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Training & Workforce Options Takes Region-wide View

Bob LePage

Bob LePage, executive director of Training & Workforce Options.

Bob LePage spends a lot of time talking to employers from many different sectors, from healthcare to hospitality; financial services to manufacturing. And they all have one thing in common — a need for quality workers.
He related a conversation he had with the head of an area manufacturing firm. “He said, ‘we have more work than we have capacity. And what’s the biggest capacity constriction? Lack of workers. If I could find them, I’d add a shift, I’d add another line. Our challenge is, we need more qualified workers, whether that’s taking assemblers and upscaling them to machinists or convincing young people that working in today’s manufacturing environment is not what your grandfather did.’”
One regional manufacturer, LePage added, is anticipating 300 to 400 retirements in the next five years. Simply put, “we can’t close the gap based on what’s coming out of high school.”
As the executive director of Training & Workforce Options (TWO), a partnership between Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College, LePage thinks about these issues all the time. The initiative was launched in 2011 to provide specialized contract training for a range of client businesses. But along the way, it has created sector-wide collaborations to help tackle workforce needs across entire industries.
“TWO grew out of a workforce assessment done by the two community colleges, which came together and decided there are a lot of opportunities to build collaboration between the two colleges, and opportunities for us to work collaboratively with the Regional Employment Board [REB]on supporting and building sector-based strategies.
“It’s come a long way,” he added. “We first had to develop staffing, planning, infrastructure, processes, procedures, how we’re going to do things.”
In the meantime, TWO has worked with the REB and others on developing workforce strategies on a sector-by-sector basis, he explained.
“If we use the example of healthcare, a year and a half ago, we started assessing what the medical coding needs were for the region,” LePage noted, because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is replacing the current standard code sets in 2014, creating reimbursement challenges for providers.
Along with Kelly Aiken, the REB’s director of Health Care Initiatives, and about a dozen regional healthcare employers, LePage explained, TWO developed a partnership by which medical coding and billing students can transfer credits between colleges, and will also launch a training academy to help employers train their workers in the upcoming conversion.
“TWO came in and really provided the skill-assessment expertise we didn’t have before,” Aiken said, and not just in the coding realm, but in direct care as well. “Employers have said there’s either a mismatch between supply and demand, or the industry is changing so rapidly that we need to revisit and revamp career pathways. TWO has been instrumental in helping us collect data from employers and walk employers through the skill-assessment process so we can really understand where the gaps exist.
“I really look at them as a side-by-side partner,” she added, “to fill us in and help employers and training institutions figure out how to fill those gaps through regional and organizational strategies.”

Across the Board
Healthcare is just one of the many sectors TWO has a hand in, however. The partnership recently brought together a group of regional financial-services providers — banks, insurance companies, and others — to discuss workforce needs, and the end result is a new certification program to train people to fill financial call-center jobs.
“The first class of 17 students is going through an intensive training program and will hopefully be placed into jobs in January,” LePage said. “This was an industry-driven need.”
Returning to healthcare, yet another TWO initiative aims to help providers develop new systems to remove inefficiency and waste from healthcare — a major issue in these days of cost-cutting and accountable care. TWO has also worked with Wingate of Wilbraham, a skilled-nursing facility, by training workers in STCC’s simulation lab.

Kelley Tucky

Kelley Tucky says MGM Springfield is depending on regional job-training efforts to build a 3,000-strong workforce in the city.

“It’s a way to assess their hands-on skills, a new way of looking at competence and how students can practically apply their skills,” he said. “Wingate had some very specific things they wanted to partner with us to test.”
And in the manufacturing realm, “we recently partnered with the Westfield Chamber to host a manufacturing workforce forum. We had manufacturers at Savage Industries host 10 or 12 companies around the idea of developing new regional programs for machine operators. In most cases, they might need one programmer but six or 12 operators. Our goal is to develop a new training program to allow us to provide on-site operator training.”
When thinking about the number of precision machinists approaching retirement, LePage said, the challenge is to create large-scale programs to develop the next generation.
“We’ve worked with a number of individual organizations — we might work with them on a multi-year training program, help them do organizational assessment, skills assessment, build a training program with them, and help them capture state resources to enhance the performance of employees.”
Such investments pay off, he noted. “Every dollar invested in support of manufacturing yields $1.64 return on investment in the first year alone. Every time you support labor-pool investment, your community makes money.”
TWO has engaged in similar strategy-building initiatives with area hospitality employers. “We partnered with the [Greater Springfield] Convention & Visitors Bureau on a formal needs assessment. What are the workforce challenges for the hospitality industry? We’re now starting to put together strategies to support their emerging needs, both culinary and front of house.”

