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Irving Tissue, SUNY Adirondack workforce partnership could become New York state model

FORT EDWARD, N.Y. (From news reports) -- Local businesses and schools are getting the state's attention for their pipeline partnerships that get students ready for the workforce and employed with well-paying jobs right at home.

New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul visited Irving Tissue on Tuesday as part of her visit to each county in the state, but also to learn more about the business's partnership with community colleges, considering she chairs the statewide Regional Economic Development Council.

One of her focuses for the new year will be partnering community colleges and private companies so students are trained and companies can grow, something that is happening already in Washington and Warren counties. The locally based partnerships could be a model for other regional economic development councils across the state.

Bill Hart, vice president of U.S. business operations for Irving Consumer Products, said his company has worked with SUNY Adirondack and BOCES, among other schools, to let them know what skill sets they're looking for when hiring.

"We have a very highly skilled workforce, and we traditionally have trouble finding the right people at the right time, so we're always trying to promote this pipeline approach to our future workforce, and what better way than to partner with institutions," Hart said. "We're here to help them."

That collaboration has evolved over the last decade or so. Most recently it's taken off through a new two-year degree in "mechatronics" at SUNY Adirondack that combines mechanics, electronics, pneumatics, hydraulics and robotics.

It's also growing among high school students through two programs connected to BOCES and SUNY schools called Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech), a six-year college credit program that starts in ninth grade; and Early College Career Academy, which also allows students to earn college credit, but is targeted to juniors and seniors.

Michael Prutsman, assistant dean of extension programs and academic affairs at SUNY Adirondack, said the high school programs have grown exponentially. Specifically, the Early College Career Academy went from 15 students at the Queensbury campus to 160 between Queensbury and Wilton. The programs also get students college credit that is easily transferable, and certifications that are making them desirable job candidates.

Hart, who is also a member of the Capital Region's Regional Economic Development Council, said through natural attrition alone, Irving could hire between 20 and 30 students who graduate from these programs per year. With 340 full-time positions and between 80 and 100 full-time equivalents hired through a temporary employment agency, there are lots of opportunities at the paper plant. Hart said there are jobs that involve basic operating, mechanics, electronics and high-level maintenance.

"The goal of the employers involved with this is we actually connect with the employers at the end of the educational process," Hart said. "So the career development people at the college have a portal of employers that want this type of talent, and we connect the student to the business, so it's a win-win on all sides."

Last year, Irving hired some of the first students that helped kick off the partnership from about five years ago.

"That was pretty rewarding for us as well," Hart added.

Jeffrey Clark, instructor of technology at SUNY Adirondack, said the new mechatronics program has nine students in this first semester and had the backing of multiple area businesses.

In addition to Irving Tissue, Finch Paper, Fort Miller, Hollingsworth & Vose, Adirondack Studios, Miller Mechanical, Just Beverages, Rasp and others all wrote letters of support to get the program approved by the state Department of Education, Clark said.

"These are skill sets that will be used in industry for the foreseeable future, so they were very supportive of the program," Clark added. "They all have said they will hire. They will hire. That's really it. The need is tremendous, and we're trying to fill that need."

While he's still working on getting the in-house lab ready for teaching students these technical skills, local businesses have been so impressed with the lab that they're talking to Clark about conducting training sessions there. Hart said he is looking at internal training opportunities for Irving's employees.

As an ambassador to education, workforce development and economic development, Hochul said this partnership happening locally appears to be a good model for others in the state, but she's hoping to convene a meeting that will look at not just the successes but also the barriers local leaders still face, to see where the state might be able to help.

She wants regional economic development councils to introduce community college leaders to businesses and begin developing curriculum that trains students for the skills that are needed.

"It's part of our retention of young people," Hochul added. "They can continue living where they grew up. That's the challenge in upstate New York. We don't want to lose young people. We reversed that trend now, but we have to make sure that young people feel like there's an opportunity for them, and there truly are."

Fort Edward Mayor Matthew Traver, who also toured the paper plant with Hochul, agreed.

"Irving was great to partner with SUNY Adirondack, and hopefully the programs will work, and we can keep kids local with good jobs, too," he said.


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