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Workforce Development

Workforce Development

The Heat Is On

Springfield Operations Manager Meagan Greene

The culinary world is a notoriously challenging place to forge a career, and turnover at the entry level is often high, a problem that constantly challenges restaurants, hotels, colleges, and a host of other food-service companies. Enter Snapchef, which has built a regional reputation for training those workers and matching them with workforce needs to help them get a foot in the door — and then, hopefully, kick it in.

It’s called ‘backfilling.’

That’s a concept businesses in many area industries — from financial services to marketing, from security to hospitality — have been thinking about as MGM Springfield has ramped up its efforts to hire some 3,000 people for its August opening.

Backfilling, simply put, it’s the replacement of an employee who moves on to a different opportunity, and MGM has undoubtedly caused a wave of that phenomenon locally. Because of the casino’s food-service operations, area restaurants, hotels, and other facilities that prepare and serve food have been doing quite a bit of backfilling as well.

If they can find adequate replacements, that is. That’s where Snapchef, a regional food-service training company that opened up shop in Springfield last year, can play a key role.

CEO Todd Snopkowski, who founded Snapchef 16 years ago, said the business model has proven successful in its other four locations — Boston, Dorchester, Worcester, and Providence, R.I. — and has found fertile ground in the City of Homes, where the need for restaurant workers has been on the rise.

“We train folks that are looking to make a career change,” he told BusinessWest. “And, being a staffing company, we don’t only train, we also match folks looking for work in the industry with jobs that are available. If they don’t have the skills to do a job, we actually train them, whether it be dishwashing, cooking, cheffing, you name it. We cover those bases and give them a foothold in the industry.”

As the largest culinary training and staffing company in New England, Snapchef essentially trains and provides staffing help to area food-service establishments. Clients range from large colleges and universities and hospitals to food-service corporations; from hotels and corporate cafeterias to hotels and restaurants.

We train folks that are looking to make a career change,” he told BusinessWest. “And, being a staffing company, we don’t only train, we also match folks looking for work in the industry with jobs that are available. If they don’t have the skills to do a job, we actually train them, whether it be dishwashing, cooking, cheffing, you name it. We cover those bases and give them a foothold in the industry.”

“If they come to me with little or no skills or just want to brush up, we guide individuals in that track,” said Meagan Greene, operations manager in Springfield, noting that Snapchef’s 13-week courses include fast-track culinary training, ServSafe food handling, and workplace safety, among other offerings.

“When the finish the apprentice program, we try to find them full-time jobs, where they can utilize their skills in the workforce,” she went on, noting that all of that is free. The training programs are grant-funded, while Snapchef’s partner employers pay for the hours the employee works, while SnapChef pays the employee directly, with pay depending on the position.

This isn’t culinary school, Greene stressed, but a place to learn enough to get into the culinary world, and advance career-wise from there — an idea Greene called “earning and learning.”

“We go over soups, stocks, sauces, emulsions, salad bar, deli prep. Sometimes, people will go out into the field, come back, and say, ‘hey, Meagan, I did this today at work; is there a better way to do it?’ We also do a little bit of baking, which isn’t our specialty, but you’ll learn how to make pies, quick breads, muffins, and danishes.”

The need for culinary workers, especially at the entry level, is constant, Greene noted, sometimes year-round and sometimes seasonally — for example, colleges need help between September and May, while Six Flags requires a wave of help between April and October.

“For some of the colleges, this will be their second school year with us, so they may buy out some of our employees because they liked them last year,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s kind of bittersweet for us, because the people who get bought out or move forward or find their own job — those are your keepers. Those are the ones who show up for work every day, people who are clean and on time and ready to rock. I’m like, ‘noooo!’ But it’s nice to see somebody move forward.”

Moving forward, after all, is what it’s all about once that foot is in the door.

Slow Burn

Snopkowski has grown Snapchef from its original home Dorchester into a regional force that has trained thousands of workers for potentially rewarding careers in what is, admittedly, a tough field to master, and one where good help is valuable.

Clients have ranged from individual restaurants and caterers to Foxwoods Resort Casino and Gillette Stadium, as well as large food-service corporations like Aramark, Sodexo, and the Compass Group.

