Franklin County workforce left behind

News that a business-led effort to equip the Franklin County Technical School to teach 21st century manufacturing skills is being backed by businesses and legislators amid what one leading economic planner says is a critical, growing need for trained workers with skills for the coming job market as baby boomers begin to retire.

Matching the skills for jobs the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council hopes to attract and retain in the three-county region is the most important reality businesses face, says council President and Chief Executive Alan Blair.

“We used to be able to say, with no equivocation that we have the most productive, highly skilled workforce you’re going to find anywhere,” said Blair. “And they’re motivated.”

But he cautioned that workforce is aging, “and what’s coming in behind does not necessarily have the same characteristics. That is a concern for us, and is probably, in my opinion, the biggest challenge we have for our future and success, making sure we have a workforce that wants to work, that has skills for the new jobs that are coming.”

Blair’s comments came following release of a report that said 47.1 percent of the region’s civilian labor force is older than that of the state overall. It says the Pioneer Valley faces the challenge of equipping younger workers with the skills needed to replace retiring boomers.

The report found that the region was hit hard by the global economic collapse, with deeper unemployment than the state overall and a slower recovery, and that younger workers account for a disproportionate share of the unemployed in the Pioneer Valley

Educational attainment levels in the three-county region also are below those for the state as a whole, with 10.7 percent of the civilian labor force lacking a high school degree, compared with 8.7 percent for the state as a whole.

“It used to be, in the early days, that the first questions from companies that were interested in building something or investing was, ‘How much is the land going to cost? How much is building construction? What are my taxes going to be? What are you going to give me for incentives?’ And fourth or fifth on the list would be, ‘So what’s the workforce like?’”

“Now the first question is about the workforce,” said Blair, who regularly attends conferences held by corporate site-location managers. “It’s about the quality of the workforce, can I get the people I need to ramp up for my initial year or two, and what’s the pipeline like three or four years out, when I have to replace people?

“If you can’t answer those questions satisfactorily, you don’t get another look at this company. In many cases, you don’t even see them. They’re getting information from the Internet, from data the state and cities put online.”

Among the most difficult challenges, Blair said, is making sure that public education keeps up with the needs of businesses that might do business in the region, especially since businesses looking to locate here are looking at MCAS scores, dropout rates and other statistics that are readily available.

“When a company is scanning for places to live, to work, to invest, they’re looking for a proxy for the quality of life of that community.... Sometimes, we don’t score too well.”

Blair, who also works to help existing businesses around the region remain here and expand, and helps entrepreneurs in the region launch promising start-up operations, said, “We do everything we can to try and create jobs, but if we don’t have people who can take them, we’re not going to have the investment. It’s the most critical thing we’re facing now.”

Blair said the concerns are particularly acute in the wake of the worst recession in decades.

“The current recession we just came through has dislocated more people than I’ve ever seen in any downturn in my career, which goes back to the ’70s. And the lack of speed coming out of it is the most alarming part,” he said. “A lot of people who got dislocated don’t have the skills for the jobs that have replaced the ones they lost. During this five-year period, a lot of companies have invested in technologies to improve their productivity, but those machines, those processes require higher-skilled people than the ones they laid off. I’m concerned that many of these people who lost their jobs two or three years ago are never going to earn as much as they earned in that last job, for the rest of their careers.”

He added, “When we start peeling that onion, trying to figure out among those unemployed who really is capable, who are able to step into the jobs we’re trying to attract, it’s a much smaller number than we realize.”

Patricia Crosby, executive director of the Franklin-Hampshire Board, says, “The best advice I could offer to any kid today is to take the hardest math and science courses your school offers. Just bite the bullet and do it because it will pay off for you in the future. Far too many have dodged it, and now (manufacturers) are experiencing a lack of people who have just the right kind of foundation skills, let alone interest. What I see is a total lack of awareness of where the jobs are, and the education and training needed to access those jobs.”

On the Web:

You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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