Monday, I traveled to Western, NY to see how grants from the federal government are spurring economic development and renewal through an industry cluster approach. I toured the Louise Slaughter Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies (CIMS) at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and held a roundtable with school administrators, industry group leaders, and local small businesses.
Last September, R.I.T. was the recipient of a Jobs Innovation and Accelerator Challenge Grant. Pooling funding from the Labor Department, Department of Commerce, and the Small Business Administration, R.I.T. has stimulated development in a local growth industry through the Finger Lakes Food Processing Cluster Initiative. The food processing industry employs 14,000+ workers in the region, accounting for more than half a billion dollars in wages.
At CIMS, I saw firsthand how R.I.T. is using the Jobs Accelerator funding to setup small business assistance, economic development, and worker training programs – by partnering with small businesses in the area to understand their needs. R.I.T. also involved local community colleges, small business development centers, local workforce investment boards, and non-profit organizations in setting up their cluster initiative.
The result of this collaborative, innovative approach was evident as I toured the CIMS facility. R.I.T. students and faculty are experimenting with cutting edge techniques like reverse osmosis, waste water filtration and recycling, and the transition of bio-gas into usable energy to stimulate a more profitable – and environmentally sustainable – food processing industry in Western New York.
After the tour, I participated in a roundtable discussion with R.I.T. administrators, small business owners, and local government representatives – including staff from Congresswoman Slaughter’s office. The discussion was detailed and informative – and evidence that when industry experts, higher education institutions, and local non-profit organizations pool their knowledge and resources, the results for small businesses can be extremely positive.
As the administration celebrates Small Business Week, what I saw in Rochester is an example of how the institutional resources and expertise of schools like R.I.T. can be useful incubators for ideas and new companies. When combined with a collaborative approach – and a little government funding and support from local elected officials – programs like the Finger Lakes Food Processing Initiative can reap huge dividends for workers, small businesses, and local economies.
R.I.T.’s program is in its initial stages, and will expand and evolve in the next several years. If they continue to develop along the track that I saw earlier this week, I’m confident that the program will be helpful to both small business owners in the industry, and workers looking for training and industry-recognized credentials.
Learn more about the R.I.T. and Finger Lakes Food Processing Cluster Initiative.
Seth Harris is the Deputy Secretary of Labor.