Opportunity Knocks in North Central

Opportunity Knocks in North Central: How Will You Answer?

As employers in North Central Massachusetts continue to struggle to find skilled labor, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce recently announced a study aimed to offer suggestions to balance the labor market now and into the future.

The North Central Workforce Study 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 barriers and solutions, including barriers related to geography, skills, structure and work/life balance, the study includes short-, mid- and long-term recommendations focused on growing the region’s workforce.

“This project has very tangible recommendations and sets North Central up as a thought leader in this space,” said Dr. Mark Melnik, Director, Economic and Public Policy, UMass Donahue Institute. “The chamber is thoughtful about the characteristics of the region and the needs of the businesses. They are one of the first out of the gate in the state to acknowledge the workforce challenges their region is facing and have a strong desire to learn how to change those challenges into opportunities.”

With the collaboration of regional business and education leaders and workforce development experts, the study revealed two classes of workers who are not being fully utilized within the current workforce, 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 out of their control, and “future workers” are those workers who will be in the labor force in the future due to age, location, technology and other factors.

“Similar to many other areas of the Commonwealth, North Central Massachusetts is feeling the impacts of stagnant labor force engagement beyond the effects of the pandemic shutdowns,” said 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 groups of our hidden and future workers within the region have other needs which are not being met by the current labor market here. In fact, some workers are finding the job search to be just as difficult as it was before the pandemic began. The barriers and recommendations in the plan will require all different community stakeholders in North Central to work together to meet the regions’ work force needs.”

While the study revealed many workers are willing and ready to work, barriers facing today’s workers, including where they live, what skills they have and spoken (and unspoken) rules and regulations, can limit a person’s ability to obtain a job.

From a lack of affordable housing adjacent to jobs and transportation from where affordable housing is available, to current skills that no longer align with industries in the area and overly aggressive online applicant filters that may discriminate an applicant’s past, the challenges facing today’s workforce are unique to those of years past.

“We are definitely seeing transportation challenges,” said Robin Therrien, Career Transitions Specialist, Shriver Job Corp., located in Devens, and who recently attended the Manufacturing Bus Tour hosted by the Chamber. “Not everyone is from the larger areas, like Fitchburg and Leominster, and we have students who live outside of these areas seeking opportunities, but there is no affordable housing and transportation to get them to these areas.”

Jeffrey Roberge, Executive Director at MassHire North Central Workforce Board agrees. “Transportation is an issue, especially for those people who live in rural areas of the region,” he said. “But the silver lining here is that several stakeholders in the region are constantly looking at ways to get people to the jobs here and have a commitment to the workforce system to develop transportation services for the workforce.”

Roberge pointed to the Montachusett Area Regional Transport (MART), which is looking at modified plans to support workforce development. “We are fortunate to have our local transit authority recognize workforce development as a priority, and I know they are looking at bus routes to better align with shift schedules.”

To combat transportation issues, the study recommends employers implement ride share programs, which are similar to a carpool system among fellow employees, and encourage companies to coordinate a van system, which helps workers complete the last mile to and from public transportation locations to the company location. Roberge said this type of system has experienced much success in the Boston area.

But transportation isn’t the only challenge employers are facing when hiring workers. The study revealed the most diverse set of issues faced by both workers and employers relates to work/life balance, such as prioritizing shift times, benefits, and location over things such as industry, company or position in the company.

“The future is hybrid and preliminary data has shown there hasn’t been reduced production of work when people are working from home,” added Roberge. “While certain industries have more challenges with a hybrid work schedule, such as manufacturing and health care, I think employers really need to think about aligning schedules and shifts with what their industry can handle and provide remote or hybrid opportunities as much as possible. I don’t think we will ever go back to the traditional workday of being in the office eight hours a day, five days a week.”

The study recommends multi-purpose solutions for North Central related to work-life balance, including a shorter work week, flexible working agreements, the expansion of benefits to include childcare, more permissive policies for time-off requests, incentives for career advancement and rewards for longevity, incentives for employees who have a healthy work/life balance, and coordination with other community stakeholders to increase the supply of childcare, among others.

The study also explored a variety of solutions to engage hidden and future workers into the labor force, such as through 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 slowed population is projected to continue,” said Nascimento. “In order to meet North Central’s workforce needs, employers, educational institutions and workforce development agencies must collaborate to identify overlapping strategies to help enhance the engagement of these groups in 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. For example, in collaboration with employers, Mount Wachusett Community College began developing a new Veteran Worker’s Initiative that assists local veterans with the transition from military skills to college/civilian skills. This 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 utilizes the college’s career services by connecting students with business partners in the area.

“We have so many great partners and we want the industry professionals in our area to be involved with educating the future workforce,” said Kijah Gordon, Director of Workforce Access and Education, Mount Wachusett Community College. “We are taking a step back from traditional programming and really looking at what our employers need to fill their open positions.”

At Shriver Job Corp., which serves those between the ages of 16 to 24, programs are offered to students who may not have had a good support system throughout their lives and who may not have life skills that make them attractive to employers. “Our students are not all at-risk youth,” said Denise Schultz, Work-based Learning Specialist, Shriver Job Corp. “The truth is we have good kids who might not have the best focus, but who are committed to learning a skill so they can be contributing members in their communities while also building a good life for their families. We want to work with local employers on filling their open positions and they just need to let us know what they need so we can help find the right fit.”

In an effort to facilitate the 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.

“Terry Young (the Chamber’s Talent and Education Initiatives Program Manager) is doing a great job recruiting for our program,” added Gordon. “The future for us is working with the high schools on how to make our programming more appealing to students.”

While collaboration will be key to growing the labor force in North Central, the study concludes that employers need to make working easier by overcoming the identified barriers.

“What stood out to me about the region was the level of collaboration between higher education and businesses combined with a strong Chamber of Commerce,” said Melnik. “There is really good DNA in the region for collaboration and forward thinking, and the people who we spoke with (as we developed the study) realize that timing for this work is important as the issues at hand will only become bigger if they are not addressed.”

Nascimento agreed the region is unique because the collaboration among its businesses, educators and other key stakeholders is already strong. “The Chamber of Commerce is in a unique position to gain trust from businesses and locals with a goal of establishing connections necessary to better meet worker needs and ultimately bring additional people into the labor force,” said Nascimento. “It is our hope that by commissioning the North Central Workforce study that all stakeholders will have a shared roadmap to overcome the challenges and set forth a bright future for employers and workers alike in the region.”

While the study outlines challenges and opportunities to overcome them, many people are bullish on the region’s workforce development, including Roberge.

“We have a vibrant workforce development system, and the outlook is bright as we have solutions to combat our challenges,” said Roberge. “We are very lucky that our businesses, educators, career centers, social service agencies and many others are talking with each other toward a common goal of making North Central a place to live, work and raise a family. We know what we need to do, and we have a community of engaged and committee people to do it.”

Read the North Central Workforce Study in its entirety here.