Snapchef CEO Todd Snopkowski

Snapchef CEO Todd Snopkowski

“With my background, being a corporate chef, I saw the need for an organization like Snapchef 25 years ago. And I think there’s a huge opportunity down the road for even more expansion,” said, noting that MGM Springfield itself poses significant opportunity. “We’re supporting them, and for businesses suffering the loss of people taking these awesome jobs MGM has to offer, we’re there to make sure we backfill the vacancies.”

Snapchef’s growth has led to a number of accolades for Snopkowski, including the 2015 SBA Small Business Person of the Year award for Massachusetts, and the 2016 Citizens Bank Good Citizens Award. And it has inspired people like Greene, who see the value in training the next generation of food-service workers.

She works with the state Department of Labor and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County to create apprenticeship models, teaching participants everything from basic knife skills to how to conduct themselves in a kitchen. She also helps them append their résumés based on what they’ve learned.

After studying culinary arts at a vocational high school and earning three degrees from Johnson & Wales University, she became a sous chef at Sturbridge Host Hotel, not far from her home in Warren. She loved the job — and the commute — but traded it in for an opportunity to work for Snapchef.

“To be honest, I’m never bored. I’m always doing something different,” she said, and that’s true of many of her trainees, who typically begin with temporary placements, which often become permanent. But not all are seeking a permanent gig, she added; some love the variety of ever-changing assignments.

“Some people love it because it’s a lifestyle for them,” she said. “They want to work over here, then they come back to me and say, ‘hey, Meagan, I wasn’t really liking that spot; I don’t want to go back there. I didn’t like the size of the kitchen. It was too big for me; I’m used to working in a smaller kitchen.’” I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll try not to send you back there.’ And it’s a two-way street; clients can say, ‘I don’t want Joe Smith back.’”

Because the training is free, Snapchef offers an attractive opportunity for people who want to get a food in the door in food service.

Finishing Touches

As a company that fills a needed gap — as culinary schools aren’t typically training for entry-level positions — Snopkowski said Snapchef has made significant inroads in Western Mass. over the past year, especially working with FutureWorks Career Center to identify individuals looking to shift into the world of food service.

“Our employees don’t have to pay for transition training and all those attributes that are needed to get a foothold in the business,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s good to see that MGM recognizes it, the colleges as well.”

Speaking of financial perks, Snapchef-trained employees may access round-trip transportation from the Springfield office to their job sites across the region, for only $3 per day, Greene said. “It’s cheaper than Uber, cheaper than Lyft, and better than having your mom come pick you up and drop you off. If you live in the city and are used to taking the bus everywhere, you don’t have to worry about how to get to work.”

As for Greene, she continues to enjoy the variety of her work — a pickling enthusiast, she taught a recent class how to pickle vegetables, and they prepared 300 jars worth — as well as the success stories that arise from it, like a man trained by Snapchef who went on to further his education at Holyoke Community College and is now opening a restaurant with his daughter.

“I’ve had the opportunity to see people progress in a short period of time,” she said. “It’s nice to see someone grow so fast. I love that.”

Snopkowski has seen plenty such stories unfold in the 16 years his company has been training people for a new, challenging career, and then helping them build a foothold in the industry.

“We’ve only been able to scratch the surface; there are so many other opportunities out there,” he said. “The future is bright in culinary.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Workforce Development

By the Numbers

By Nikki Graf, Richard Fry, and Cary Funk

Workforce

Employment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) occupations has grown 79% since 1990, from 9.7 million to 17.3 million, outpacing overall U.S. job growth. There’s no single standard for which jobs count as STEM, and this may contribute to a number of misperceptions about who works in STEM and the difference that having a STEM-related degree can make in workers’ pocketbooks.

A new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data takes a broad-based look at the STEM workforce from 1990 to 2016 based on an analysis of adults ages 25 and older working in any of 74 occupations. These include computer, math, engineering, and architecture occupations, physical scientists, life scientists, and health-related occupations such as healthcare practitioners and technicians.

Here are seven facts about the STEM workforce and STEM training.

1. STEM workers enjoy a pay advantage compared with non-STEM workers with similar levels of education. Among those with some college education, the typical full-time, year-round STEM worker earns $54,745 while a similarly educated non-STEM worker earns $40,505, or 26% less.

