More Than a Job
President Tricia Canavan
At its core, the mission of a staffing agency is to connect employers with job seekers — a task United Personnel has tackled with success for 35 years. But creating those matches doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, building a healthy workforce is a region-wide effort that makes demands of employers, colleges, training programs, K-to-12 schools, and lawmakers. United Personnel President Tricia Canavan recognizes this big picture — and her firm’s role in closing the gaps.
Tricia Canavan’s job is to help people get jobs, and to help companies find those people. It’s that simple — only, it’s not.
“Workforce development and education are things I’m really passionate about and involved in in a variety of ways,” she told BusinessWest. “We’ve heard about the skills gap and the disconnect between people who are not working or are underemployed, and employers who are saying they can’t expand because they don’t have the staff they need, and they have to turn work away because there’s not enough employees. There’s a real disconnect. So, what are the strategies we can use to be able to bridge that gap?”
As president of United Personnel, Canavan connects job seekers to regular paychecks every day. But the challenge of doing so runs far deeper than many might assume. In fact, for many, it starts well before kindergarten.
“I think we need to be really comprehensive and innovative in how we look at workforce develoment and education, even K to 12. They call it cradle to career — you want to start kids with a really good background to enter kindergarten.”
Consider, she said, that only 7% of Springfield children are considered kindergarten-ready when they enter school, and if they don’t hit reading proficiency by third grade, it sets them on a never-ending pattern of playing catchup.
“It’s said that, from kindergarten to third grade, you’re learning to read, and from third grade on, you’re reading to learn,” Canavan said. “So if your reading-comprehension skills are not where they need to be, it’s a very tough thing to make that up. The gaps start young, and they persist, and continue through high school.”
Beyond high school, in fact, contributing to what are commonly known in the employment world as skills gaps. Which brings her back to her daily role, one she tackles with a decidedly big-picture view.
“I think the disconnect and the skills gap we see is not only a challenge and a missed opportunity for local residents, but it also is an economic-development concern,” she said. “Ultimately, employers need the skilled workforce to be able to grow, and if we, over the long term, or even the medium term, are not able to produce better results at a time when Massachusetts population is pretty flat, we’re going to have a problem. It’s critical that we’re engaging as many of those residents as can work and want to work, and making sure they have the skills they need to be successful for themselves and their families, too.”
In today’s reasonably healthy economy, Canavan said, good jobs exist. She knows, because she’s got a large roster of clients that want to fill them.
“If we cannot access candidates that have the skill sets that employers need, we will not be viable as an organization. So we have some serious skin in this game,” she went on. “But I also see it as a social-justice issue. If we can do better in these fields of education and workforce development, if we can connect people with the opportunties that exist in ways they had not been connected before, that can be a game changer.”
“I think the disconnect and the skills gap we see is not only a challenge and a missed opportunity for local residents, but it also is an economic-development concern.”
For this issue’s focus on employment, BusinessWest sat down with Canavan to talk about the ways her 35-year-old firm continues to close the gaps between job creators and job seekers, and the myriad ways that task is complicated by a lifetime of factors.
Jay Canavan, Tricia’s father, transitioned from a career as president of Springfield Museums to launch United Personnel in 1984; his wife, Mary Ellen Scott, joined him about six months later, eventually serving as the company’s long-time president until eight years ago, when Tricia took the reins.
Jay and Mary Ellen opened their first office in Hartford, specializing in professional, administrative, and finance services. A few years later, they opened a second office in Springfield, focusing on support to the light industrial sector. Today, the firm also boasts offices in Northampton, Pittsfield, Chelmsford, and New Haven.
Meanwhile, its roster of specialties has grown to include manufacturing, hospitality, information technology, nonprofits, medical offices, and even a dental-services division, which has proven to be a significant growth area.
“Then we continue to focus on some core competencies,” she noted. “We do a lot of vendor-on-premises account management, where we provide turnkey human-resources support for our clients.”
One example is Yankee Candle, a business whose staffing level fluctuates through the ebbs and flows of the retail seasons. “Back in the day, people would hire and lay off, hire and lay off, Now, using a vendor-on-premises model, we partner with their human resources and production teams, and we manage seasonal staffing for them in a turnkey way. We have management on site 24/7, so their human resources and production teams can focus on their core business, and we supplement those activities.”
Cavanan said she enjoys working in partnership with clients because it allows United to become a part of their business and operational strategy and provide real value.
“Because we deal with such a wide variety of clients, we’re often able to take best practices and lessons learned and apply them to new clients. It’s almost like a knowledge-sharing service that we offer. And we’ve been really pleased with the results of some of that expertise we’ve been able to implement.”
