Written by Barry Scanlon
Stock market instability. Rising interest rates. Signs of inflation. The Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And a stubborn pandemic which isn’t going away.
“We’ve certainly weathered many storms since our last time together two years ago,” said Ed Manzi, the chairman and chief executive officer at Fidelity Bank, in welcoming remarks. “But just as Fidelity Bank provides clarity, confidence and care for our clients, you have also done the same for your colleagues, friends and neighbors which has made our communities stronger despite the challenges presented before us.”
Despite plenty of obstacles, there was a profound sense of optimism at the Chamber’s Annual Economic Forecast Breakfast held on Friday, April 8th at Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg.
“You persevered before and you’re expected to do it again. Very inspiring,” Manzi told a gathering of more than 200.
Business leaders from the region gathered to learn the results of a Regional Economic Outlook Survey, which was compiled from feedback from 519 consumers and 200 business leaders in Central Massachusetts.
Generally, the survey produced optimistic results from employees and business leaders. The biggest concerns among consumers/employees is inflation (20%) and the effects of COVID-19 (17%). For business leaders, the availability of skilled labor (28%) was the greatest concern, followed by inflation (18%).
The survey yielded signs of optimism, however. A majority (53%) of business owners, presidents or managers said they would increase pay to their employees this year, while 30 percent said they planned to spend more over the next 12 months.
Three speakers enlightened the audience – Dr. Nancy Murray, Fitchburg State University’s dean of the School of Education; Dr. Mark Melnik, the director of Economic & Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute; and Dr. Mahesh Ramachandran, the chief economist for the Executive Officer of Labor and Workforce Development.
Murray said Fitchburg State is meeting the challenge of producing students ready to enter the workplace by offering new majors and examining a MassHire survey which revealed, among other things, that access to childcare is preventing some people from returning to jobs. Murray said FSU is creating pathways in the STEM field and English for students to transfer to the school from Mount Wachusett Community College and supportive pathways for students to transfer from Fitchburg High to FSU.
Murray urged business leaders to “think outside the box” as they look to the rest of 2022 and beyond.
Melnik told the audience that “conditions on the ground” are shifting in Massachusetts and the North Central region from pre-pandemic days to the world going forward. Things are improving in the state, he said, noting that the unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 16.4 percent in April 2020. Today it is 4.7 percent, although the national average is 3.8. The COVID recession is the most uneven recession on record.
“Growing labor supply is critical for Massachusetts,” said Melnik, pointing out that in 2021, for the first time, the number of deaths in Massachusetts surpassed the number of births.
Melnik said 9,400 jobs in the North Central region were lost during the pandemic, 7,000 of which have been recovered.
Ramachandran said Massachusetts is on the road to recovery, though the recovery is uneven due to a mismatch between skills demanded and skills available. The Leominster-Gardner area has a 5.2 percent unemployment rate, a far cry from the 17.6 percent rate in April 2020. There are plenty of opportunities for growth in healthcare, professional, scientific and technical service jobs, according to Ramachandran.
There were plenty of graphs and PowerPoint slides filled with numbers. But there was also a palpable sense that it was great for business leaders to see each other again. Two of the speakers said they were worried about forgetting how to tie their ties, drawing laughs from the audience.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused the 2020 in-person gathering to be canceled and the 2021 event shifted to online. The face-to-face gathering in a packed ballroom for the Economic Forecast Breakfast was a welcome sight for many weary from constant Zoom meetings.
“It’s good to be with people again,” said Chris McCarthy, Fidelity Bank’s president and chief operating officer. “While our Economic Forecast survey results included new categories related to the pandemic and how we foresee the next year as we move forward in the new normal, these results prove our region is resilient, strong and certainly optimistic that better days are ahead.”
The weather seemed to mirror the mood of business leaders weary from two years of unique challenges but optimistic about the future. Morning rain and plenty of clouds – with clearing skies and sunshine predicted for the afternoon.
View the presenters presentations here.