And among those with the highest levels of education, STEM workers outearn their non-STEM counterparts by a similar margin. Non-STEM workers with a master’s degree typically earn 26% less than STEM workers with similar education. The median earnings of non-STEM workers with a professional or doctoral degree trail their STEM counterparts by 24%.

2. While STEM workers tend to be highly educated, roughly a third have not completed a bachelor’s or higher-level degree. A substantial share (35%) of the STEM workforce does not have a bachelor’s degree. Overall, about three in 10 STEM workers report having completed an associate degree (15%) or have some college education but no degree (14%). These workers are more prevalent among healthcare practitioners and technicians, computer workers, and engineers.

Some 36% of STEM workers have a bachelor’s degree but no graduate degree, while 29% have earned a master’s, doctorate, or professional degree. Life scientists are the most highly educated among STEM workers, with 54% having an advanced degree.

3. About half of workers with college training in a STEM field are working in a non-STEM job. Among workers ages 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree, 33% have an undergraduate degree in a STEM field of study. But only 52% of these STEM-trained workers are employed in a STEM occupation.

Among non-STEM occupations, management, business, and finance jobs attract a substantial share of college graduates with STEM training (17%), particularly those who majored in engineering. Roughly a quarter (24%) of engineering majors are in a managerial, business, or finance job.

Overall, among adults with a STEM college major, women are more likely than men to work in a STEM occupation (56% versus 49%). This difference is driven mainly by college graduates with a health-professions major (such as nursing or pharmacy), most of whom are women.

However, 38% of women and 53% of men with a college major in computers or computer science are employed in a computer occupation. And women with a college degree in engineering are less likely than men who majored in these fields to be working in an engineering job (24% versus 30%). These differences in retention within a field of study for women in computer and engineering occupations are in keeping with other studies showing a ‘leaky pipeline’ for women in STEM.

4. STEM training in college is associated with higher earnings, whether working in a STEM occupation or not. Among college-educated workers employed full-time year-round, the median earnings for those who have a STEM college major are $81,011, compared with $60,828 for other college majors.

The earnings advantage for those with a college major in a STEM field extends to workers outside of STEM occupations. Among all non-STEM workers, those who have a STEM college degree earn, on average, about $71,000; workers with a non-STEM degree working outside of STEM earn roughly $11,000 less annually.

5. The share of women varies widely across STEM job types. Women are underrepresented in some STEM job clusters, but in others they match or exceed their share in the U.S. workforce overall. In fact, women comprise three-quarters of healthcare practitioners and technicians, the largest occupational cluster classified as STEM in this analysis, with 9.0 million workers — 6.7 million of whom are women.

And women’s gains since 1990 in the life sciences (up from 34% to 47%) have brought them roughly on par with their share in the total workforce (47%), a milestone reached in math occupations (46%) as well. Women remain underrepresented in engineering (14%), computer (25%), and physical-science (39%) occupations.

6. Women have made significant gains in life and physical sciences, but in other areas their shares have been stable, and in computer jobs it has declined. While there has been significant progress for women’s representation in the life and physical sciences since 1990, the share of women has been roughly stable in several other STEM job clusters.

In engineering, the job cluster in which women have the lowest levels of representation on average, women’s shares have inched up only slightly, from 12% in 1990 to 14% today. And the share of women has actually decreased in one of the highest-paying and fastest-growing STEM clusters — computer occupations. In 1990, 32% of workers in computer occupations were women; today, women’s share has dropped to 25%.

7. Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in the STEM workforce relative to their shares in the U.S. workforce as a whole. This underrepresentation is evident across all STEM job clusters, with one exception: 11% of healthcare practitioners and technicians are black, similar to the share of blacks in the total workforce.

Within job clusters, however, the share of blacks and Hispanics varies widely. For example, 37% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses are either black or Hispanic. By comparison, other health-related jobs have smaller shares of workers who are black or Hispanic, including physicians and surgeons (11%), pharmacists (10%), dentists (9%), and physical therapists (9%). Just 5% of optometrists, veterinarians, and chiropractors are black or Hispanic.

