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Employer Confidence Weakens in February

BOSTON — Confidence among Massachusetts employers weakened for the fifth time in seven months during February, but businesses remain optimistic overall about the ability of the Massachusetts economy to ride out uncertainty abroad and an increasingly curious election season in the U.S. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index shed 0.7 points to 55.1 last month, still comfortably above the 50 mark that denotes a positive economic outlook. However, the reading was 4.7 points below its level of a year earlier, weighed down by growing concern about the slowing U.S. economy. That concern was confirmed Friday when the government said U.S. economic growth slowed to 1% during the fourth quarter of 2015. “We’re seeing some ambivalence among employers as they look at the economy, especially the turmoil in some overseas markets, but all within the range of general optimism about 2016,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Ambivalence indeed seems to define most views of the U.S. economy, as we saw last week when the annual economic report of the president noted the strong rebound since 2008 while acknowledging that economic forces, including the rapid pace of technological change, are weighing on American industry.” The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009. The index has remained above 50 since October 2013.

Governor Signs Landmark Opioid Bill into Law

BOSTON — Last week at the State House, Gov. Charlie Baker signed landmark legislation into law to address the deadly opioid and heroin epidemic plaguing the Commonwealth. He was joined by a group including Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Attorney General Maura Healey, Auditor Suzanne Bump, members of the Legislature, law enforcement, healthcare providers, community leaders, individuals in recovery, and others. The bill, titled “An Act Relative to Substance Use, Treatment, Education, and Prevention,” passed with unanimous votes in both legislative chambers and includes numerous recommendations from the Governor’s Opioid Working Group, including prevention education for students and doctors and a seven-day limit on first-time opioid prescriptions. “Today, the Commonwealth stands in solidarity to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic that continues to plague our state and burden countless families and individuals,” Baker said. “I am proud to sign this legislation marking a remarkable statewide effort to strengthen prescribing laws and increase education for students and doctors. While there is still much work to be done, our administration is thankful for the Legislature’s effort to pass this bill and looks forward to working with the attorney general and our mayors to bend the trend and support those who have fallen victim to this horrific public health epidemic.” Added Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, “today, we take another step forward by passing landmark legislation that will help the individuals and communities affected by the deadly opioid and heroin epidemic. We are grateful for the Legislature’s progress and for the partnership of Attorney General Healey, our mayors, and several others as we continue pursuing aggressive reforms to combat this crisis from the Berkshires to the Cape.” The bill includes the first law in the nation to limit an opioid prescription to a seven-day supply for a first-time adult prescriptions and a seven-day limit on every opiate prescription for minors, with certain exceptions. Other provisions from the governor’s recommendations include a requirement that information on opiate use and misuse be disseminated at annual head-injury safety programs for high-school athletes, requirements for doctors to check the Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP) database before writing a prescription for a Schedule 2 or Schedule 3 narcotic, and continuing-education requirements for prescribers, ranging from training on effective pain management to the risks of abuse and addiction associated with opioid medications. Several measures were passed to empower individuals and update current prevention efforts. Patients will receive access to non-opiate directive forms and the option of partially filling opioid prescriptions in consultation with doctors and pharmacists. Schools must annually conduct verbal substance-misuse screenings in two grade levels and collaborate with the departments of Elementary and Second Education and Public Health (DPH) around effective addiction-education policies. To reduce the prevalence of unused medication, manufacturers of controlled substances in Massachusetts must participate in either a drug stewardship program or an alternative plan as determined by DPH. This bill strengthens access to insurers and the bed-finder tool website; requires that patients receive information on FDA-approved, medication-assisted therapies after being discharged from a substance-use treatment program; and ensures civil-liability protection for individuals who administer Narcan. The opioid epidemic continues to impact every community in Massachusetts. According to the most recent data, it is estimated that there were nearly 1,200 unintentional and undetermined opioid deaths in 2014. The estimated rate of 17.4 deaths per 100,000 residents for 2014 is the highest ever for unintentional opioid overdoses and represents a 228% increase from the rate of 5.3 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2000. And the trend isn’t slowing. Preliminary data estimations show there were over 1,100 opioid deaths between January and September 2015.

