Home 2007 December
Opinion

As he talked with BusinessWest about regional economic development and the prospects for 2008, Allan Blair said the region was due — make that overdue — for a “big hit.”

By that, Blair, director of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., meant the arrival or relocation to the Pioneer Valley of a major employer, creating several hundred new, hopefully well-paying, jobs. And he’s right, the Valley hasn’t seen such a ‘hit’ for a while now.

And while it’s possible we may see one in the year ahead — as Blair explained, there is still movement among corporations even in economic downturns, one of which is expected for 2008 — this is not the shape economic development is likely to take for the near future.

Even though Western Mass. still has comparatively ample amounts of developable land (the Chicopee River Business Park, for instance) and boasts a much lower cost of doing business than Boston and other areas of the state and the country, major manufacturers are simply not coming to the Northeast and the Pioneer Valley. In fact, this region is struggling just to hold onto what’s here.

Meanwhile, ‘big hits,’ what few there are, in biotech, are occurring in Worcester or Cambridge, which have established clusters of companies in that sector.

Which means that, unless something unexpected happens, growth is going to come organically, from new-business development and growth of companies that have already planted roots in the Valley.

For this to happen, economic development leaders have to put renewed emphasis on workforce development and close a wide skills gap that is preventing many area companies — from hospitals to machine shops; public school systems to paper makers — from filling existing vacancies.

This is not a breaking news story — employers up and down the Valley have been complaining for years about not being able to find enough qualified workers — but the problem is becoming acute, and it is in many ways stifling growth (meaning economic development) in the area.

Thus, we’re pleased to see that a comprehensive action plan will be prepared early next year to address workforce-development issues. This plan will be demand-driven, says Bill Ward, director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, and must be, because the economy won’t grow and companies can’t reach their full potential if those who comprise the region’s workforce don’t possess the specific skills that employers need.

Baystate Health can’t fill hundreds of current vacancies — and it has a $239 million expansion project on the drawing board that will probably add hundreds if not thousands of new positions over the next decade. Meanwhile, other health care providers struggle to find nurses, technicians, and other personnel; school systems tax their resources and imaginations to find teachers; machine shops have to turn down millions of dollars worth of work because they don’t have enough qualified people; and area pre-schools are staffed largely by people without college degrees.

All this leads people like Russ Denver, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, to wonder out loud, “where are we going to find all these workers?”

The challenge for 2008 and beyond is to find ways to stop asking that question and instead develop a real, long-term strategy for answering it.

Such a strategy, or plan, might not fit the working definition of “big hit,” but it would provide a big boost to a region that knows only too well that workforce development is indeed economic development.

Sections Supplements
Economic-development Leaders Focus on ‘Building Blocks’
Russell Denver

Russell Denver says the region needs a comprehensive strategy to close the skills gap that is leaving many positions unfilled at area companies.

Allan Blair calls it the “rush to the green.”

That was his way of describing a regional and national thrust toward environmentally friendly technologies, products, and practices that made its presence known in Western Mass. in 2007, in terms of some new businesses and jobs, and may be a harbinger of an economic development niche for Western Mass.

“It’s not a tsunami of growth that’s going to hit us, certainly,” said Blair, director of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., in reference to this green wave. “But it’s a very encouraging segment that happens to have some national momentum around it, some state momentum, and some incentives that are being prepared on the state level to nurture it. And that’s exciting because it’s new, it’s fresh, and we have a chance to grab our share.”

These ‘green’ advances, such as the emergence of SunEthanol, an Amherst-based venture that is trying to revolutionize the production of ethanol through the use of something called the Q-microbe, were some of the highlights of a year that Blair described as mostly “vanilla” from an economic-development standpoint. There were no big “hits,” as he called them, in terms of new employers or relocations, but, conversely, there were no big losses, either.

“The economy is chugging along in medium gear,” he told BusinessWest, “and given some of the things happening nationally, that’s not such a bad thing.”

Absent those large hits, the region essentially worked on what Blair called “building blocks,” the ‘green’ movement being just one of them. Others include ongoing efforts to retain and possibly grow the region’s precision manufacturing base; maintaining and bolstering the strong health care and higher education sectors; and continued progress in efforts to revitalize Springfield.

There was also considerable movement on what would have to be called the transportation front, with a new direct flight from Bradley International Airport to Amsterdam, and the arrival of low-cost airline Skybus at Westover Municipal Airport. The carrier will soon have two arrivals and departures each day, with flights from and then to Columbus, Ohio and Greensboro, N.C.

Taken together, these building-block-bolstering efforts have provided some momentum for 2008, said Russell Denver, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield. He told BusinessWest that while the national economic picture might be quite fuzzy, and there are several factors that could impact things locally in terms of job growth, new business development, and continued progress in Springfield, he is optimistic about this region and its prospects for the short and long term.

But cautiously so.

He said that perhaps the biggest of those building blocks to improved economic health and well-being is workforce development, and in Greater Springfield, there is much work to be done in this regard. Specifically, the region has to mount an offensive to close the gap between the skills required by area employers and those possessed by most job seekers and the unemployed, and thus fill an alarmingly high number of vacancies and assure prospective new employers that the region can meet their workforce requirements.

“The fact that we have so many jobs available is a good sign, but the fact that we don’t have enough qualified individuals to fill these jobs is a real negative; the high drop-out rates that we’ve seen recently in Springfield and Holyoke, especially, have come home to roost,” said Denver, who told BusinessWest that an action plan will be prepared early next year to map a strategy for improving the quality of the region’s workforce.

Bill Ward, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, which will draft the report at the request of outgoing Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan, said it will go well beyond drop-out rates and focus on factors — ranging from early childhood education to English as a Second Language; from getting more people into area nursing schools to keeping college graduates in this market — that will eventually yield a better-qualified pool of workers.

“There are some very challenging characteristics to the city of Springfield,” he said, “including a high drop-out rate, a low rate of college graduates within the workforce population, low MCAS scores … these are disturbing trends within the workforce and the population that need to be addressed.”

Beyond these workforce issues, Denver sees many positive developments, from the emergence of greater fiscal stability in Springfield to the availability of permitted land in the city’s Memorial Industrial Park; from continued healthy growth in new small businesses to new opportunities in tourism.

In this, our annual ‘Economic Outlook’ focus, BusinessWest looks at the prospects for 2008 and beyond, and the issues that will determine if, where, and how growth occurs.

How Green Grows the Valley?

Looking toward the year ahead, Blair acknowledged that the regional and national forecasts are punctuated by question marks and growing concern about a recession. Many of the issues that will determine what happens with the economy — from energy prices to the subprime lending crisis and credit crunch; from soaring construction costs to the strength of the dollar (or lack thereof) — are simply beyond this region’s control.

“So we need to focus on the things that we can control,” he said, “and to try and be ready when opportunities do arise.”

This theme of ‘being ready’ is a common thread with many of the region’s economic-development strategies, said Blair, including workforce quality-improvement efforts, readying parcels like the former York Street Jail and Chapman Valve site in Springfield for development, initiatives to put qualified machinists in the pipeline, and even casino gambling.

“Everyone wants to get in that game,” he said, referring to several area communities that have passed referendums supporting casinos or are readying sites for facilities, “and we don’t even know what the game is yet.”

And it is especially relevant with regard to the ‘green’ movement, said Ellen Bemben, director of the Regional Technology Council, which is developing a multi-faceted strategy for cultivating a green-related cluster in the Knowledge Corridor.

Scientists and entrepreneurs will need facilities in which to incubate and grow new ventures, she said, and they will need a workforce that can help take ideas from the lab to the workplace. “Some of those just getting started are being urged to relocate to Worcester and Cambridge,” she said, noting two of the burgeoning centers for biotech-related businesses, “and we’re going to have to work hard to keep those people here in the Valley.”

Bemben told BusinessWest that SunEthanol, which has garnered press across the country and is starting to amass needed capital, is easily the most visible of the green-related ventures taking root in the region. The company looks to use the Q-microbe, discovered in the soils off a hiking trail on the Quabbin Reservoir (hence the name) to create ethanol from a wide range of plant materials, rather than corn, thus speeding and facilitating production of the alternative fuel.

But there are many others flying under the radar screen. And they encompass several different components of what is becoming a broad sector, including photovoltaic (solar power) businesses and installations, fuel-cell makers, alternative-fuel providers, and even windpower operations. And there is apparently great interest in further development.

“We’re getting so many hits on the EDC’s Web site from companies offshore, in Europe, or on the West Coast that want to put something on the ground here, and a lot of it is photovoltaics,” she explained. “I’ve never seen so many inquiries, and there’s so many different ways to go in terms of the products necessary for these installations.”

Both Bemben and Blair tend to group sustainable energy and biotech developments under the same (green) roof with regard to cluster development and jobs, and Bemben believes there may be anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people employed in this sector across Massachsetts and into Northern Conn., with vast potential for more, especially in sustainable energy because of a quicker path from the lab to the production plant.

“If you look at biotech and the number of years it takes to come up with new products and delivery systems,” she said, “and compare it to fuel cells, photovoltaics, and biofuels, the latter has a better chance for a quick turnaround.”