Whether it’s helping clients with continuous improvement, staff-retention strategies, or joint recruiting events, she said United does its best work when it’s able to take on that level of partnership.
“If clients are open to this, we’re able to take an advisory and consulting role where we share with them, ‘here are some things we’re seeing in the marketplace.’ Oftentimes, it’s even current employment law,” Canavan said, noting that, just last week, United showed a client that one of its incentive programs was no longer legal due to changes in the law.
“We’re really proud of being able to serve as subject-matter experts in terms of recruitment, but also often in terms of human-resources compliance,” she went on. “We’re not attorneys, but because of the nature of what we do, we frequently have a very good finger on the pulse of what’s happening in compliance and employment law.”
Those various human-resources services are often crucial to smaller clients that may not have an in-house HR team or, at best, have one person handling everything from benefits and compliance to performance management and recruitment.
“To recruit well and comprehensively in a very tight labor market is extremely time-consuming,” she said. “Not only are we doing it all day, every day, but we have the infrastructure to find not only candidates that are actively seeking employment, but also candidates who might be open to considering a new job. And being able to partner with small and medium-sized customers allows us to bring them support with services they likely don’t have time to do. We’re really proud of that aspect of our work.”
Work Your Way Up
But Canavan is also proud of the big-picture view United takes of the region’s jobs landscape, citing efforts like the Working Cities grant that aims to better align workforce-development efforts and produce positive results for both job seekers and employers. “The economy is good, so let’s use this time to focus on training those who need it.”
Many well-paying careers, she noted, are in reach without a college education for those who are willing to access training, start small, and work their way up — in advanced manufacturing, for instance. The MassHire career centers offer training programs in that realm, but the classes aren’t always full. “How do we do a better job helping people build awareness of those opportunities, connecting them to those opportunities, and supporting them through it?”
For most of its history, United Personnel has been headquartered in Springfield — currently on Bridge Street — but its reach expands far beyond this region.
There are institutional barriers as well, such as the so-called ‘cliff effect’ that throws up financial disincentives to people on public benefits who want to work. She said a bill currently making its way through the state Legislature would address that scenario through a pilot program that would help low-income Springfield residents access jobs while reducing the need for public benefits.
On an individual level, part of United Personnel’s mission is to dismantle as many roadblocks to employment as it can, Canavan explained. For example, employers typically prefer to hire someone with at least six months of recent, steady work without gaps. But, realizing there are reasons those gaps exist, United offers myriad short-term jobs to help people build a portfolio and references and prove they can handle something more permanent.
“It’s not that hard to be successful. It’s being on time, paying attention, staying off your phone. And, if you’re successful, you’ll find lots of opportunities for career pathways.”
“We’re really proud of being able to serve as subject-matter experts in terms of recruitment, but also often in terms of human-resources compliance. We’re not attorneys, but … we frequently have a very good finger on the pulse of what’s happening in compliance and employment law.”
She understands that some job seekers, especially younger ones, often struggle with those ‘soft skills.’
“It may be a lack of awareness, or not being super engaged in the work they’re doing. Entry-level jobs can frequently be boring or repetitive — it may not be the most exciting day you’ve ever had in your life,” she went on, noting that one of her first jobs out of college was a temp role in Chicago, doing numeric data entry all day. “It was terrible. But we’ve all had those jobs.”
The idea is to use every opportunity — whether a temp job or a training program — as a chance to move up to something better. And when job seekers do just that, it’s especially gratifying.
“It’s not our success, it’s their success. We just helped them get a foot in the door,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize the opportunities that come from working with a staffing firm. We can be your advocate. We can help you. Lots of jobs are available — start small, and you can work your way up.”
United Personnel has certainly worked its way up over the past 35 years, not just in helping people find jobs and helping clients run their businesses more efficiently, but through a culture of community support. Team members are encouraged to volunteer and serve on boards, while the company itself offers financial support to numerous organizations in areas like workforce development and education, women’s leadership, community vitality, and arts and culture. One program is an endowed scholarship at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts for first-generation college students from area gateway cities.
“We’re interested in leveraging what we do and whatever financial resources we have available to us,” Canavan told BusinessWest. “We consider it a privilege to be able to do that. We don’t just want to be here to do business; we want to be a part of the community. We are all very cognizant of the fact that we are successful because of our community.”
That said, she noted that legislative mandates from Boston continue to burden employers and make it more difficult than ever to do business in Massachusetts. Which makes it even more important for her to make clients’ lives a little easier.
“We feel honored to be able to do this work with our customers and candidates that come to us. When a client is happy with what we’ve done, or a candidate comes to us with a table-sized box of chocolates to say ‘thank you,’ that’s rewarding. It’s a privilege to help people find work and help companies find that talented staff they need to drive the success of their organization.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]