Asians are overrepresented across all STEM occupational groups, particularly among computer workers and life scientists. They account for 19% of workers in both of these fields, which is much higher than their share in the workforce overall (6%).

The share of Asians varies substantially within occupational groups, however. For example, in engineering jobs, the share of Asians ranges from 30% among computer-hardware engineers to 2% among surveying and mapping technicians. Among healthcare practitioners and technicians, 21% of physicians and surgeons are Asian. But Asians comprise a far smaller share in other occupations, such as veterinarians (3%) and emergency medical technicians and paramedics (2%).

Nikki Graf is a research associate focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center. Richard Fry is a senior researcher focusing on economics and education at Pew Research Center. Cary Funk is director of science and society research at Pew Research Center.

Sections Workforce Development

Making Some Progress

Elizabeth Ryan

Elizabeth Ryan, working her way toward a bachelor’s degree in advanced technology systems, wants to move on to a leadership position in the manufacturing field.

While the region’s manufacturers continue to struggle to find qualified help and fill the enormous voids being left by retiring Baby Boomers, it appears that some progress is being made in efforts to inspire young people to consider the field and start down a path toward a career within it. Conversations with students at Springfield Technical Community College reveal that, while considerable work remains to be done to meet the workforce needs of this sector, some perceptions about it are changing.

Gary Masciadrelli said the letters keep coming.

And to back up those words, he started shuffling papers on his desk to find some. He didn’t have to look far or work hard.

“Here’s one — a local company looking for an intern,” said Masciadrelli, professor and chair of the Mechanical Engineering Technology Department at Springfield Technical Community College, as he held it aloft. “Here’s another one … someone looking for a manufacturing engineer. We get a letter almost every day or every other day. We’re constantly getting these demands for people to fill jobs; we could definitely use more students.”

Indeed, a number of area manufacturers are turning to STCC and Masciadrelli for some kind of help with a large and ongoing problem — finding enough talented help to help the steady steam of orders these companies are getting, especially as members of the Baby Boom generation reach retirement age.

“We have far more job opportunities than we have people to fill them,” said Masciadrelli as he talked with BusinessWest in his small office within STCC’s Smith & Wesson Technology Applications Center, equipped with state-of-the-art equipment on which students can train.

That ‘we’ he used referred to both the college — which has plenty of unused seats within both its associate-degree program and a new program launched in conjunction with Northeastern University whereby students may earn a bachelor’s degree on the STCC campus — and the manufacturing sector itself.

By some counts, there are hundreds of jobs, maybe more, within the region’s manufacturing sector that could be filled but have not been because there are simply not enough trained individuals. Changing this equation has become one of the top workforce-development priorities within the 413, which has a rich history in manufacturing and innovation dating back to the creation of the Springfield Armory (on what is now the STCC campus, ironically).

Masciadrelli told BusinessWest he’s doing what he can, but it remains a stern challenge to interest young people in this profession. Reasons vary, but at the top of the list are outdated perceptions about what the work is like; lingering doubts, fueled by talk about everything from robots to work going overseas, about the relative health of the sector moving forward; and strong memories among parents who saw stalwarts ranging from American Bosch to Moore Drop Forge to the Springfield Armory abruptly close their doors.

But some young people are managing to look beyond all that and see the vast potential that work in this sector holds. Many have role models, if you will — relatives or friends who stand as inspiring examples. And many are women, introduced to the field in high school and encouraged to continue down that path.

People like Lineisha Rosario, from Agawam, who started down the road to STCC and its mechanical engineering program (quite literally) while watching her father work on cars and becoming fascinated with how things worked.

“I was always with him and always willing to help, even though he didn’t let me because I was too little,” said Rosario, currently working for CNC Software Inc. in Tolland, Conn., which provides state-of-the-art software tools for CAD/CAM manufacturing markets, in the post-processing department.

She plans to continue working there after earning her associate’s degree in a few months, and encourages others to explore a field where they can stretch their imagination and expand their career horizon.

And also people like Elizabeth Ryan, who earned her associate’s degree at STCC and is now working toward her bachelor’s through the affiliation with Northeastern.

