September 25, 2006

Region Fits New Jobs To Need

By: by Eric Anderson, Deputy Business Editor, Times Union


When the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering sought to fill 60 job openings for its newest clean room in May, it held a job fair that attracted 160 candidates, many of whom had been specifically trained for such positions in the semiconductor industry.

That's because UAlbany had worked with Hudson Valley Community College in Troy to establish a program that trains clean-room technicians, and many of those had actually gotten hands-on experience at the university.

UAlbany easily filled its positions and expects to have more openings as major semiconductor manufacturers expand their research and development efforts on campus.

The semiconductor industry has become a major new-job generator in the Capital Region economy, with pay that is well above average, according to figures from the state Department of Labor.

The creation of what could be thousands of new jobs will give the economy here a boost, and will likely push up average salaries in what has, until now, been a stable job market heavily dependent on employment in the government and nonprofit sectors.

The clean-room workers, who range from technicians to engineers, can expect annual earnings from $30,000 to $60,000 to start, depending on experience. Statewide, semiconductor industry workers earned an average of $80,600 in 2005, compared with the state's average private-sector wage of $53,000, according to the Labor Department.

Albany NanoTech, the umbrella organization for research at the University at Albany, expects to employ more than 2,000 people by the end of next year, officials there say. That's more than the 1,200 workers that Advanced Micro Devices Inc. expects to employ at its $3.2 billion semiconductor fabrication plant in Saratoga County.

Unemployment in the Capital Region has consistently remained at or below 4 percent as new entrants to the labor force have had difficulty finding work.

Economist David Wardle of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission estimates the Capital Region had to create about 2,230 jobs a year from 2000 to 2005 to accommodate the increase in the number of people looking for work, basically the growth in the labor force.

He arrived at that figure by using U.S. Census Bureau estimates of the labor force participation rate -- the share of the population 16 and older that is working or looking for work -- and estimates of the growth in that segment of the population.

In fact, from July 2005 to July 2006, the Capital Region added 2,300 jobs, enough to keep jobless rates unchanged.

Marissa DiNatale, an economist at economic forecaster Moody's who follows the Capital Region, described the local labor market as "pretty healthy."

But the Capital Region and much of the rest of the country are facing an imminent labor shortage as the baby boom generation nears retirement age.

"It's pretty much the reverse of what happened in the '70s and '80s as the baby boomers came into the work force," said state labor markets analyst James Ross.

"Then unemployment jumped because the economy couldn't create enough jobs," he said.

The Capital Region, unlike much of upstate New York, has actually had an influx of people, Ross said. Still, he said, the question for businesses contemplating moving to the area is "Can I find labor here?"

Not every business has had the success that Albany NanoTech experienced. When Bose Corp. last year wanted to open a product and technical support center here that would employ 200 people, it held a job fair. Just 75 people showed up, and only 30 of those had the skills Bose sought.

The maker of speakers for home entertainment systems ultimately decided to expand near its headquarters in eastern Massachusetts.

Participation in the labor force by those 16 and older in the Capital Region has been well below the national average, said DiNatale of Moody's That's because of its large student population, which isn't counted in the labor force, she said.

Moody's proprietary calculations for labor force participation put the Capital Region at 54.6 percent, compared to a national average of 66 percent, she said.

But participation rates here have been growing, DiNatale added.

the numbers of students, Philip White, dean of the School of Engineering and Industrial Technologies at Hudson Valley Community College, says his division isn't getting as many students as it would like.

"It's gotten more difficult for us to get students. Engineering is math and science. It's difficult," he said Thursday.

It's an issue that is affecting the entire nation.

"Every economist, business leader and most politicians are saying we need more people in math and science," said Robert Ward, director of research for The Business Council of New York State Inc.

Alain Kaloyeros, chief administrative officer at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at UAlbany, said the college has had some success recruiting high school students by bringing them to the campus for tours.

At the post-graduate level, Kaloyeros said, "the entering Ph.D class is 75 percent domestic."

The type of economic stimulus that Advanced Micro Devices would bring to the area would be welcome, Ward said, because it is creating real wealth in addition to jobs. Too many of the jobs being created until now were in government or nonprofits, and positions in the latter sector often were funded by government, he said. Local colleges and universities say they're ready for the shift in the types of jobs being created.

Hudson Valley Community College has added programs to train the hundreds of technicians that will be needed. UAlbany has added degree programs in nanotechnology. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute continues to graduate engineers in related fields.

Nationally, aging baby boomers will create a labor shortage, but AMD and the related technology companies it and Albany NanoTech are attracting will have an advantage in recruiting locally: the pool of young people is already here, having come to the Capital Region to get their educations.

That's assuming they can find enough students interested in science and math careers.

There likely will be some shifting of the labor force as people with technology skills might leave jobs as, say, plumbers or electricians for jobs in the semiconductor industry, said HVCC's White.

In that case, the school is ready to step in to "backfill" those jobs, training new plumbers and electricians in its vocational programs, he said.

"I think we're sitting in a very nice position," White added.