Upping the Ante
The hospitality industry is only one of many sectors acutely aware of the probability of MGM Resorts International building a casino in Springfield’s South End, now that the proposal is the only viable casino plan for Western Mass. being considered by the state Gaming Commission.
“It’s highly likely this region is going to have to navigate 3,000 to 4,000 new jobs in the next 24 to 36 months,” LePage said. “TWO has taken the lead in partnering with the Gaming Commission to develop a workforce strategy to support the casino industry.
“We know, for example, that, if you want to be a dealer or in gaming, you have to pass a very specific set of requirements, and if you can’t pass them, you can’t work in a casino,” he added. And those requirements, he noted, could pose difficulties.
Kelley Tucky, vice president of Community and Public Affairs for MGM Springfield, agrees, saying her team has been working closely with the Mass. Casino Career Training Institute — which oversees employee regulations, licensure, and training — to ease some of the obstacles to employment.
“We’ve made our position known that we see the current CORI and SORI background-check requirements to be somewhat restrictive,” she told BusinessWest. “For instance, if we have someone working in the warehouse with a history of bankruptcy, it matters very little to us. Certainly, in a position where data is being handled or where there’s tremendous responsibility with money handling, you want those individuals to be vetted thoroughly, but we’ve heard from the one-stop career centers, the Gaming Commission, and others that they see some roadblocks already.”
Meanwhile, MGM has developed ties with the career centers and TWO to develop strategies for recruitment and soft-skills training, from interview and résumé-writing skills to language barriers. “Those are very important for us,” Tucky said. “We’ve built our reputation on providing an exceptional level of customer service. We gauge that from the minute an individual walks in the door for an interview. The more the one-stops train their clientele in those skills, the more confident we are that we’ll find the talent we need.”
However, the casino challenge extends far beyond MGM’s needs, LePage noted, as businesses in a host of sectors anticipate losing many of their own workers to the casino — for example, a bank teller who might want to be trained as a dealer or money handler — and having to refill those positions.
“We’re very aware of what’s going to be happening with the gaming industry,” he said. “If we want to have 3,000 new jobs in the region, we don’t want to subtract 1,000 jobs from other employers just by moving from one place to another. We have to grow 3,000 new workers throughout the region, but we have to develop strategies to fill multiple sectors, so there’s very little ripple effect.”
Take healthcare CEOs, he added. “The concern for them is culinary. They service a large number of people each day with food. And they currently have challenges hiring people. Add another 150 to 200 culinary jobs in the region, and they might have a bigger challenge.”
Tucky sees that sort of movement as an overall plus for the job market and the economic vibrancy of the region.
“Churn is good in terms of changing jobs, changing opportunities. It’s a good thing because people are exposed to additional career options — for instance, veterans returning from active duty, even the semi-retired. We offer jobs across the spectrum, and if we can attract a bright personality and they have the basic skills for the job, we will train for everything else.
“People see this as economic development for the region,” she continued. “It’s all about economic revitalization, and we’ve done a really good job being transparent. We see the benefits for Springfield and the Western Mass. economy, and we feel it’s a win-win.”
LePage agrees — if there’s an effective strategy in place that benefits MGM without disadvantaging other employers. “With the entry of a large employer into the region, we’ve tried to build partnerships across the region. No one organization can solve these regional workforce challenges.”

Mind the Gap
Casino or not, those workforce challenges are persistent, and the term ‘skills gap’ is nothing new to Western Mass. employers.
LePage noted that only about 78 in 100 teens in Greater Springfield make it through high school, but even if the rate was 100%, “we wouldn’t come close to meeting our workforce needs.”
That’s why TWO is so important — not only because it brings together the two colleges’ strengths, such as HCC’s English as a Second Language program and STCC’s Adult Basic Education initiatives, but because the colleges are bringing so many other voices into the conversation.
“What you see with all this collaboration is that there’s very little ego,” LePage said. “It isn’t what the colleges want done, it’s what industries want done. We’re listening to industries and hearing what they need and how they need it, and then saying, ‘OK, what can we do to solve this problem?’ That is the key to all of it; it has to be industry-driven. If you try to force change on industry, that’s not going to work. You’ve got to let those guys tell you what they need, then do the best you can to fulfill those needs.”
Aiken believes the effort has begun to bear real fruit.
“We love the fact that the community colleges are collaborating together,” she said. “We at the REB are all about collaboration, and they are a model for how community colleges and other institutions can collaborate together.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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