Blair agreed, but stressed repeatedly that virtually every region of this state and many other areas around the country are trying to get into this game, and the competition will be steep, meaning that the region has to put its best foot forward and be aggressive — and ready.

Especially if Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to pump $1 billion into the biosciences effort is passed by the Legislature — and most believe it will — and $100 million a year will be made available to players in that market for research and development.

“This region has to be positioned to get some of that windfall,” said Blair. “As an economic developer, you try to identify trends early, rather than when they’re over; this is one that we should be paying attention to, and we will be paying attention to.”

Getting to Work

The emerging ‘green’ cluster is one of many that will need skilled workers, at a time when many already-developed sectors, including health care, precision machining, and financial services, are struggling mightily to fill vacancies.

“I go on the Web sites of major employers once a week to see what they have for job openings,” said Denver, referring to the hospitals, colleges, and some major manufacturers in Springfield and across the Valley. “I’m hearing the same thing — there are jobs, just not enough qualified and educated people to fill those jobs.”

This trend applies to not only the private sector, but also the public sector, he continued, noting, for example, that area communities have hundreds of openings for teachers every summer, and most struggle to fill them.

“You start to ask the question, ‘where are we going to find all these workers?’ he said. “‘Why are the people we have here now not capable of filling these jobs?’”

Filling existing vacancies and closing the sizable skills gap is of paramount importance to the region and its future, said Ward, and for obvious reasons.

“There’s a very real connection between the ability to grow your labor force and your ability to grow your economy,” he explained. “If you don’t have labor force growth, you can’t get economic growth; so we have to grow some of our own, and we have to do a better job with the people we have here.”

The workforce plan will identify strategies for doing just that, he said, noting that this will be a collaborative effort involving area employers, economic development agencies, colleges, and other groups. “This will be demand-driven — we’ll be focusing on employer needs — and we’ll be seeking additional resources, public and private,” he said. “And the backbone of this plan must involve across-the-board, new, and better ways to address the adult literacy problem, the English-as-a-second-language problem, and the missing soft skills that employers are complaining about.”

When it comes to the precision machining sector, it’s hard skills, or the lack thereof, that is dogging those in that industry.

Larry Maier, owner of Peerless Precision in Westfield and president of the local chapter of the National Machine Tooling Assoc. (NMTA), didn’t raise his name, but implied that shop owners are feeling a little like Sisyphus pushing that rock. Finding enough qualified machinists is certainly an uphill battle.

A recent survey of area shops revealed vacancy numbers that project to somewhere between 400 and 500 job openings in the region, he said. Meanwhile, with a retirement rate of 3% to 4%, there are another 200 or so vacancies each year, and the six area vocational high schools are graduating perhaps 30 or 40 people a year that are qualified for only entry-level jobs.

All this math provides ample evidence of the challenge facing area shops, most of which are either farming out work it can’t handle due to a shortage of workers (Peerless is in this category) or simply turning it down.

“That’s 30 in and 200 out — so there’s a real disconnect,” said Maier. “We’re fighting two battles at the same time; first, we need people to replace retirees, and two, we need people so we can stop turning away work; it’s retention and growth simultaneously.”

There has been some progress made toward putting more bodies in the pipeline, he continued, noting programs involving Springfield Technical Community College, Asnuntuck Community College, and the Mass. Career Development Institute to enhance the training of those already in the field or actively looking to entering it, and the resumption of the Manufacturing Technology program at Putnam Vocational High School in Springfield next month. But the sector must be diligent in pursuit of new avenues for gaining machinists, even if there is a downturn in the economy, because it takes several years for qualified help to come out of the pipeline.

“Take the Putnam program, for example; it will be four years before an entry-level person graduates from it — that’s a long time,” said Maier. “To get a skilled machinist, one who could replace a retiree, that takes another five to 10 years.

“That’s why, when we started this initiative, we said, ‘whatever you do, it will take a minimum of five years to really get the spigot flowing,’” he continued. “So anytime you back off because of a downturn in the economy, it’s going to take you five years to refill the pipeline.”

Courting Growth

Workforce issues comprise one of many challenges still facing Springfield in particular, said Denver, who, like Blair, noted that the city, through the Finance Control Board, has managed to put itself back on more-solid financial footing, and probably has the worst of its public relations problems behind it.

In fact, it has started to pick up some positive press both locally — in the form of a coordinated marketing campaign built around the theme “Springfield’s Back” — and nationally, including a large spread in United Airways Magazine that was seen by an estimated 5 million people.

But while the city is seeing progress in some areas, said Denver, considerable work remains to reduce both crime and fear, improve on those aforementioned drop-out rates, and put some abandoned or underutilized parcels — several of them identified in the Urban Land Institute report on Springfield — back to productive use.

The York Street Jail is slated for demolition early next year, he said, and there is considerable interest in the site, including that of an unnamed developer who has forwarded a proposal to build an indoor basketball court complex that will attract youth tournaments and build on the riverfront’s basketball- and fitness-related development pattern.

The Chapman Valve plant in Indian Orchard is also slated to be razed soon, said Denver, providing several different development prospects, and a request for qualifications will be issued shortly for 31 Elm St. in Court Square, which could be converted into a hotel or market-rate housing.

The broad goal is to make Springfield a more attractive destination for tourists, professionals, and business owners, said Blair, noting that while many area communities are thriving despite Springfield’s recent problems, a healthier City of Homes benefits the region as a whole.

“Springfield is three times larger than any other community in the region — it’s the center for a lot of things that are important to us as a region and define our region,” he said. “So we need to pay attention to the city, and we have to do everything we can to help it recover.”

Airbus can help in this regard, he said, by making the city and its attractions more accessible. The carrier started flying
n and out of Westover in mid-July, and five months later, Blair is still closely monitoring the passenger counts on the inbound and outbound Columbus flights.

“There’s been a few dips, but overall, we’re still seeing about 100 people on the outbound flights and maybe 130 on the inbounds,” he said, noting that the numbers may change following a schedule shift from early evening to midday. Inbound flights now arrive in Chicopee at 11:30 a.m., and the outbound departs an hour later.

“Some people like the change, and other people don’t,” said Blair, noting that some business travelers preferred getting in to Columbus at night, giving them a full day in the city the next day, while others like getting into Ohio earlier in the day and perhaps catching a connecting flight to another destination.

Monitoring passenger volume is a big part of the effort to gauge the economic impact of Skybus, said Blair, noting that the service is providing a boost to several tourism- and hospitality-related businesses. It is hoped that the airline — and continued improvements to Springfield’s image and finances — will bolster the tourist sector and bring more business to the MassMutual Convention Center.

“The arena is doing great, but the convention business is still rather anemic,” he said of the two-year-old facility. “There’s a lot of competition for those conventions, and we’re in there slugging it out. It takes some time to become a player in the market, and we’ll get there because this area has a lot to offer.”

Overall, Blair said he believes Springfield, despite some lingering concerns about education and public safety, has turned some kind of corner.

“I have a feeling of empowerment in Springfield that I didn’t sense two years ago,” he said. “I feel optimistic, and I think we all need to be optimistic — realistic, but optimistic.”

Riding a Cycle

Returning to the subject of the national economy and its impact on the Pioneer Valley, Blair said that even in down times there is “movement,” meaning job growth in the form of new ventures and relocations.

“Looking back, I’d say that some of our better years have come during down cycles,” he said, citing some large-scale developments in the early ’90s, at the height of that recession, and others in the mid-’80s, during another downturn.

If history can repeat itself, maybe the region can enjoy a more exotic flavor when it comes to economic development. Perhaps pistachio — it’s green.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
Often, It’s a Matter of Finding the Passion and Motivation to Do the Job

“I’ll do it tomorrow.”

“There’s really no rush to get this done, so it can wait another week.”

“This task isn’t that important anyway; it’ll get done when I find the time.”

All these statements are signs of procrastination. How many do you find yourself muttering on a regular basis?

While everyone procrastinates from time to time — whether it’s completing a work project or cleaning the garage — too much procrastination in your life can derail even the best-laid plans.

Procrastination occurs for a number of reasons and in varying degrees. The most prevalent reasons for procrastination are: 1) unanswered questions about the task, 2) unresolved fears about doing the task, and 3) insufficient motivation to take on something new. All of these reasons are internal, and really have nothing to do with the task itself; they all relate to something the person has to resolve within himself or herself.

So if you have a few unfinished projects looming over your head and can’t seem to muster the initiative to get them done, put the following procrastination-busting tips into play today.

Find your Passion

If you’re passionate about something, you don’t need an outside motivator to get it done, nor do you fear the task or have unresolved questions about it. So the big question is, how do you find your passion? There are actually two routes to take for identifying your passion: either it’s some aspect of the work you already do, or it’s something close to your heart. Keep in mind that for either of these options, your passion doesn’t have to be something you’re good at; it just has to be something meaningful to you — something that gets you excited to get out of bed in the morning. Once you can unlock the passion for something, you’ll find the procrastination disappears.