A graduate of Chicopee Comprehensive High School, she currently works as a mechanical engineer at Parts Tool & Die, an aerospace machine shop based in Agawam. She enjoys her current work handling programming, processing, and quoting, but has set her sights much higher.

“I want to move up the chain and see if I can get into a leadership position,” she explained. “I’m still fairly new to the industry since I’ve only been in it a year and half, but I have a lot of options now.”

Lineisha Rosario

Lineisha Rosario, currently working for CNC Software, says there are many career options for those looking to enter the broad field of manufacturing.

Indeed, she does, and this is the message that Masciadrelli and all those in the manufacturing sector want to get across loud and clear.

For this issue and its focus on workforce development, BusinessWest talked with Masciadrelli and several of the students enrolled in the programs at STCC. Their comments reveal that, while there’s still considerable work to do to close that gap noted earlier, this sector may be starting to turn some heads — as well as some cutting-edge parts for everything from the aerospace industry to the medical-device field.

Breaking the Mold

For many years now, area manufacturers, technical high schools, STCC, and workforce-development-related agencies such as the area regional employment boards have been working diligently to inspire young people — and their parents — to at least give manufacturing a hard look.

Programs have enjoyed varying degrees of success, but some progress has definitely been made when it comes to debunking myths and enlightening people about the opportunities to be found in this field.

For evidence of this, one needs to spend only a few minutes with Tim Vovk.

A graduate of West Springfield High School last May, he started work toward an associate’s degree at STCC last fall, more than four years after he signed up for something called the Pathways to Prosperity program, which introduces area young people to the manufacturing field while in high school.

“I thought to myself, ‘I might as well get to know the field; if I don’t like it, I can always leave it,’” he told BusinessWest. “I took the chance, and I grew to like it, especially the problem-solving aspect of it.”

Inspired by his cousin, a drafter at Pratt & Whitney, Vovk wants to follow a similar path because of the challenging and rewarding nature of design work.

Tim Vovk

Tim Vovk says he was introduced to manufacturing while in high school, and he grew to like it, especially the problem-solving nature of the work.

“I’m enjoying it even more than I thought I would,” he said, referring specifically to solid modeling and blueprinting. “It’s fun to see a concept take shape.”

The region — and area manufacturers — could use at least a few hundred individuals more like Vovk, and they’re a long way from getting there. But his story, or individual components of it (that’s an industry phrase), are becoming more common thanks to ongoing efforts to promote the industry, create pathways to enter it and thrive within in it, and provide people with the skills that area manufacturers are desperate for.

And STCC is at the forefront of all that, with new facilities (the Smith & Wesson Center), new programs such as the affiliation with Northeastern, and solid relationships with a number of area manufacturers, said Masciadrelli as he talked with BusinessWest just prior to a class (called Solid Modeling for Mechanical Design I) involving freshmen enrolled in the associate-degree program in mechanical engineering technology.

These students, mostly younger individuals but some looking for a new career opportunity, spent the first semester on basic modeling and learning software. In this spring semester, they are learning what Masciadrelli called the “mechanics of design,” meaning proper drawing standards, geometric dimensioning and tolerancing, and understanding how to put all that on blueprints, and, in general, understanding the language of design.

By the time they earn their degree roughly 15 months later, and probably well before that, they could be owning jobs in several different realms, including design (CAD); manufacturing, such as using Mastercam programming; and the broad ‘quality’ realm.

While those at STCC are training students for the field, they’re also trying to sell young people and their parents on a profession. And in most respects, it remains a hard sell, said Masciadrelli.

“You have to get into the high schools and get to the guidance counselors and the parents as well,” he explained. “They need to be made aware that this field has changed and there are some great opportunities for good-paying jobs and careers.

“Technology has changed the field of engineering tremendously,” he went on. “Things that were done by hand … the computer has taken over everything. Look at CNC machining; people are no longer running a Bridgeport, turning cranks and feeling the work. The computer runs the CNC machine; with the technology involved, a lot more people can get involved in this work.”

And by all indications, there will be plenty of work in the years and decades to come, he continued.

Amanda Cyr

Currently working at GKN Aerospace in Connecticut, Amanda Cyr is working toward her bachelor’s degree and, hopefully, a leadership position in manufacturing.

