Lawmakers say Empire State Development, the state's economic development agency, should spend money allocated for workforce development more quickly to avoid delays in expanding New York job opportunities.

ESD and the state Labor Department split $350 million to implement the Office of Strategic Workforce Development. The office formally launched a year ago, with ESD getting $180 million in the latest spending plan to implement the office, training and related programs.

"A specific feature of our workforce development programs are focusing on people who have historically had challenges and barriers with respect to training in employment opportunities," ESD President, CEO and Commissioner Hope Knight told lawmakers Thursday. 

Assemblymembers held a hearing about the efficacy of the state's 60-plus economic development programs, and how billions of dollars spent on them each year boost the workforce as early budget preparations take shape.

ESD has spent $24 million — or 16% of $150 million in grants — for workforce development programs. Roughly 9,000 New Yorkers in tech industries growing the most rapidly in the state, including optics photonic imaging, advanced manufacturing, semiconductor manufacturing, biotech life sciences and others.

"We are really focused on innovation industries — jobs of the future," Knight said.

Assembly Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry chair Harry Bronson said he'd hoped ESD would have spent more of the $180 million to implement the Office of Strategic Workforce Development after one year. 

"It does take a while to launch those kinds of things, but I would have liked to see that more has been done," he said Thursday. "I'm happy to see the commissioner talked about workforce being part of the discussion ... throughout all of the economic development programs that we're doing, so we're taking a step forward. We need to do that a little bit more and a little bit faster. ...We need to have the agency pick up the pace on the implementation."

As New York struggles with population decline, lawmakers said workforce development investments are key to upstate economic recovery if barriers to employement are targeted correctly.

ESD officials defended the agency's progress and awarding funding from the Office of Strategic Workforce Development.

“In just one year, we have stood up a brand new program, hired a top-notch team and developed new and robust program guidelines," according to a statement from ESD on Friday. "Across the state, more than $41 million in public/private investment has been allocated to train more than 9,000 New Yorkers  in cutting edge sectors, with an additional round to be announced in the coming days.  This was always meant to be a multi-year award program that not only trains workers for the jobs of tomorrow, but provides the wrap around services to get trainees to and through training, and will provide real metrics to measure its success.”

State and local governments spend a combined $11 billion on economic development per year, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. Lawmakers say they'll scrutinize that spending and focus next year's investments on semiconductor manufacturing and supporting higher education.

Officials are encouraged by recent long-term investments in semiconductor manufacturing, like Micron's new manufacturing plant expected to create 9,000 jobs in the Syracuse area.

But Assembly Small Business Committee chair Al Stirpe is worried when hiring begins over the next few years, New York will lack people to fill the positions.

"We have low unemployment rates already. Where are these people coming from?" he said.

Lawmakers and panelists agreed the state needs to fund wraparound services in  transportation, child care, housing and mentoring programs to strengthen the workforce.

Lawmakers told Knight that Empire State Development should be more transparent and give detailed outlines of the programs that have been funded, including the workforce training program. They requested ESD publicize the demographics of the 9,000 New Yorkers trained or in training and more information about the services the department has provided the group to date.

Data could help justify requests in tough budgetary discussions next year.

Stirpe says with the budget shortfall, priorities will have to be chosen.

"What are you going to spend your money on?" he said. "What are your priorities?"

The 2023-24 budget included expanded the state's film and TV tax credit to $700 million a year, up from $420 million. Lawmakers on Thursday said a shortage of workers allows for a maximum of two productions at once. 

Stirpe said he'll consider pushing for funding in the next budget to build a center to produce high-end commercials in the state.

*Editor's note: This story reflects additional comments from Empire State Development. ESD received $180 million to implement the Office of Strategic Workforce Development, and $150 million of which is used for grant programs.