But what if you’re stuck in a situation or job you’re not passionate about but fear leaving due to financial or other constraints? How can you beat procrastination under those circumstances? Remember … life is too short to be in a situation you don’t like. First consider talking to your supervisor about new opportunities you can take on within your current position. Chances are, you once found passion in your current job, but maybe your responsibilities have become mundane or repetitive and you have lost some of that passion. Taking on new responsibilities will rejuvenate the passion you once felt. Also, you could consider making a lateral move to remain loyal to your current company, but take on new challenges.

Granted, finances may be a consideration as well. If that’s the case for you, then start looking for reasons why you are in that job or situation to begin with. Something drew you to that position initially. Find out that reason, and you may be able to uncover some aspect of your current situation that you are passionate about and that can motivate you to achieve greater goals.

Choose a Motivational Buddy or Dream Team

Often, other people can motivate you to keep going when you’re suffering from procrastination. Your buddy or team can consist of anyone, such as a spouse, co-worker, boss, or sibling, as long as the people you choose will truly hold you accountable for taking (or not taking) action. Make sure you choose people you feel comfortable talking to about your goals and aspirations. Detail to your team exactly what you want to do and why, as well as how you plan to accomplish the goal. Then, make sure your team can monitor what you’re doing on a regular basis.

Think of this approach like having a workout buddy. Even though you want to go to the gym three times a week and work out for 45 minutes each time, sometimes you need another person to keep you on track and to make sure you actually show up at the gym at 6 a.m. The same holds true for other goals in your life. So assemble your dream team and keep them apprised of your progress. With a little help from outsiders, you can beat procrastination and reach new heights of success.

Get Moving

Newton’s Law of Motion states that objects in motion will stay in motion. That’s why you have to do something, no matter how small, to get going toward your goal and beat procrastination. Every one of us is full of potential energy — energy that has not yet started in motion. But once some sort of motion starts, it will keep going. Therefore, you have to take some step, even a small one sometimes, to start the momentum. Once you do, continuing the activity will be a lot easier.

Have you ever wondered why the most successful people in the world seem to grow even more successful with each passing year? It’s because they don’t stop once they’ve started. They use the momentum and energy they’ve accumulated to reach even higher levels of success. They get the cycle going, and they don’t let it stop.

For example, if you have to write a report for work and keep procrastinating the project, tell yourself that all you have to do is write one paragraph or even just a couple of sentences. Those initial words you write will give you the momentum to keep going, and before you know it you’ll be “in the groove” and will have the entire report done.

Often, small steps are the best way to complete a given task and end procrastination. Consider the Great Wall of China. It’s the largest man-made structure on the planet and an amazing sight to behold. Most people automatically assume that the wall was built using large stones or boulders. In fact, the wall is constructed with many small bricks, not large stones; life is the same way.

Successful people are simply the right combination of small bricks. Therefore, if you can focus on the little things rather than on accomplishing the most major things all in one shot, you’ll eventually have something quite magnificent to behold. Greatness always starts with the little things, and action of any sort will always stop procrastination in its tracks.

Take Action Today

Procrastination is a deadly killer of dreams, goals, careers, and life’s happiness. Don’t allow procrastination to hold you back any longer. By finding your passion, enlisting the help of others, and taking small action steps, you can overcome procrastination and achieve your full potential.

So make the decision today to get out and do something. And remember … nothing meaningful ever happens by accident.

Doug Vermeeren is an author and motivational speaker on goal setting and human performance. As the author of ‘Accelerated Achievement’ and ‘Amazing Success,’ he has interviewed more than 400 top achievers and developed a concrete method for achievement and success;www.douglasvermeeren.com

Sections Supplements
AIC Renews Its International Focus with a Series of Programs Around the World
Roland Holstead

Roland Holstead, vice president for Educational Enterprise at AIC.

The new international focus at American International College is producing some intriguing visuals: Chief Marketing Officer Craig Cote on an Irish hillside; Peter Miller, vice president of Admissions, sitting atop a camel; and Roland Holstead, vice president for Educational Enterprise, posing with a young Italian police officer named Andrew Scibelli, to name a few.

Each image is proof of a new focus at AIC to put greater emphasis on the ‘international’ part of its name. Founded in 1885 with a primary goal of educating immigrants, the private, four-year institution in Springfield is returning to its roots in one sense, but also planting new seeds as it launches a series of new, diverse programs around the globe.

In 2007 alone, AIC unveiled four new international programs, and is formulating plans for more. These initiatives span three continents and are diverse in and of themselves, including an international MBA, a master’s in education for teachers from virtually any country, and two study-abroad programs, one of which could soon morph into a trans-continental exchange.

AIC’s president, Vince Maniaci, said renewing the college’s international presence has long been at the top of his to-do list, and this year’s explosion of activity in that arena is proof that the campus, and the world, is ready for AIC’s return to the global marketplace.

“In today’s world and economy, educational partnerships are more important than ever,” he said. “Since 9/11, many colleges and universities have pulled away from international opportunities, but a number of factors have converged to make our international programming particularly timely.”

These factors include the widely held belief that American colleges remain the best in the world, but also the current weak state of the U.S. dollar, which is making the nation’s higher education offerings even more attractive to residents of other countries.

As such, Holstead, who’s done a fair amount of globetrotting this year and has taken to calling himself the “vice president of new stuff” recently, said he’s noticed a shift on AIC’s campus — a new attitude among faculty, staff, and students as they survey new prospects on the horizon.

“We’re very excited about it,” he said. “We want to expand our regional, national, and international reputation as being a college of opportunity.”

Pyramid Scheme

The first of these opportunities was announced in July of this year: a master’s degree program in Cairo, Egypt. It’s based in an educational compound of sorts, which includes kindergarten through 12th-grade classes and a technical school. AIC has introduced a master’s in International Education to the campus, designed to further the education of teachers hailing from several countries.

Holstead said 21 teachers are currently enrolled in the course track, some from Egypt, but others from the Ukraine, Jordan, Lebanon, Poland, and other countries. He added that they’ll graduate in July of next year, on the occasion of AIC’s 123rd anniversary.

It’s a notable day for the college, and the Egyptian graduation was planned to coincide deliberately, but that’s not the most notable connection the program has to AIC’s Springfield campus.

Rollin Baldwin, a 1944 graduate of AIC, was instrumental in securing a spot for the college in Egypt, having spent the bulk of his career promoting education, including through the creation of new schools.

Baldwin co-founded MEANS, the Middle East Association of National (independent) Schools, in 1995, as a non-profit organization that designs programs for ‘American-style’ schools awarding diplomas. It’s also an approved NGO — non-governmental organization — in Egypt.

“He was connected to the accrediting boards, and met with us to talk about opportunities,” said Holstead. “We each felt it was a natural for us to provide a master’s for teachers, especially those recruited to teach in Egypt.”

Moving forward, there are additional international initiatives on the horizon that are benefiting from Baldwin’s international influence, including plans to offer college courses in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico through the Baldwin School, an English-language, college preparatory institute he also founded.

Across the Pond

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, new international initiatives are rolling out just as briskly.

Following the creation of the master’s track in Cairo, AIC cemented a partnership with the Mountbatten Institute in London, as part of an MBA degree program that is also internationally focused. The institute, a student exchange and business-training organization founded in 1984, has long offered post-graduate study and internship opportunities for international students, each year placing more than 500 graduates in a variety of companies in New York and London.

Through this new relationship, those graduates may now earn their master’s in Business Administration from AIC, by adding in courses designed by AIC and Mountbatten faculty.

Students enrolled in the exchange earn a portion of the credits toward their degree in London, and a portion at the AIC/Mountbatten Graduate Study Center in Bangkok, Thailand, taking courses in global business leadership, Asian political and economic developments, and analysis of Asian company organization and business practices, among others.

The U.K. will soon be host to another AIC offering, as well: a semester-long study-abroad program for stateside AIC students will commence in January, on the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland.

Holstead said this study-abroad opportunity is unique because it forges a connection between Western Mass. and a place with which some residents are familiar; many trace their roots back to the peninsula, located in the west of County Kerry.

“Irish descended from the region are very prevalent in the area,” he said. “I’ve read that more than 6,000 came to this area after World War II.”

Building on that existing connection between Dingle and Springfield, students accepted into the program will complete three courses during their stay examining the social structures and cultural aspects of Ireland, and the politics and economics of the European Union.

“There’s an applied, experiential aspect to these courses,” said Holstead. “The economics course is probably the most formal, but the courses complement each other to create a solid program that increases the students’ global knowledge base.”

Students will travel throughout Ireland as part of the program as well, he said, noting that Galway, Dublin, Limerick, and Belfast are on the itinerary, and students will also make a trip to Brussels, Belgium as part of their study of the E.U.

“There, they’ll be able to sit in on debates and discussions that will be very globally relevant,” said Holstead. “It’s an amazing opportunity.”

International Flavor

Further, the study-abroad program in Ireland will also serve as a precursor to a second European study-abroad initiative, said Holstead, which will take its cue from the heritage of many Springfield residents of Italian descent. Beginning in September of next year, AIC will launch a semester-long program in Salerno, Italy, similar to that taking place on the Dingle Peninsula.

