with Jahaan at the helm.
A student must turn 18 by December of the year they enroll at Northland, Lonnell Williams explained. A summer youth program serving 13 and 14-year-olds allows younger students to sample several options during a few weeks.
“We’re not preparing people for careers that are going to be obsolete by the time they’re done,” Williams said. “We’re in the infancy of a new industry with renewable energy. Our students need to be prepared for that, because it’s happening now. Most car manufacturers have a hybrid or electric car. If you’re not home to charge, where are you going to charge it? All of that infrastructure and support needs to be built out. That’s what our students are going to be doing. Automation and the internet allow machines to talk to each other and schedule their own maintenance. We need to be prepared for that and how it’s going to affect employment patterns going forward. Students need to be aware of how they’re going to position themselves in this economy.”
Williams, 52, recalled his own school days. Born and raised on Buffalo’s East Side, he attended Seneca Vocational High School, studying CAD/CAM — computer aided design and machining. After graduation in 1988, he received an MBA from Canisius College, writing a thesis about Mass Customization.
“I had advance warning of change as far back as seventh and eighth grade,” Williams recalled. “We were bussed from the East Side to Red Jacket Academy in South Buffalo, and had a teacher named Patricia Stern. She was no shrinking violet. She said, ‘Those jobs your parents worked at Bethlehem Steel, don’t even think about it. By the time you’re done with high school, they’re going to be gone.’ And she was right.”
A different form of teaching
For the past 18 months, Marcus Hill has worked as the Apprenticeship Coordinator at Northland, following a 13-year career teaching at a private middle school. He was brought in to work with Northland’s Mechanical Engineering Technology program.
“First, I’m a career coach,” Hill said. “Any barrier that students may have, I help them. It could be medical, financial, even babysitting. They may need a laptop, or housing. Whatever their barriers are, part of my job is to assist them with getting those things by using resources that Northland has. It may even be as simple as securing a bus pass. Some people may not think so, but that’s a big deal.”
Last summer, Hill coordinated a two-week program called “Jump Start,” in which students spent 10 full days at Northland practicing life skills, math, and received OSHA 10 training — a federal safety standard that allows a person entrance to a construction site.
“It’s from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to get them accustomed to what a full day of work would be like,” Hill said. “This is where it all starts. I take them on tours of companies to meet owners and hiring managers. They get a chance to walk the floor. They can ask personal questions as they start to wonder, ‘Is this a place for me?’”
Hill connects candidates with companies, where entry and mid-level positions pay approximately $16 per hour, en route to a career.
“Once I place them, I mediate between the company and the employee in case there is a problem. Say an employee is on their phone, or comes in late, or whatever the case may be. Instead of getting fired right away, they call me and say, ‘Hey, can you talk to this guy? You brought him to us.’ A big thing is the soft skills portion. Young people come into a business setting and need guidance. It’s like, ‘you can’t do that here. You’ve got to tone it down.’”
Northland’s team continually tries to address issues that might cause students to stumble.
“Some of them have a support network of family, friends, and community,” Williams observed. “But they’re young people, and they do young people-type things. Time management is likely an issue with really bright kids, who don’t try that hard because they don’t have to. Everything comes easy. I look out for those people, because I was one of them.”
In high school, Williams recalled finishing his homework in a study hall the period before class. His work was complete, but only adequate.
“That worked in high school, but it won’t work in college,” he said. “I set myself up with bad habits. We teach our young people that you can’t be up until 2 in the morning playing video games, and then have an 8:30 class and expect to be at your best. Have a light breakfast before you come to school, because that affects your ability to do the work. We spend a fair amount of time helping develop those skills. Focus on those things up front. We want to give them an advantage that will get them in the door to get raises and promotions.”
Northland is able to provide child care, transportation, and, if needed, a grant to cover sudden expenses. There is also a lending library of tools for young workers to use, with the option to buy those tools when they leave the program.
“Half of Americans don’t have $500 in the bank to cover an emergency,” Williams noted. “We have a pool of money that can provide a grant. We want to keep them on track to graduate. We make sure they have medical and dental insurance. It’s awful hard to concentrate if you’re hungry, so we work with various food pantries. We can discreetly send students home with a package of food. What we do is comprehensive. We and our industrial partners feel it’s less expensive to do this up front than it would be to pay for this in turnover, which is a big problem for companies.”
As a former classroom teacher, Hill sees parallels to being the Apprenticeship Coordinator. When he first began at Northland, he interviewed a young man who probably would not have been hired at any job.
“He was slouching in his chair, talking in low tones, mumbling. He didn’t know if he wanted to be part of the program. ‘You don’t have to do this,’ I told him. ‘Go home and think about it. But here’s the benefits if you do it and finish.’ Come to find out, he’s struggling to take care of his father. I wouldn’t have known this unless we had those personal conversations. He’s helping his mom, scared his father’s going to pass away.”
Despite his initial reluctance, the young man joined Northland and was hired at Tesla. Today he is successful in school, and owns a car and a motorcycle.
