Aging workforce in need of reinforcements may be getting a boost

Aug 23, 2019

The remaining Baby Boomers are on the verge of retiring out of the region's workforce. It's a development that could have devastating consequences. "One of the key issues, if you want to grow your economy, you've got to grow your workforce," said economist John Slenker, who sees hopeful signs that this area is once again attracting younger people.

Now retired from the New York State Department of Labor, economist John Slenker has more time to tend to his farm. He still has a view of some positive economic trends for the region.
Credit Jay Moran/WBFO

"The difference between 2008 and now is stunning, especially when you're talking about Buffalo," said Slenker, who recently retired after 27-plus years as associate economist for Western New York for the New York State Department of Labor.

"You see the turnaround in Buffalo, they've made it a place you want to go and live."

The problem for Western New York in recent decades hasn't been the amount of people leaving the region, which Slenker says is similar to other parts of the country. It's that few people have been coming to the region in search of opportunities.

He  believes the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council deserves credit for much of that change.

"I'll quote Howard Zemsky (ESD Chair),'It is baked in the demographic cake: if we don't do something about our demographics, we've got a major problem.'"

As Slenker says, planned events and investment in new infrastructure, like Canalside, have worked to make Buffalo "cool." After years of suburban sprawl with no growth, the urban center has become an attractive, dynamic destination.

"You can actually slow the outmigration and even turnaround your demographics."

Slenker took time recently to talk at his home where now, as a recent retiree, he can focus more on his small farm. While most of his conversation was positive, a realist's sensibility occasionally surfaced. He offered an ominous warning for those in their mid-fifties.

"You're at the top of your earning peak. Between now and the next ten years is going to be about as good as it gets financially. So, beware of that." 

Make a plan, Slenker advises, because in your sixties, "Your choices are no longer your own."

He also addressed the continuing conversation on immigration, crafting his words slowly and thoughtfully.

"I look at it in terms of the labor force, again."  Local farmers, he says, are finding it "extremely difficult" to find workers.

"I've known a lot of people. Immigrants tend to be extremely well-motivated when it comes to working, so I think they're a bonus to society, not a detriment."