From left, Assemblymen Jim Bacalles, Pete Lopez and Clifford Crouch listen during a forum at the Amphenol plant in Sidney on Thursday.

SIDNEY _ Area high schools need to reduce the emphasis on sending students to college and focus more on filling shortages in the skilled-labor market, several area business leaders told three Assembly Republicans on Thursday.

Assemblymen Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, Clifford Crouch, R-Guilford, and Jim Bacalles, R-Corning, heard from two dozen business, manufacturing and community leaders in a 21/2-hour forum at the Amphenol plant in Sidney.

The Manufacturing Task Force of the Assembly Republican Conference is on a listening tour focusing on manufacturing.

Manufacturing is at a point of crisis in New York, Lopez said.

The participants included members of most of the area's large manufacturing firms, such as Amphenol, Tyco and MeadWestvaco, and Lockheed-Martin.

Labor shortages and state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations are preventing growth in their industries, said many participants.

"Brain drain," or the exodus of native upstate New Yorkers to other parts of the country, was frequently mentioned as a factor in the labor woes, as was a difficulty in attracting young professionals and skilled workers to the area.

The shortages at Amphenol are in areas involving technical skills such as the programming and operation of robotic equipment, said Steve Soldinger, the plant's operations manager.

"In Europe, they start developing these people in high school," Soldinger said.

It takes months and years to train employees with no experience to perform this work, he said.

"I'm handcuffed," Soldinger said.

Several participants called on the assemblymen to look into ways vocational training at high schools can be increased and promoted to young people. Salaries for some of the skilled jobs, they said, can be as high as $45,000 a year.

"We need to make the students aware of the alternatives. (The area's manufacturing firms) allow you to have a great life in the community you're from," said Tom Mirabito Jr. of the Sidney Industrial Development Agency.

Kevin Price of CDO Workforce echoed these comments, saying there is a need to promote the region as a place for young people to stay and start careers.

"There is a fundamental disconnect in our school system that we have to deal with," Price said. "We've got to learn about how to market to the youth."

This includes promoting technical trades, he said.

"Many people with master's degrees are making $30,000 a year," Price said.

Tom Pritchard, a member of the Otsego County Chamber, said that 70 out of 100 students who graduate from high school go on to college. But less than half of these get degrees, he said.

The result is the marketplace is flooded with young people with no degrees and no technical training looking for work, he said.

"Somehow the schools have got to get the message," said Pritchard, who was the Democratic candidate in District 5 of the Otsego County Board of Representatives.

Delaware County Economic Development Director Glenn Nealis said area schools have long encouraged the idea that to be successful, a person must go to college.

"There are other professions," he said.

Josh Browning of Genbrook Millworks in Greene said high schools should do more in the way of career counseling.

"They get out of high school. They don't have any idea what they want to do, but they are told to go to college," Browning said.

For the most part, the three assemblymen listened during the roundtable discussion, which also covered concerns that DEC policies were becoming too strict, the lack of short-term housing options for transplants to the area and local property tax burdens.

"The message is that we are not the enemy," said Robert Harlem Jr., owner of Oneonta Block Company. "We better protect what we have or we won't have it to protect."

The Assembly Republican Conference can't act on its own. Democrats outnumber Republicans 106 to 42.

But Lopez said that doesn't mean the effort Thursday was irrelevant.

"People are too quick to put people in boxes, but an idea shouldn't be locked in a box," Lopez said.

The Republican conference will detail its findings to Assembly Democrats, the state Senate and the Spitzer administration, Lopez said.

"We're going to go back and follow up on these issues," he said.

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