Unlike the Irish program, though, the Italian program is planned to include two phases: a semester-long study-abroad for AIC students, and later an undergraduate degree program for Italian students, who would complete two years of courses in Italy and complete their education in Springfield as upperclassmen.

Maniaci said that raising AIC’s international profile should not be relegated to programs abroad for American students. Rather, he hopes to further strengthen the flagship campus through an influx of students from various countries, backgrounds, and cultures.

“Our name gives us a brand and a visibility advantage that is consistent with our heritage and original mission,” he said. “Our name also creates a comfort level for families concerned that their students may not be welcome in an American institution. It tells them that not only will they receive a welcome at AIC, they should anticipate and expect such an atmosphere.”

And as that atmosphere continues to evolve, AIC’s image — at home and abroad — is increasingly coming into focus.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Departments

Taking the Oath

On Dec. 7, a total of 66 new lawyers, including 26 Western New England College School of Law graduates, were sworn in during a pair of formal sessions of the Supreme Judicial Court held in School of Law’s Moot Courtroom.

Below, new lawyers are sworn in before Supreme Judicial Court Justice John M. Greaney. At left, Greaney congratulates WNEC School of Law graduate Alyson Krauss of Palmer.


Cutting the Ribbon

City and state dignitaries officially opened Raymour & Flanigan’s newly constructed, 61,500-square-foot, two-story showroom at 895 Riverdale Street in West Springfield, Nov. 30. Doing the honors are, from left, Mickey Grabner, regional sales manager of Raymour & Flanigan; state Rep. James Welch; state Sen. Stephen Buoniconti; Dave Redekas, vice president of Sales for Raymour & Flanigan; Edward Gibson, West Springfield Mayor; Pamela Langlois, West Springfield store manager; Ben Orbach, vice president of Operations of Raymour & Flanigan; Ken Moss, vice president, Real Estate Development for Raymour & Flanigan; Vicky D’Agostino, director of Communications for Raymour & Flanigan; and Linda Neal, regional trainer for Raymour & Flanigan.


Check This Out

Jennifer Gabriel, assistant vice president and Public Affairs officer at TD Banknorth, presents a check for $50,000 to Springfield Technical Community College President Ira Rubenzahl for the college’s major gifts campaign. The largest single contribution made by the bank’s charitable foundation, the gift will assist STCC in maintaining state-of-the-art technology and labs campus-wide.


Branching Out in the Orchard

With an official ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by local political and business leaders, Hampden Bank opened its Indian Orchard office at 187 Main St. on Dec. 12. The facility marks the bank’s eighth full-service office location in Hampden County. Shown at the ceremony are, left to right, Thomas R. Burton, president and CEO of Hampden Bank; Russ Denver, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield; Springfield Mayor-elect Domenic Sarno; Susan Craven, president of the Indian Orchard Citizen’s Council; Luis Rivera, assistant manager; and Nicole Dionne, office manager.


Contract Claus

Santa’s best friend at the South Hadley Chamber of Commerce’s’ Holiday Stroll on Dec. 7 was Bill Schenker, who greeted more than 200 youngsters and heard their Christmas wishes. The Michael E. Smith Middle School Singers led by Marilyn Steele serenaded the crowd with holiday songs, along with five other musical groups.

Sections Supplements
Colleges Pair Technology and Human Connection to Attract Students
Joe Wagner

Joe Wagner, director of Admissions at Elms College, counsels student Lauren LeBlanc.

For years, college admissions was a fast-paced field that always held a few constants — standardized test scores were commonplace; applications were arduous tasks; and the bulk of the action happened once high school students reached the midpoint of their junior year. All of that has been flipped on its axis, however, as the process becomes more dynamic, and continues to change the world in which admissions professionals work.

Mary DeAngelo, director of undergraduate admissions at Springfield College, defines hers as an ever-changing field.

Joe Wagner, director of admissions at Elms College in Chicopee, says that in the past few years, he’s found himself working in a whole new arena. And Julie Richardson, dean of enrollment management for traditional programs at Bay Path College in Longmeadow, simply calls it a zeitgeist.

“High school students today — the Millennials — are so involved, it’s unprecedented,” she said, noting that a number of factors have converged in recent years to effectively change the face of college admissions.

For years, the process was defined by a sudden frenzy among college-bound students in their junior year; SAT prep frazzled nerves, piles of glossy viewbooks choked mailboxes, and applications were meticulously completed in ballpoint pen, sealed in a manila envelope along with a personal check and a personal essay, and sent off, marking the start of weeks of waiting and nail-biting.

Today, though, those archetypal images have been cast aside in favor of online applications and Web-based research. Students are asking more questions, and asking them earlier.

As for the SATs, they still exist — measuring math and verbal skills in high school cafeterias across the nation. But truth be told, admissions professionals say even standard aptitude isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.

Instead, colleges and universities, especially smaller, private institutions like Springfield, Elms, and Bay Path, are working toward streamlining their operations to cater to an increasingly engaged audience. They’re reaching a greater number of students at various points in their high school careers, and delivering the most relevant information to them at that time. They’re noticing a trend toward more-involved parents, and working toward striking a balance that keeps moms and dads informed, while still underscoring the importance of follow-through by the child.

In the face of dwindling numbers of high school students, especially in New England, schools are performing their due diligence to ensure that every applicant understands the missions of their institutions, to boost not only admission, but also retention.

And admissions departments everywhere are tying this all together with one constant — the power of technology.

Beyond Bricks and Mortar

More than any other starting point, said DeAngelo, an institution’s Web site has become the most important aspect of the college-search process. Many students now use the Web as a virtually exclusive search tool, and that alone is causing a shift in how admissions counselors reach them.

“Certainly, the use of technology has increased dramatically over the past few years, and it’s growing every year,” said DeAngelo. “There has been an increase in visitation of college Web sites, and we find that when students are initiating a search, they’re starting with the Web, so we don’t rely on traditional guidebooks anymore. We’re very conscious that what’s on the site is easy to access and interesting.”

Wagner agreed, adding that about 50% of Elms’ applicants now apply online.

“We still reach students in traditional ways, through high school visits and college fairs, but E-mails, instant messaging, and information on our Web site take the place of mass mailings,” he said. “Students use the Web site more than ever, and it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with them.”

Technology does, however, present a few new challenges for colleges and universities as it matures. Wagner said he’ll soon be taking a look at Elms’ online application process, for instance, which currently requires that the processing fee be mailed separately. That can lead to what are known as ‘ghost applications,’ or students who apply online as a way to test the waters.

“That means it’s actually too easy to fill out an application online, so we have to be cautious about letting that process become more of a glorified inquiry,” he said.

More than a mode of communication, however, Richardson said that incorporating technology-based initiatives into college-admissions practices is a necessary step in streamlining the experience for high school students, who today expect to receive different levels of support from colleges and universities as they move through the process.

“Schools have to incorporate the tech piece to keep up with the students themselves, because they are so tech-savvy,” she said. “But it can’t be all technology. The ideal point is where art meets science, offering better, more sophisticated tools, but holding on to a personal touch.”

One such tool used often by admissions offices is predictive modeling, the often-database-driven process of using information to create a statistical model for future behavior. In the case of college admissions, it’s used to hone in on where students are coming from — their home states, cities, and schools, for instance — and also what channels they’ve used to connect with a college — via the Web, a phone call, or an in-person visit, to name a few avenues.

“There’s so much information about measurement and surveying, and looking at trends,” Richardson said. “But we’re not just relying on anecdotal bits. We’re using our gut instinct, and testing that with measurement tools to make sure we’re headed in the right direction.”

Diving in at the Shallow End

That’s more important than ever, she noted, given the diminishing numbers of high school-aged college applicants.

“National demographics show the high school population beginning to decline, especially in the Northeast,” said Richardson. “We’ve hit the peak, and there’s been a lot of panic about passing it, but the key is to be responsive.”

She said part of that means offering options to students, be they courses, living arrangements, or scheduling choices, and understanding that the term ‘traditional student’ is becoming more archaic every year.

“The challenge is to cater to lifelong learners,” she said. “Students today learn online, at night, through Saturday school, and through traditional options, and those schools that are responsive to what students need and want will be most successful.”

DeAngelo said that to prepare for the eventuality of fewer students applying to college in New England, Springfield College will be spending more time on initiatives to recruit students from outside of the college’s traditional recruiting area.

“We’ll be doing some national college fairs, beginning in the South and in the Southwest,” she said, “and we’ll be looking at ways to engage students to come and visit the campus students from a distance. We have to bring the campus to them early in the process, because typically students at a distance don’t have the opportunity to visit until much later.”

To help make that early connection, DeAngelo said the college has also reached out to its alumni to work more closely with the Admissions Department.

“Springfield College has some great alums all over country, and we’re fortunate to have them working for us. They’re often more able than anyone to identify students who are a good fit for the college.”

Sophomoric Behavior

DeAngelo told BusinessWest that college admissions departments are seeing other changes, including a trend toward serving a pool of potential applicants that is beginning the college search earlier than ever before.

“The process has really accelerated,” she said. “I think this Millennial group of students is one with parents who are college-educated, so it’s been talked about at home early and often.”

