DEPEW, N.Y. -- Congressman Chris Collins says he spent his life in manufacturing. Graduating in the 1970s as a mechanical engineer, though, there were no jobs for him at the time.

"We had engineers going to work at that time waiting tables and parking cars," Collins said. "Today, engineering is the one field where there are no unemployed engineers."

Speaking at a Lancaster Chamber of Commerce Workforce Conference, Collins and others encouraged educators to give kids the skills they need to succeed in manufacturing.

"It's creating interest and a buzz and it's creating some momentum," Power Drives President Lou Panzica said.

Western New York has a strong manufacturing history, but Panzica said in the next 4-5 years there will be 17,000 open jobs in that industry, and the problem is finding qualified people to do the work.

"There are certain positions, CNC operators, machine operators, quality inspectors, these are roles that are in great demand right now, we can't fill these positions,” Panzica said.

Paving the way to these careers are places like Erie Community College and academies in local high schools. ECC's Jeff Turek said the school offers certificates as well as a full 2-year degree that focuses on industrial technology. Academies within Depew schools feature rigorous curriculums and foster partnerships between the classroom and local employers.

"Through its business community and college partners links students to attainable careers in the growing manufacturing, business and financial, and healthcare services throughout Western New York,” Depew Superintendent Dr. Jeff Rabey said.

Collins also supports a bill that would designate 25 colleges as "manufacturing universities," providing them with up to $5 million a year to enhance engineering programs and increase internships and co-ops.

"Every one of our children, grandchildren and ourselves; it's what we do, the plans we make, the vision we have, how hard we work, that lets us succeed or not,” Collins said.

Equipped with these partnerships and tools, manufacturing companies hope to be able to fill the void and ensure their viability for years to come.