United Way Wins Veteran Financial-literacy Grant

SPRINGFIELD — Massachusetts Treasurer Deborah Goldberg announced that the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) was one of five recipients of a grant that supports financial education to veterans and military families. Known as the Operation Money Wise: Financial Education Opportunity Grant and funded through the Office of Economic Empowerment, these grants aim to increase the scope of financial education for military families by providing them with the tools they need to achieve financial stability. Many of these workshops will include strategy sessions on managing money, planning for college, preparing for retirement, and monetary decision making. “These financial-literacy grants will further empower our military community to make informed financial decisions,” Goldberg said. “I am honored to support organizations that work to bring economic stability to the men, women, and families who help keep our country safe.” With three Thrive financial-literacy centers up and running in Holyoke and Springfield, and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program flourishing throughout the region, UWPV is already a leader in improving fiscal education and responsibility among those it serve. The Thrive centers have served hundreds of student and seniors, helping them improve their credit ratings and open their first bank accounts. Last year, VITA helped 4,594 working families keep $2,462,549 through the Earned Income Tax Credit.

State Issues $9.3 Million in Workforce Skills Grants

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced $9.3 million in workforce skills equipment grants to 35 high schools, community colleges, and vocational training providers across the Commonwealth for vocational-technical education and training equipment purchases that connect Massachusetts students and residents to economic opportunities in high-demand industries. “Workforce skills education and training plays an enormous role in economic and personal development by helping residents acquire the skills they need to connect with promising careers,” Baker said. “These vocational-technical education equipment grants will help build stronger communities and a more competitive business environment that ensures more residents have the skills they need to succeed in and support the Commonwealth’s economic future.” Added Polito, “these workforce-development grants will build bridges between residents seeking careers to build a future on and the employers who need a skilled workforce to grow the state’s economy. Today, too many good-paying jobs are going unfilled because employers are struggling to find skilled employees. This investment in training equipment will enable high schools and community colleges across the Commonwealth to equip students with the skills they need to secure a bright future.”
The Workforce Skills Capital Grant Program is a new initiative of the Governor’s Workforce Skills Cabinet, which seeks to align education, workforce, and economic-development strategies across the state. Western Mass. recipients of the new round of grants include:
• Berkshire Community College, Pittsfield, $465,119 to upgrade and modernize its manufacturing and engineering program, utilizing new hydraulics, pneumatics, electrical controls, materials testing, CNC, and 3-D printing equipment to train students and adult learners for careers in advanced manufacturing, engineering, and biotechnology;
• Dean Technical High School, Holyoke, $393,156 to transform its existing machine technology shop into an advanced-manufacturing shop that aligns with current industry practices and technologies, in order to connect Holyoke students to career opportunities in the Pioneer Valley’s skilled manufacturing workforce;
• Franklin County Technical School, Montague, $52,500 to revamp its computer programming and web-design programs and expand the programs’ capacity to reach adult learners;
• Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative, West Springfield, $257,100 to expand the capacity of its recently-founded high school Machine Technology Program, and to extend programming to adult learners, including unemployed and underemployed individuals facing barriers to employment;
• McCann Technical School, North Adams, $121,128 to revamp its welding and metal-fabrication equipment to train students for careers in Berkshire County’s aerospace, defense, commercial, medical-device, and power-generation industries, and enable re-training for unemployed workers;
• Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, Springfield, $441,500 to launch a new program to equip students with the skills to enter the construction workforce, including training with heavy equipment; and
• Springfield Technical Community College, $499,785 to enhance training in its Laser Electro-Optics and Advanced Manufacturing Engineering Technology programs by creating an advanced-laser-machining laboratory and a one-year Laser Materials Processing Certificate of Completion, in order to meet the needs of the Commonwealth’s rapidly growing laser-manufacturing industry.

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