As recently as five years ago, most colleges were not dealing with high school sophomores, but now, that’s the norm, she explained.

“Students enter their junior year having been heavily engaged for several months. Clearly, they’re starting earlier, and we need to plan programs as a result to respond to that need.

“It’s really become a year-round process,” she continued, “serving different groups of students at the different times.”

Richardson said she, too, has noticed a diverse set of students in the admissions pipeline at the same time, and added that because the needs of a sophomore are different than a senior or a junior, the onus is on admissions counselors to provide the most appropriate information.

“We start reaching out when they’re sophomores,” she said, “but it’s not a hard sell at that point. It’s more about getting them in the know about judging what will be a good fit for them, the ins and outs of the application process, and financing options.

“That way, they go into the process a little more informed; starting earlier, and with smaller pieces.”

To further assist in that support process, Richardson said informational events are taking on a larger role at Bay Path. Once, open houses on college campuses were relegated to specific weekends or times of year, but no more, she said.

“More than ever, admissions officers are getting to know their students,” she said. “I feel as though we have an event happening every month, and there’s more catering to these students going on. Open houses aren’t just held on Columbus Day weekend anymore, and that, on the whole, makes students feel more comfortable.”

It also makes parents more comfortable, and that’s a more important consideration when dealing with Millennials than it has been in the past.

“Parents are involved more, and I think that’s a big part of what’s going on,” she said. In general, they’re very involved in the lives of this generation. As such, students are making more joint decisions with their parents.”

Wagner said that in some ways that’s a good thing, but not always.

“This is a new, generational thing,” he said. “Parents are very much involved now, and they help us ensure that we’re providing the level of attention to safety and assistance they expect. But at the same time, it’s important that students handle as much of the admissions process themselves as possible. It’s an important step in striking out on their own for the first time.”

To Test or Not to Test

As for decisions on which students are admitted, that process is changing too.

Wagner said that generally, strong school records still carry the most weight, as do patterns of community service and co-curricular involvement — two variables that are indicative, he said, of the ideal student for Elms.

“We have a message and a branding that is important to us as a small, private, Catholic college,” he said. “Often, that message is important to the students who find Elms is their best fit, so we spend a great deal of time matching the strengths of the college with the strengths of our applicants.”

Concerning the SATs, many institutions across the country have gone ‘SAT-optional.’ Cambridge-based FairTest, a non-profit organization that advocates for improvements to student, faculty, and school evaluations, maintains a list of colleges and universities that have chosen to make SAT scores an optional inclusion with an application.

Massachusetts is home to 18 SAT-optional colleges, including Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College, and Simons Rock College of Bard in Western Mass. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Stonehill College, Wheaton College, Newbury College, and College of the Holy Cross are also on that list.

They’re still used at Elms, though there’s no set minimum score that applicants must reach, said Wagner, adding that more than anything, they’re used as a supplemental deciding factor for scholarships or within particularly competitive programs, such as nursing.

“Elms still requires the SAT, but only uses the score in evaluation after it’s been determined how strong a school record is,” he said.

Springfield College takes a similar approach to SAT scores, said DeAngelo. “A pattern of achievement is weighed more heavily than the SATs,” she explained. “We use the SATs, but they’re not as significant as in the past. We use several other factors that are more personal in nature.”

Beyond that, said Wagner, there’s no guidebook as to how admissions departments should proceed. Despite the advent of new technology, colleges are largely taking an organic approach to admitting students — reaching them through Web-based channels and supporting them with the latest tools, but also choosing the student population that best reflects the vision of the institution they’ll one day represent.

“There’s no magic to it,” he said. “Providing as much information as possible to the types of students we’re looking for is the only key.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
The Jobs Outlook for the Year Ahead
L.S. Starrett Co

Potential applicants for jobs at the L.S. Starrett Co. learn about modern machining on a bus that had been converted into a mobile training center.

The L.S. Starrett Co. in Athol, a maker of precision tools, needed an influx of talented workers. Plenty of folks living in or near the town on the border of Franklin and Worcester counties needed a job — but lacked the necessary skills.

So they hopped a bus to a better future.

Michael Truckey, director of the Franklin Hampshire Career Center in Greenfield, said his agency worked with the Mass. Manufacturing Enterprise Program to set up a training center on wheels — a converted bus, actually — and boarded nine people at a time for two-week training cycles to bring them up to speed on necessary manufacturing skills. The result? After two months, Starrett was able to hire 27 new workers.

“It was about showing people what the opportunities are right there on ground level,” Truckey said. “A lot of machine shops have an aging workforce, so they’re trying to figure out creative ways to meet their employee needs.”

It’s a story being told over and over across the Pioneer Valley: good jobs are available, but job seekers remain plentiful, in part because they lack the skills necessary to take on the work. It explains why many fret over the region’s employment outlook at the same time that others report positive signs.

Consider Manpower Inc., for instance, which recently reported that Springfield-area businesses expect to hire at a bullish rate early in 2008, with 53% of the companies surveyed planning to hire more employees and only 7% looking to reduce payroll. But even those projections come with a caveat.

“It seems positive, but when you dig into the results, it does show that most of these intentions are slight,” said Cathy Paige, a local spokesperson for Manpower. “So I don’t want to put an overly optimistic spin on this, like companies are planning to hire hundreds of people at a time. Some of this is replacement of attrition, not necessarily additional hiring.”

Still, she said, the survey results show a more-positive outlook, particularly in the manufacturing sector, which, while not booming, is showing signs of life.

“Even if it’s one head, I’ll take it, because it’s not a decrease,” Paige told BusinessWest. “Those [in manufacturing] are the best kind of jobs for an economy, because they spin off other jobs, like taking orders, shipping, and receiving. Studies have shown that 100 manufacturing jobs lead to 25 to 40 support jobs, in most cases.”

Mixed Signals

Still, on the ground in Springfield, reports remain mixed. “At the beginning of the year, we started off gangbusters, but it’s not ending the year that way,” said Mary Ellen Scott, president of United Personnel in Springfield, which works with employers to find administrative, warehouse/light industrial, and medical office support workers. “And I would say it’s like that across the board.”

Scott attributed that trend to some anxiety among employers about a possible recession looming. “What I’ve heard is people predicting that 2008 will not be a booming year, and I think the more we hear the ‘r-word,’ the more we talk ourselves into it,” she said. “And any time there’s talk about a business outlook that’s not positive, people get very nervous about what they’re spending, and hiring is one of those things they look at.”

Even strong pockets of hiring aren’t necessarily good news, Paige noted. “Most of the hiring activity has been in the service sector, which is typically not a great sign because service jobs don’t pay as much as, say, durable and non-durable goods.”

But obscured in these trends is the fact that many employers, particularly in manufacturing, want to hire new workers, but continue to grapple with a skills gap in the Pioneer Valley — one that the region’s career centers are trying to close through training and awareness programs.

“After the downsizing that happened in the 1980s and 1990s, when a lot of mass production moved elsewhere, you still have a hub of niche companies that survived — but you don’t just walk in without skills,” Truckey said. “Those companies don’t employ hundreds anymore; they might hire 15 or 50, so their margins are tighter. Their machines do more than they used to, and they need people with technical skills, a background in math, computers, or programming … it’s a specialty thing.”

Truckey said his agency still has “eight or nine pages” of job postings — heavily weighted toward hospitality, service, and health care, but including some solid manufacturing jobs as well — and is working with employers on training programs.

“We want to upgrade the skills of people presently employed, and we’re also looking at ways to train unemployed people for these types of jobs,” he said. “When you had larger machining companies, they used to bring trainers in and had their own apprentice programs. But that doesn’t happen as much now.”

Part of the problem is simply attracting job seekers to the manufacturing field, because many of them hold outdated perceptions of what such jobs are like.

“Machining is a clean industry now, and I don’t think the public knows how clean it is — and you can make some pretty good money working for these companies,” Truckey told BusinessWest. “At a recent legislative breakfast, we talked about trends over the past 25 years like green products and recycling. One owner of a machine company talked about how they used to use oils, and the toxicity of those products, and how it’s totally different today; his oils are of a non-toxic nature now. People don’t know that.”

Rexene Picard, executive director of FutureWorks Career Center in Springfield, said manufacturers are taking the problem seriously.

“Local employers are coming together and forming partnerships, saying, ‘we just can’t keep stealing people from each other; we’ve got to have a pipeline.’ So they’re partnering with trade and vocational schools, as well as offering training for their own incumbent workers to bring them up to the next level.”

Picard noted that 26,000 new jobs were created in Massachusetts over the past year, but at the same time a similar number of job vacancies persist.

“That’s a sign of a chronic skills gap,” she said, noting that FutureWorks plans multiple job fairs to raise awareness of the opportunities available in Western Mass., as well as launching some cross-border initiatives in Northern Conn.

“These jobs have been out there for awhile, and the job seekers are out there too, but they don’t have the necessary skills to close the gap. Still, I’d say there’s more good news than bad.”

Labor Daze

The skills gap isn’t just a regional problem. Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration has made it a focus of its economic development efforts, attempting to get people trained for the most in-demand professions. Of particular interest in Boston is health care, which continues to be the state’s top-employing industry, encompassing 450,000 workers, or 15% of the state’s workforce — a trend not expected to let up in the coming years.