“The people at Pratt & Whitney are telling me they’re seeing no changes in he current demands for decades,” said Masciadrelli. “They never been so busy.”

He said the affiliation with Northeastern will help in this regard, because it will enable people to earn a four-year degree while they work (this is a night program) and in Springfield, as opposed to Boston or Amherst (UMass). And with that degree, new doors of opportunity can be opened.

“We want to show people what a great opportunity they have right here,”Masciadrelli explained. “You come here, spend two years, get a job — you’ll definitely be working when you graduate, and probably well before that — and while you’re working, you can complete your bachelor’s degree at night on this campus.”

There are actually two offerings through the affiliation with Northeastern — a degree in mechanical engineering technology (an offering that did not attract enough students to become reality this year), and another in advanced technology systems, which has attracted six students for this spring, including Ryan.

Where Dreams Take Shape

Perhaps the best selling tool the college has when it comes to its programs and the profession as a whole, Masciadrelli said, are individuals like its graduates and current students (most all of them already working in the field as well).

Through word-of-mouth referrals, they let others become aware of everything from the ample supplies of jobs available to the attractive salaries they offer. Through their stories, they effectively communicate that careers in this field are desirable and, contrary to popular opinion, not beyond their reach academically.

David Nawrocki, a graduate of Chicopee Comprehensive High School, tells a story heard often at STCC.

“Originally, I was going to do the engineering science transfer and transfer from here to UMass, but then I saw the course list, and I felt like a wanted to cry,” he explained. “I’m not really into Calc 2 and all the higher math like that. One of the admissions people sat down with me and saw how frustrated I was. I came and talked to Gary [Masciadrelli] my junior year, and he said, ‘I’ll see you next year.’”

Set to graduate in May, Nawrocki, currently working as an inspector at B&E Tool in Southwick, plans to enroll in the Northwestern advanced manufacturing program, earn his bachelor’s degree, and create more potential landing spots.

Specifically, he’d like to be a project manager or manufacturing engineer. “Something that combines the design side that I like with the practical application of the knowledge,” he explained.

Meanwhile, one his co-workers at B&E, Leah Babinova, a graduate of Westfield Vocational Technical High School last May, is just getting started at STCC.

She was inspired by her two sisters, both of whom went to STCC. One is now working toward a degree in aerospace engineering, while the other is working for a manufacturer in Connecticut.

Also an inspector at B&E, Babinova said she had that job before she even graduated from high school. Surveying the field, she said there are many attractive career opportunities already within her reach, and many more if she adds college degrees.

“There are a lot of good jobs out there,” she told BusinessWest. “Most people just aren’t aware of how many opportunities there are.”

Amanda Cyr is well aware. She’s already been working in the aerospace-engineering field for roughly eight years, since just before her graduation from Westfield Voke.

She’s currently at GKN Aerospace in Newington, Conn. as a manufacturing engineer and robotics programmer. She graduated from the associate-degree program at STCC and is now enrolled in the Northeastern program to generate more of those options her classmate Ryan talked about earlier.

David Nawrocki

David Nawrocki, an inspector at B&E Tool, is working toward his associates degree, and will press on for his bachelor’s

“I just want to continue growing within the industry and have plans to possibly be in a leadership role,” she explained. “And I think having a bachelor’s will help me down that path.”

She spoke for her classmates, her co-workers, and just about everyone else in the industry when she talked about why she chose it as a career.

“It’s challenging, it’s fast-paced, but it’s good — really good,” she said, while Ryan, sitting next to her, nodded her head in agreement.

“The whole world revolves around manufacturing,” she told BusinessWest. “Everything around you has to be manufactured, so if you think about things in that way, you get engaged in it. And the more you get engaged in it, the more you enjoy it.”

Part and Parcel

As Masciadrelli talked about the manufacturing field and the many types of opportunities within it, he said that, while the money’s good, and that’s important, the work itself brings many different kinds of rewards that are not obvious to many on the outside looking in.

“It’s an exciting field — you’re doing something, you’re making something,” he told BusinessWest. “You start with a drawing, and all of the sudden, that becomes something real; things fit together, or they don’t fit together. That’s what fun about it.”

