Bridging the Gap
Workforce Conference Will Address Recruitment and Retention Issues
Considering how many other challenges exist in maintaining a productive workforce, one thing companies don’t need is a bunch of employees staring blankly across a generation gap, confused by what they see.
“There are two issues for employers,” said Greg Michael, executive director of Human Resources and the Career Center at Western New England College in Springfield. “One is the need to keep older workers, who would otherwise be retiring, engaged in the workforce. The other is managing the Millennials — the young people coming into the workforce who, in many respects, have a different perspective on the world of work than their predecessors.”
And these two matters are by no means separate issues, Michael stressed. That’s because Baby Boomers (and Gen-Xers, too) find themselves managing Millennials as the latter begin their careers, and those differing perspectives and expectations can easily breed workplace conflict if not handled correctly.
For example, “many younger workers think nothing of having multiple jobs in one year; that’s not necessarily seen as a negative thing, but rather doing what they see fit to accomplish their personal and professional goals,” he said. “It’s a rather different concept than latching onto one employer and working through the ranks in order to achieve one’s goals.”
Understanding those differences is one focus of a June 18 conference at WNEC, “Massachusetts In Demand: Accessing a Skilled Workforce in Western Mass.” Organized by the Building a Better Workforce Coalition (BBWC), it follows on the heels of a conference in November that focused on the importance of education in cultivating a talented workforce and, hence, a strong economy in Western Mass.
At next month’s event, keynote speaker Suzanne Bump, the state’s secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, will join Paul Harrington, an economist with Northeastern University, and several workforce-development specialists and regional business owners in discussing how companies can draw upon existing skills in the region to advance their businesses. In addition, Dr. Alan Robinson, author of Ideas Are Free and an expert in workplace productivity issues, will deliver a luncheon address.
“We haven’t gotten a hit lately with a huge company moving to town,” said Sally Fuller, project director of the Cherish Every Child initiative at the Irene E. and George A. David Foundation, a conference sponsor. “So what we really need to think about is what to do for our existing workforce, how to give them better skills.”
The BBWC was formed partly to emphasize the connections between education and workforce development, and last November’s conference featured Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in Economics from the University of Chicago, who presented an economic case for investing in young children.
This was the type of message that appeals to Fuller, whose program emphasizes the value of early-childhood education.
“People don’t think of early childhood as impacting workforce development,” Fuller said, “but, from research on what happens in a child’s brain, we know it absolutely does. Children learn a whole array of soft skills that carry them on into the future, and early childhood is not too early to begin to cultivate that.”
In fact, in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Heckman argued that investing in disadvantaged young children has a high economic return for any region — specifically, that it raises the quality of the workforce, in addition to reducing crime, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency. “Focusing solely on earnings gains,” he said, “returns to dollars invested are as high as 15% to 17%.”
People don’t typically think about such a connection,” Fuller said. “They think of workforce development as teaching the existing workforce and helping them improve their skills and do better at their jobs — which, obviously, also needs to happen.
“But we’re saying that early childhood is a great place to start because these people are going to compete in a very different work than the one that exists now, and they’ll need these soft skills to compete in the global economy. So, yes, we need to do the other things with the current workforce, but we also have to start now with this generation of young people.”
Fuller said Cherish Every Child supports the coalition’s work because it wants to remind area business people that the early-childhood workforce is a significant factor in the region’s economic future. “They do a really important job, so we’re helping to professionalize that workforce, and have it be part of the discussion.”
While that big-picture thinking may be important, the expected knowledge drain caused by mass retirements of Baby Boomers is arguably a more urgent priority, said Nancy Snyder, president of the Commonwealth Corp., another conference sponsor.
While members of this older generation typically earn more money than Gen-Xers or Millennials, they also come to work with invaluable years of wisdom and hard-earned experience that companies might have trouble replacing. “How do we retain those older workers? We don’t want to lose their knowledge,” Snyder said.
The Commonwealth Corp. has prepared studies of 16 regions of the Bay State, including Hampden County, examining the dynamics of each region’s employment picture over the past five years — which industries have added jobs, which have shed jobs, and factors contributing to those trends.
“The goal is to really look at how we can stimulate more graduates in big-demand occupations,” Snyder said. “What are the demand trends? What are the supply trends? What do we need to do to better align them?
“The data isn’t completed yet, but there are some fairly persistent needs,” she continued. “Health care and manufacturing are two areas in which it has been difficult to find people.”
Snyder emphasized, however, that there is no one solution to the region’s disconnect between workforce supply and demand.
For example, “in nursing, it’s probably a capacity issue: do we have enough seats in nursing schools, enough faculty, enough clinical placements,” she said. “But in a field like precision manufacturing, the question might be, how do we get better information to young people about what today’s manufacturing environment is like, in order to generate more interest in precision machining.”
The more transitory — Boomers might say fickle — nature of the incoming Millennial workforce just adds another layer to the already-difficult challenge companies face in maintaining a skilled group of employees. In short, it makes retention as significant an issue for employers as recruitment.
“You have one generation with a mindset focused on longevity and the value of loyalty managing younger people who don’t hold the same values,” Michael said, adding that he sees the issue from both sides; his department oversees WNEC’s employees, most of whom are Boomers or Gen-Xers, while the college is sending out an annual stream of Millennials into the workplace.
“How do companies fill the vacuum left by older workers while effectively recruiting and retaining younger workforce? We’re seeing both points of view here,” he told BusinessWest. “And we really saw that there was some value in this conference for the area’s employers.”
Snyder agreed that factors like retaining the knowledge base of older employers while convincing talented graduates of the area’s many colleges to stay in Western Mass. are issues that must be addressed simultaneously by employers, schools, and economic-development agencies.
“To address some of the supply-and-demand misalignment, we need strategies, and we need to work together with our partners,” she said.
The Building a Better Workforce Coalition was created with those very needs in mind, and the WNEC conference is just the next step in what promises to be a long-running discussion.