“Closing the skills gap in Massachusetts is our top priority,” asserted Suzanne Bump, secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, in a statement last month. “It is important that we pursue sector training through programs such as the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund to bridge that gap. Additionally, we are working with the Board of Higher Education and regional workforce boards to increase post-secondary educational opportunities.”

“Long-term investments in training and education go a long way toward easing the skills gap,” agreed Nancy Snyder, president of the Commonwealth Corp., a statewide workforce-development agency. “A strong economy requires a competitive business community and well-paying jobs for residents; upgrading workers’ skills in coordination with our employers serves both.”

Picard said those goals can’t be met soon enough, with area employers reporting fewer hires at the moment than they did late in 2006, although health care, warehousing, education, government jobs, and — to some extent — manufacturing all show positive signs. FutureWorks has begun working with some larger employers, such as Big Y and the Sisters of Providence Health System, to assess their needs and help them meet their hiring and growth goals.

Meanwhile, by using grant money for education and training programs, “we’re trying to get people to consider skilled manufacturing as a career path,” she said. “But things don’t turn around quickly; they take a little bit of time.”
And sometimes a bus.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
IBS Charges Ahead with a Unique Management Model Focused on the Future
Innovative Business Systems

The team at Innovative Business Systems; president Dave DelVecchio is fourth from left in the front row.

‘Five Guys.’

That’s how the team at Innovative Business Systems (IBS), an information technology support and sales firm in Easthampton, refers to its owners.

It’s an inauspicious term, perhaps, that is nevertheless part of a democratic culture at IBS that began when a group of employees — Dave DelVecchio, Brian Scanlon, Scott Seifel, Ben Scoble, and Sean Benoit — bought the company from founder Bill Tremblay in August 2003.

It wasn’t a coup — DelVecchio, now the company’s president, said Tremblay’s reign was a benevolent dictatorship. And as the company moves forward, it carries with it Tremblay’s initial mission: to provide a high level of service, from both a technical and a human standpoint.

But DelVecchio added that the structure also allows the owners to bring their collective experience in information technology to the management side of the business.

“It allows us to continue Bill’s vision, with our own unique spin,” he said. “We’ve been a team since the day we signed the papers. The percentages of ownership vary, but only come into play two times a year, at annual meetings.”

It’s also a management style that’s becoming increasingly notable as IBS nears the close of one of its busiest years to date; DelVecchio estimates that the company will end the year with the highest annual gross revenue figure in its 20-year history.

Such growth is tempered by a few trends in the IT industry that can pose challenges — among them shrinking profit margins and a continuing need for appropriately trained staff, as technology changes — but it’s a good indicator, said DelVecchio, of the pace at which IBS is growing and how it’s achieving that growth: through an increased amount of “soup-to-nuts clients,” as he calls them.

“The number of companies who know where they want to go in terms of technology is higher than ever before,” he said. “They’re looking at technology upgrades as an essential task, and budgeting accordingly. Plus, 70% to 80% of those businesses want regular service.

“The writing on the wall is that IT firms can’t just sell products,” he continued, “and as technology continues to march forward with a focus on efficiency and the needs for the future, that beginning-to-end approach is typically smoother for us, and for the end user.”

Strength in Numbers

IBS began as a software-development outfit under Tremblay’s management in 1987, and maintains that aspect of the business. Tremblay, now dubbed ‘president emeritus,’ still serves as a consultant and field representative for the company from South Carolina, where he now lives and where one of IBS’s largest software clients, Carolina Eastern, an agricultural wholesaler, distributor, and retailer, is based.

The firm also handles PC sales, data analysis, networking, hardware and software support, repair, and maintenance services for businesses of all sizes.

DelVecchio said the majority of the small and medium-sized businesses IBS services are located in the 413 area code, while its growing presence in the financial-services sector covers about a three-hour radius, from Cape Cod to Connecticut. Additionally, its software-development arm has a national reach, with clients in New Mexico, Florida, Oklahoma, Illinois, Colorado, and several other states.

About 60% of those annual gross revenues are derived from work with banks and credit unions — both those with their own existing IT departments and those without. DelVecchio explained that, due to the increasing need for a high level of security and well-planned disaster-recovery methods in the banking industry, even those institutions with well-heeled technology departments are seeking outside vendors to offer certain services or to perform audits of existing systems.

“More than ever, banks and credit unions need to outsource because they need redundancies built in to support their environments,” he said.

The remaining 40% of IBS’s client list is made up largely of small-to-medium-sized, privately owned businesses, many of which are not large enough to have their own IT departments but view the need for constantly updated technology as a growing necessity. These companies, both for-profit and nonprofit entities, span a wide range of sectors, from health care to manufacturing.

“IT is the core of many day-to-day functions,” said DelVecchio, “and it’s becoming more cost-effective for even the smallest companies, when as recently as two or three years ago, it was not. These are, essentially, very powerful technologies being implemented behind the scenes that double as small business solutions, often available for companies with five employees or less.”

Data, Data Everywhere

DelVecchio said the biggest issue IBS is addressing of late is that of access to data: from various computers, company locations, or remotely, from virtually anywhere. This could translate into outfitting a financial institution’s loan officers with laptops and scanners, for instance, so they can bring the service directly to a client, or supplying home care nurses with tablet PCs, on which they can access and input up-to-date medical information on a patient.

Data access is also an important consideration in terms of disaster recovery. No longer is it safe to store data in a static office environment; rather, DelVecchio said the trend is toward multiple back-up systems that protect the integrity of information, but also allow for that data to be retrieved from any computer.

“Current technologies ensure access to information, and that a business will not be crippled by the inability to get at it,” he said, noting that this new attention being paid to data recovery resulted in part from lessons learned following 9/11. “There were some major financial institutions in the Twin Towers that never recovered. Some were located in the North Tower, and had their recovery systems located in the South Tower.

“People have heeded that warning.”

In general, said Delvecchio, business owners and managers across the board are recognizing the importance of technology to their daily operations.

“They are asking themselves the big question: can they support their clients, even without a bricks-and-mortar facility,” he said. “People are getting more forward-thinking, even in those sectors that have historically been less proactive about technology for various reasons, such as nonprofits. They understand that they are a business first and a nonprofit second, and technology allows them to focus on what they know, and do it well.”

In response, IBS has entered into a number of new vendor relationships in 2007 to continue addressing the myriad needs of its client base, signing on to sell and service such new industry standards as Citrix Solution Advisor, a secure remote-connectivity platform that can be integrated with virtually any existing IT environment.

The company also became a ‘Symantec SMB (again, small to medium-sized business) Specialization’ partner in October, gaining access to a wide range of benefits including priority and advanced technical support access on behalf of clients, and a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner in August, the technology giant’s highest designation, demonstrating expertise in the installation and support of Windows servers and related technologies.

The increased awareness has also widened the marketplace, and as such made the need for planned growth at IBS more pressing.

“We need to be our own best customer,” said DelVecchio. “We’re expanding our own infrastructure along with our clients, improving remote access, taking care of our internal technology, and making sure the ever-important human aspect is being taken care of.”

Expansions to staff are inevitable, he continued, and network engineers, particularly those with Microsoft certification, are in particular demand.

This growth pattern also calls, however, for a longer look at retention as well as recruitment.

“There is generally a very high burnout ratio connected to IT,” he said. “Technology recycles every five years, self-education is imperative, and clients’ needs are endless. Three years is a normal period of time for a staff member to be with a company — this affects that company, but also its clients, who are forever being transferred to new contacts to handle their issues.”

But DelVecchio said he and his fellow owners have experienced these pressures first-hand, and treat them as a real but curable problem. They’ve put several safety nets in place, including assigning secondary contacts to every job, and approaching benefits packages creatively and in concert with employees when possible.

The ownership team alone provides for a stable base, but half of IBS’ 20-person staff has been with the company for five years or longer. Over the past two years, there’s been no turnover at all.

DelVecchio said that’s probably the best example he can give when explaining the collaborative environment at IBS, and how it is pushing the business through one of the most dynamic times in technological history.

“We transitioned from one owner — a benevolent dictatorship — to an employee group through a careful succession plan,” he said. “With Bill’s vision intact, we’ve become a successful ongoing venture; the technology changes, but the concept stays the same.”

As such, IBS’s mission persists — multiplied by five.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Features
Federal Tax Credit Program May Help Build Some Momentum in the Valley
Capital Ideas

Capital Ideas

They’re called New Market Tax Credits, a federally funded economic development vehicle designed to spur activity in low-income urban and suburban areas. Few developers and business owners in the region know they exist, and fewer still know (or want to know) how they work. But they’ve been used to bridge financing gaps needed to bring projects like the River Valley Market in Northampton (below) to fruition, and could be a useful tool in the broad effort to revitalize neighborhoods in Springfield and other area communities.