“When I see the bright eyes he has now, and the confidence level, aw, I love it,” Hill beamed. “I feel like I’m doing some good in the world by helping somebody. I see results like this every day. When a kid gets it — that ‘A-ha’ moment — you want to jump out of your skin and jump with him.”
About half of the 380 students at Northland live nearby, in the 14211 zip code, according to Williams. The other half commute to Buffalo’s East Side from surrounding suburbs and outlying areas. Williams hopes that Northland will kickstart a hub of revitalization in the neighborhood, similar to how investment in the renovated Larkin Building spawned economic growth in Buffalo’s First Ward.
The old Niagara Machine & Tool Works building was an ideal site for Northland’s mission. In addition to being accessible, the structure was well-constructed, offering a clear connection with Buffalo’s industrial past.
“We have placards on all of our classrooms that show what this building looked like in the 1950s,” Williams said. “There were thousands of people working here then. When I was in high school in the 80s, Niagara Machine & Tool Works was already closed. But we saved some of the wooden floors to help illustrate the type of work that was done here.”
Drew Beiter, a Social Studies teacher at Springville Middle School, heard about Northland recently through contacts he made as co-founder of the Academy for Human Rights. (Beiter and the AHR were featured in a Buffalo Tales story last January.) Last summer, he convened a conference of educators to spend a morning touring Northland.
“Training is even more important after the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (passed in August),” Beiter reflected. “Millions of American households are going to be transitioning into clean electricity and revamping their appliances. This will be the next generation of workers.”
Beiter has a family connection to Northland. His late father, George, worked for Niagara Machine & Tool Works for 50 years.
“He started in 1939, like thousands of other Western New York men who were doing necessary work before the war,” Beiter said. “They created stamping mechanisms in a large press to shape doors of cars. They would then sell these presses to Detroit and Toledo. My dad’s job was in time study. He used a methodical way to figure out how long it should take each assembly line worker to do their job.”
Once Drew, the youngest son, graduated from college, the elder Beiter finally retired in 1989. During those 50 years, Drew’s older sister and brother-in-law worked for Niagara Machine & Tool Works as well. Like steelworkers of past generations, the industry became a family business.
“For me to lead a conference in the physical space where my dad was, it’s like nothing I can describe,” Beiter said. He had taken his kids to the building years ago, when it was abandoned and dilapidated, to show them where their grandfather worked. He’s thrilled to see the old factory repurposed.
“It’s easy to romanticize the past,” he reflected. “We all do it in Buffalo, with our steel roots. But that was part of an extractive economy that has left the planet in shambles. We can’t lose sight of that. Northland is a symbol of a new, shared economy which is sustainable. We’re still at the cutting edge of it. Buffalo was a leader in the past, and now it hopefully will be a leader in the future as well.”
Williams agreed. He remains on the lookout for candidates eager to undergo career training. Although most of Northland’s students are in their teens and 20s, in 2020-21, ten percent of participants were 40 and older. More than 90 percent of students are male, and represent diverse ethnic backgrounds.
“We cast our net as wide as possible in all the counties of Western New York,” he said. “We have 3000 jobs to fill in this area. If you know anyone who is interested, send them to me.”
Cost is reasonable, Williams said. The Mechatronics program, a one-year, two-semester course offered by SUNY Erie, costs $7235. Two-year programs in Mechanical Engineering are comparable, with a total cost of approximately $15,000. Financial aid and scholarships are available.
“For years, manufacturing became associated with negative things,” Williams said. “High schools thought if they weren’t sending kids to a two- or four-year college, it was some kind of a letdown. Northland isn’t some consolation prize. This is where technology is actually in use. If you’re interested in using your brain and using your hands, you can make a great living. Get skills and go into an industry.”
As Northland becomes successful in Buffalo, Williams believes the program can serve as a blueprint for other areas across the state.
“God knows Niagara Falls needs this,” he said. “If we can prove this concept works, we might be able to replicate it in Rochester or Syracuse. What it comes down to is that we have companies in need. We just have to connect the right people.”
Placing the proper person into a job can be a challenge for employers. Northland aims to simplify the process.
“The issue is a misalignment,” Williams noted. “Society isn’t always preparing students for opportunities as they exist right now. It’s a moving target, and I can understand how things get out of whack, but at some point we have to address this. People need jobs, and companies need people. Our challenge is to bring those things together.”
Text © 2022 by Jeff Schober
Jeff Schober is the best-selling author of ten books, including the true crime book Bike Path Rapist with Det. Dennis Delano, Growing Up Gronk, and the Buffalo Crime Fiction Quartet. He has a journalism degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in English and History from the University at Buffalo. He teaches English and Journalism at Frontier High School in Hamburg. Visit his website at www.jeffschober.com.
Steve Desmond is an award-winning photographer. With his son, Francis, he is the author of A Life of Purpose, which raises money for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research. To view more of Steve's work — including concerts and views from a recent trip out west, like the one at left — he can be followed on Facebook, under "Steve Desmond" and "Desmond's PrimeFocus Photography," or on Instagram at "Stevedesmond9."
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