Study focuses on bringing “hidden and future workers” into the workforce
The North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce today announced the completion of a comprehensive workforce study to provide solutions for employers who are struggling to find skilled labor and offer suggestions to balance the labor market now and into the future.
The study, “Worker Shortages and the North Central Massachusetts Region: Engaging Hidden and Future Workers to Grow the Local Economy,” was prepared by the UMass Donahue Institute’s Economic and Public Policy Research group, a leading provider of applied research to help clients make more informed decisions about strategic economic and public policy issues.
Focusing on workforce growth challenges and solutions, the study outlines workforce barriers related to geography, skills, structure, and work-life balance, and includes short-, mid- and long-term recommendations for how to grow the North Central workforce.
The study utilized a collaboration between regional business and education leaders and workforce development experts, which revealed two classes of workers who are not being fully utilized, but who have skills local employers need. “Hidden workers” are identified as applicants who are screened out of consideration for jobs or those who have no choice but to remain out of the workforce due to barriers beyond their control, and “future workers” are people who soon will be in the labor force due to age, location, technology and other factors.
“Like many other areas of the Commonwealth, North Central is feeling the impacts of stagnant labor force engagement beyond the effects of pandemic shutdowns,” noted Roy Nascimento, President and CEO, North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce. “Our region is particularly susceptible to labor force shrinkage due to our aging population and slower population growth, but also because our hidden and future workers within the region have other needs which are not being met by our local labor market. In fact, some workers are finding the job search to be just as difficult as it was before the pandemic. The barriers and recommendations in the plan will require all different community stakeholders in North Central to work together to meet the regions workforce needs.”
The issues are complex and varied. Some stem from a lack of affordable housing adjacent to jobs and transportation to and from where affordable housing is available. Others deal with current skills sets that, sadly, no longer align with industries in the area or overly aggressive online applicant filters that may discriminate an applicant’s past. The result? A complete different set of challenges facing today’s workforce than those of years past. In fact, the study revealed the most diverse set of issues the team has seen in recent years as both workers and employers grapple with work-life balance, prioritizing shift times, complex benefits, and location issues. All of which are a far cry from the industry, company or position in the company which made jobs attractive in the past.
The study also explored a variety of solutions to pull those hidden and future workers into the labor force, including more and better childcare choices, implementation of new worker transit, the creation of innovative training and credentialing programs, and fostering relationships with local community colleges, businesses, and prisons.
“North Central’s workforce is aging, and its slower population growth is projected to continue,” said Nascimento. “In order to meet North Central’s workforce needs, employers, educational institutions and workforce development agencies must collaborate and create overlapping strategies to better engage and entice these groups into the labor force.”
Local institutions, such as Mount Wachusett Community College and Fitchburg State University, currently collaborate with employers to coordinate programs geared toward community and employer needs. Mount Wachusett Community College, in collaboration with employers, began developing a new Veteran Worker’s Initiative to assist local veterans with the transition from military skills to college/civilian skills. That program connects regional employers to students on campus, hosts panel discussions with organizations that educate employers on how to be responsive and sensitive to veteran needs and uses the college’s career services to connect students with business partners in the area.
“We are grateful for the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce’s focus on bringing education and industry together to seek pathways and solutions to the employment challenges in our region,” said James L. Vander Hooven, President of Mount Wachusett Community College. “Mount Wachusett Community College has long been committed to the Chamber’s efforts and looks forward to continuing our partnerships to ensure a well-trained workforce.”
In an effort to facilitate collaboration between employers and educational institutions, the Chamber recently hired a Talent and Education Initiatives Program Manager to support the development, retention and attraction of a qualified labor force. “By working with employers, regional partners and educational institutions on developing strategies and programs to build and strengthen our current and future workforce, it was important for us to have a team member focused on these efforts to help strengthen the collaboration,” added Nascimento.
While collaboration will be key to growing the labor force in North Central Massachusetts, the study concludes that employers need to make working easier by overcoming the identified barriers.