Austin Miller has been involved with commercial and residential development for more than 30 years now. To bring various projects to fruition, he’s tapped clients into a number of government-funded programs, and through those experiences has come to one of those ‘death-and-taxes-like’ conclusions:

“When you’re dealing with government programs, two things always get you in trouble,” he explained. “The first is trying to use logic, because the government never uses logic, and the second is to try to think simply, because nothing is ever simple. If you keep those two things in mind, you might get there.”

All this goes double, maybe triple, for something called New Markets Tax Credits, a relatively new, U.S. Treasury-funded method for spurring development in lower-income, underserved areas across the country. This is a complex product, so much so that, when asked what language he uses to explain how they work, Miller said simply, “usually, I don’t even try.”

Instead of focusing on what these tax credits are and exactly how they work, Miller, a principal with Springfield-based MBL Housing & Development, which has consulted on a number of area projects, prefers to talk about why developers might want to consider them as a viable option for closing gaps in project funding, and when and where they might be applied.

Locally, this includes ventures like the Holyoke Health Center and, more recently, the River Valley Market now taking shape on King Street in Northampton, a unique venture described by those involved as a “locally grown food cooperative” that’s member-owned.

The 17,000-square foot marketplace, which will sell locally produced foods and other products and is nearly ready to open its doors, has received nearly $7.5 million in funding from a variety of sources, both traditional and non-traditional. The former includes debt financing from Bank of Western Mass. and several subordinate, or secondary, lenders, including the Western Mass Enterprise Fund (WMEF), a nonprofit community loan fund, which made $300,000 available in working capital.

The WMEF has also partnered with Portland, Maine-based Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI) and its associate, Trans Capital Investments, to bring $2.03 million in new markets tax credits to the project, a key development in making the venture possible, said Chris Sikes, executive director of the WMEF.

Sikes and Miller, who served as a development consultant for the River Valley project, both told BusinessWest that NMTCs can help spur development efforts in Springfield — several sections of the city meet income guidelines spelled out by the Treasury Department for the program — and many other communities in the Pioneer Valley. The challenge, they say, is to make developers and nonprofit groups aware of the tax credits, the benefits they bring to borrowers, and how they make projects like the River Valley Market ultimately doable.

“The tax credits provide about a 30% discount on a project,” said Sikes, noting that this is the percentage of the loan amount (roughly equal to the tax credit given the investor) that is essentially forgiven. “If you had a $1 million project, at the end of seven years, it’s down to roughly a $700,000 project, depending on how the deal is structured.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for this region,” he continued, “we now have access to these tax credits, and we need to take full advantage of that opportunity.”

Taxing the Imagination

To help explain how NMTCs may help with financing projects in Springfield, Sikes, in a presentation to city officials several months ago, offered a PowerPoint synopsis he called “New Markets Tax Credits Lite.”

Like Miller, he found himself moving quickly through the math portions of the exercise that explain why the credits are an attractive option for investors — debt and equity investors earn a federal income tax credit, calculated on the amount provided, over seven years: 5% for each of the first three years and 6% for the next four years — and focusing instead on how they might help revitalize neighborhoods.

“Our mission at the enterprise fund is to create economic opportunity for low- and moderate-income communities in Western Mass., and the way we do that is to bring capital into the region, whether it’s our own or others’,” he explained, noting that, while the WMEF provides loans ranging from $500 to $300,000 and other types of financing, the more important numbers concern the amount of capital its activities leverage. “What matters is that the right kinds of capital get into the region to help it grow.”

And the NMTC has become a new and potentially powerful tool for meeting that mission.

The program was created in 2000 by the Community Tax Relief Act of 2000, for the purpose of leveraging capital from investors to spur economic development in urban and rural low-income communities. Roughly $3 billion in tax credits are made available each year, and there is mounting competition for them, said Sikes.

Language provided by the Treasury Department’s Community Affairs Division and its Insights publication provides ample evidence that Miller is right about government programs not being simple. In describing NMTCs, Insights serves up an alphabet soup of acronyms to describe who can use the tax credits and how.

“With the Treasury Department, the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund) and the Internal Revenue Service (through Section 45D of the Internal Revenue Code) jointly administer the program,” it starts.

“A prospective recipient of new markets tax credits must be certified by the CDFI Fund and a qualified community development entity (CDE) before submitting an application for a tax credit allocation. An NMTC application is evaluated by the CDFI Fund on the basis of the CDE’s business strategy, capitalization strategy, management capacity, and projected community impacts.

“The NMTC process works as follows: The CDFI Fund allocates NMTCs to CDEs which, in turn, offer them to investors in return for equity capital. The proceeds from investors are referred to as Qualified Equity Investments (QEIs). CDE allocatees and other parties such as equity fund managers, market the availability of NMTCs to prospective investors at the institutional and individual level.

“Using the QEI proceeds, a CDE makes its financial assistance available to eligible businesses known as Qualified Active Low-Income Community Businesses (QALICBs). ‘Substantially all’ of the QEIs, defined as 85%, must be deployed by the recipient CDE within one year in Qualified Low Income Community Investments (QLICs). The QLICs comprise a host of financial and technical assistance to eligible businesses: investing in or lending to these business enterprises; investing in or lending to CDEs; purchasing loans from CDEs; and providing financing counseling and other services (FCOS) by the CDE to organizations, including nonprofit and organizations, to assist with business plan development, financial analysis, financing, and similar activities.”

That’s the simple explanation. There are another 20 pages of dizzying text outlining various models — ‘bank-operated’ and ‘third-party’ — as well as financing structures (leveraged and non-leveraged), key risks, regulatory issues, and other considerations.

All developers and business owners really need to know, at least at the outset, is that the tax credits can be used to help support a wide array of ventures that share common challenges — especially the fact that many don’t easily qualify for traditional financing to cover all or part of their need.

This was the case with the River Valley project, Sikes recalled, noting that discussions between backers of that venture, which eventually became a QALICB, and the WMEF began nearly three years ago.

It took some time, he said, to piece together a complex financing collaborative that would eventually include seven lenders (led by the Bank of Western Mass.), one investor, and 26 guarantors.

“This was not only a very complicated deal, but it involved the entire Northampton community to put it together,” he explained, noting that the NMTCs were pivotal, and the project became eligible because that one small area off King Street is the only one in Northampton that meets the definition of ‘low-income community’ or ‘New Markets Tax Credits Zone’ as set by the Census Bureau — a poverty rate of at least 20% or median income of up to 80% of the area or statewide median, whichever is greater.

This was the first foray into the Pioneer Valley for Coastal Enterprises, said Sikes — the $30 million Holyoke Health Center project was supported by Boston-based Mass. Housing Investment Corp. — and it took some time to materialize. He expects that there will be many more, and that they will come together more quickly and easily.

Developing Interest

A look at CEI’s New Markets Tax Credits portfolio, assembled by its subsidiary, Capital Management LLC, shows the many diverse ways the credits can be put to use. CEI has been awarded nearly $250 million in credits to date and has put them to work in ways ranging from sustainable forestry initiatives to marine businesses; from tourism ventures to manufacturing companies. Projects include:

• Katahdin Forest Management: $32.5 million of NMTC capacity to finance 300,000 acres of sustainable working timberlands in North Central Maine, part of the financing needed to reopen the Great Northern Paper Company mills, preserving or re-activating 620 jobs;

• Gulf of Maine Research Institute: $4.1 million of NMTC capacity used to provide long-term debt financing for the institute’s marine research/education laboratory in Portland, Maine, with a principal mission of supporting the fishing industry in the Gulf of Maine;

• Fralo Plastech Manufacturing: $6.2 million of NMTC capacity used to facilitate an equity investment in an early-stage manufacturer of engineered plastic septic tank systems located in Upstate New York and utilizing recycled plastic; and

• Ingraham Community Services: $4 million of NMTC capacity to allow Ingraham, a community-based nonprofit that provides crisis response, residential, and support services to purchase a building in downtown Portland to consolidate disparate operations into one location so it can reduce its rental costs and take advantage of greater operational efficiencies.

These examples show how NMTCs can be put to work in the Pioneer Valley, said Sikes, noting that, while there are limitations on how and where they may be applied — they cannot be used for affordable housing projects, for example — they can be a practical tool for economic development in this region.

He pointed to Court Square in Springfield — where a boutique hotel was planned, then shelved, but still remains a viable option — and the so-called State Street Corridor, as examples of where they might be effectively utilized.
“The State Street area was made for these tax credits,” he explained. “They could play a large role in generating investments in that corridor.”

Overall, Coastal weighs requests for tax credits based on several criteria, the first being that a project must make economic sense, said Sikes, adding that there must also be tangible benefits for the community or specific neighborhood.

“Coastal wants its projects to have an impact,” he explained. “They want the money to mean something. This isn’t about building a few McDonald’s; that’s not what this is for.”

As the benefits to be derived from the tax credits — for both the investors and the borrowers — become known and understood and developers and business owners become more savvy with regard to them, competition for NMTCs continues to mount, said Sikes. “Coastal Enterprises has put out about $200 million of credits, and they probably have another billion-and-a-half in the pipeline, because as people find out this, they want to get involved.

“That said, Coastal Enterprises wants to do more deals in this market,” he continued, adding that he projects that $50 million or $60 million could be brought into the region, as long as CEI continues to receive its current allotment.

We need to get some projects together, and we can do that if more people become aware of the tax credits and what a great opportunity they represent.”

The Bottom Line

Like Sikes, Miller said more investors and borrowers are becoming more savvy about NMTCs, because they add up to attractive, relatively low-risk deals for both sides of the transaction.

These deals are not simple, in keeping with Miller’s thoughts on government-funded programs, and sometimes the rules pertaining to them are not exactly logical. But in many ways, these deals make sense — and they make for intriguing possibilities for future economic development.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

Features
Local Chamber Leader Creates a New Agency for the Commonwealth
Deb Boronski

Deb Boronski perceived need for a ‘state’ chamber in the Commonwealth, and created the Mass. Chamber of Business & Industry.

Deb Boronski says she started thinking about the concept a few years ago.

Through her involvement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Northeast Board of Regents, she met and talked often with those directing statewide chambers, something Massachusetts has never had, and that Boronski started to think it could possibly use.

Over time, any doubts about such need, at least in her mind, were erased. And thus, after several months of planning, Boronski, long-time senior vice president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield (ACCGS), has launched something called the Mass. Chamber of Business & Industry Inc.

That’s the MassCBI, for short, a mostly Web-based organization that will be run out of an office Boronski is now leasing in East Longmeadow. But it will, she says, represent businesses across the state and, in essence, provide a louder, stronger voice than chambers representing individual cities (like Chicopee’s and Holyoke’s) and regions (like the ACCGS, which has seven chambers representing nearly 2,000 members).

“Our primary focus will be on state issues, those that affect every business in the Commonwealth — we’re going to inform, educate, and then advocate on behalf of businesses so we can affect positive change,” said Boronski, who described her start-up venture as a logical next step for the state — and for her from a professional-development standpoint.

“I’ve been in this position for 10 years now,” she said of her work with the ACCGS. “I’m ready for a new and bigger challenge.”

Jeffrey Albright believes that a state chamber can succeed in Massachusetts, primarily because he’s seen such an organization work effectively in another Northeast industrial state. He’s member executive of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry, an entity that has been in place since 1916, and currently represents members in all 67 of the state’s counties.

Albright told BusinessWest that while local and federal legislation certainly affects business owners, the most impactful proposals usually emerge on the state level. And the PA Chamber, as his agency is called, provides what he described as a “unified voice” on the ‘Hill.’

“The reason all organizations form is to take advantage of the collective power, strength, and unity of the group,” he said. “Numbers speak; this is clout, this is influence. When we go to the Hill we can tell legislators just how many people we have in each of those legislative districts that they represent — and we can tell them what these people are thinking about the issues they’re voting on.

“You might have some local chambers that have very close relationships with their legislators,” he continued, referring to his state. “But quite frankly, when you take that number to the Hill and try to get something passed, let’s see how well you do. Without the support of other legislators, you’re not going to get anything accomplished.”

Boronski, who will leave the ACCGS in early February, said she expects the MassCBI will provide a similar, unified voice. Explaining how such a statewide chamber operates, and how it works to complement smaller chambers, not compete with them, is part of a broad education process that she has already embarked on. This assignment will continue for some time, she told BusinessWest, and eventually take her from Williamstown to Nantucket.

“You eat an elephant one bite at a time,” she said of her plans to take the MassCBI to every corner of the state. “I’m going to take this one bite — one city or town or region — at a time.”

Chamber Music

As he talked about the PA Chamber, what it does, and how it works, Albright made frequent use of that word ‘clout.’

He said that this is what his group provides to roughly 24,000 members (those who pay dues) and customers (those who don’t but participate in chamber-sponsored programs and events). And this clout comes from a combination of that number and the word ‘chamber,’ which carries a good amount of weight, especially with elected officials.

With its size and clout, the PA Chamber is able to help level the playing field in a state where the Southwest (Pittsburgh area) and Southeast (Philadelphia and its suburbs) quadrants are well-represented, but most other areas feel neglected, he said.

“What we try to do as a state chamber is enlarge the pie, from an economic development standpoint, and see that everyone gets a slice,” he explained. “First and foremost, what we do is advocacy — we’re the voice of the business community.”

Enlarging the pie is one way to describe what Boronski wants to accomplish with the MassCBI, and she said her experience with the ACCGS provided some inspiration for her venture in the form of ample evidence that there is indeed strength in numbers.

She said that through affiliation with the ACCGS, smaller chambers have access to information, expertise, lobbyists, and programs. But even the affiliated chambers are limited in what they can do because of their size and specific geographic focus, so she wants to take that model to a much wider stage — the entire state.

“The ACCGS does a great job — but that’s just Greater Springfield,” she said. “The Worcester chamber does a good job in that city, and the Boston chamber does, too. But there needs to be a united voice; when the Massachusetts Chamber of Business & Industry goes to Boston, it speaks for the Berkshires, Boston, and everyone in between.”

The business plan for the statewide chamber is still a work in progress, said Boronski, and it is being shaped by trends and issues involving chambers across the country, and the need for what she described as a “support system” for these municipal and regional chambers.

The MassCBI will fill this role through a variety of products and services, said Boronski, whose preliminary marketing materials list several of them, including:

• Membership programs, including discount programs involving health, life, and dental insurance, as well as car rentals, shipping, and even Monster.com;

• Monthly updates through a MassCBI E-news service, offered free to members, that will provide monthly reviews of legislative and political news (the Web site — www.masscbi.com — goes live Jan. 2);

• Vote for Massachusetts.com, another online service that enables members to access the voting records of their state and national legislators, and also voice their opinions on issues;

• Employee training seminars on subjects including human resources, employment law, workplace safety, and health care;

• Regulatory compliance publications — reference guides covering employers’ rights and responsibilities under state and federal employment, safety and health, tax, and environmental laws;

• Events including a “congressional dinner,” an annual meeting, a legislative reception, and regular breakfast roundtables she calls “Eggs and Issues.”

While the times and places for these events have not been finalized, Boronski expects many of them to be staged in the Worcester area, middle ground for members at either end of the state.

Getting Down to Business

While finalizing the roster of services, Boronski says she must also go about the task of selling the MassCBI, and convincing business owners that there is real value in what she’s calling the “membership investment” — which ranges from $299 to $2,000 depending on the size of the company’s workforce.

For this, she’ll call on previous experience with chambers — she was also long-time president of the Chicopee chamber — and also in marketing (which she’s taught at the college level), development, and even as a business author.

In 1994, for example, she wrote You Don’t Need a Crystal Ball! Visualize Your Future Success Through Market-oriented Strategic Planning. This is a manual of sorts for those starting a business, trying to take one to the next level, or just trying to figure out what the next step might be. There are chapters on identifying one’s customers, doing market research, analyzing competition, performing self-analysis, assessing the business climate, and, finally, formulating a strategy.

Boronski has followed her own manual as she’s gone about creating the MassCBI, and will continue to do so as works to build a membership base, crystalize her mission, and develop a suite of products and services.

She told BusinessWest that she did some extensive research before she embarked on her venture, and it revealed a clear need for a state chamber, even at a time when chamber membership is declining in many regions of the country, and when the Commonwealth boasts a statewide business group — the Associated Industries of Mass. (AIM) — that already provides many of the services planned for the MassCBI.

“We have AIM, we have the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast, and other groups, but there is room for everyone, and not every one program or organization fits every need,” she said. “While AIM is a magnificent resource for the state of Massachusetts, it can’t possibly meet every need for every business.

“AIM is also not a chamber of commerce by name,” she continued. “It’s an association, and that is different; there are associations for everything. A chamber of commerce is a significantly different creature that has a more united voice.”

When asked how she intends to build membership, Boronski said she’s having a number of databases prepared, and has a number of target audiences she’s trying to reach. Current chamber members are a logical starting point, she explained, because they obviously have some level of support for the concept.

“If they see value in a local chamber, they’re likely to also see value in a state chamber,” she said, noting that she plans to speak before area chambers, Rotary clubs, and other business-related groups to outline her venture.

But a state chamber may provide a solid alternative for those who are not part of a local chamber because they don’t have the time to take part in programs and events because they’re too busy trying to grow their businesses.

“The state chamber is mostly Internet-based — it’s information, education, and advocacy, so members don’t have to be involved,” she said. “Many people are busy and don’t feel they have the time to commit once they make an investment in an organization. And if you’re going to be active in a local chamber and get value from your membership, you have to make an investment in time and network.”

But she reiterated that she wants the MassCBI to complement existing chambers, not compete with them.

“Every business should support their local chamber, first and foremost,” she said. “But they can also support a state chamber and even the national chamber — and they should, because each one plays a different but important role in advocating for the business community.”

Network News

Albright said he was one of several members of the Northeast Board of Regents who advised Boronski to meet what he considers an unmet need in the Bay State.

“It looked to me that (Massachusetts) had a lot of strength in its local chambers, but didn’t have an overall umbrella, or an organization that can pull them all together when needed,” he explained. “It sounds like they’re doing a lot of things individually very well, but collectively, the strength of the group [a state chamber] can do even bigger and broader things.”

Time will tell if he’s right with that assessment.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]