People like Scott Vovk, Elizabeth Ryan, Amanda Cyr, and Victoria Bradenberg have already figured that part out. The region’s manufacturers need hundreds more to become similarly enlightened if they are to have enough talented people to handle the contracts coming their way.

It’s a huge challenge in every respect, but there is progress being made, in every sense of that phrase.

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

Sections Workforce Development

Rolling the Dice

Diane Garvey

Diane Garvey, frustrated in her search for a sales position, has started down a much different career path, and was one of the first to sign up for classes at MCCTI.

Diane Garvey was at a career crossroads. In a big way.

In her 50s, she had spent most of her career working at call centers, as an office manager, and mostly in sales positions, specifically in the candy business, supplying retailers with everything from M&Ms to Russell Stover samplings.

Her most recent position had been eliminated in a restructuring last August, and she spent the next several months in a decidedly futile search for something else. By late last year, with her unemployment benefits winding down, her stop at the crossroads ended, sort of, and she started down a road previously not available to her and one she probably couldn’t have imagined last July.

That would be the Massachusetts Casino Career Training Institute, or MCCTI, an acronym that is quickly working its way into the region’s workforce lexicon and into the vocabulary of people like Garvey.

She was on the ninth floor of 95 State St. in downtown Springfield last Monday, taking the first of six weeks of classes that will likely earn her an audition with MGM Springfield, the $950 million casino going up next door, and perhaps a job on the casino floor by early summer, a few months before the sprawling complex is set to open.

“I was unable to relocate into a different position, so I looked at what was available,” she explained. “With MGM coming to the area and all the publicity they’ve had lately and their reputation for being number one in the entertainment business, maybe the best plan would be to go to the dealer class.”

There are roughly 70 people signed up for the first set of classes at MCCTI, a joint venture of Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College and part of the schools’ hugely successful TWO (Training and Workforce Options) program, which has created training programs to qualify individuals for work in several fields.

For each one of those students, the story is a little different, even though they’ve chosen the same path. Some, like Garvey, are unemployed and looking toward the casino as a place to relaunch their careers. Others are retired or near retirement and looking for something part-time to help fill the day and put a little money in their pocket. Others have some experience working table games in casinos and look upon MGM Springfield as a way to parlay that experience into a job with one of the leading gaming and entertainment companies in the world.

Orlando Marrero can check that last box, and as he talked about what brought him to the ninth floor for the evening class of MCCTI, he borrowed an industry term.

“I rolled the dice,” Marrero, who has a seasonal job delivering propane, told BusinessWest, not once, but several times as he discussed his decision to relocate to the City of Homes and essentially position himself for a job with MGM Springfield when it opens.

With his experience, Marrero probably faces slightly better odds than many of the other students at MCCTI, but all those enrolled stand a good chance of winning a jackpot, in the form of a job, if they are diligent and also passionate about mastering what Alex Dixon, general manager of MGM Springfield, called a “craft.”

“Sometimes people think that you have to know or like table games or like casinos to get into this,” he explained. “This is a craft, and it’s a skill, and with a small investment, you can really become skilled for the rest of your life. As long as you can pass an audition, you’re employable, and these jobs are in high demand.”

Dixon said the casino will need roughly 450 table-games workers and poker dealers when the casino opens, and he admits that MGM has its work cut out for it to not only meet that number but succeed with a much larger goal — sustainability.

“We have our work cut out for us,” he told BusinessWest. “And this is ongoing; we’re looking forward to developing a long-term pipeline of people in Western Mass. who want to choose an opportunity with us.”

For this issue and its focus on workforce development, BusinessWest talked with Marrero and Garvey about their decision to enroll in MCCTI, and with Dixon and others about the many challenges involved with having the casino floor fully staffed by opening night.

Playing the Numbers

With this pipeline-building test in mind, MGM Springfield has taken a number of steps designed to generate interest in the school and prompt more people across that broad spectrum described above to consider careers in table games.

An instructor works with students of all ages on the first day of classes at MCCTI.

An instructor works with students of all ages on the first day of classes at MCCTI.

These include options when it comes to how many games one wishes to learn, flexibility in the scheduling of classes (they run morning, afternoon, and night); similar flexibility when it comes to hours of employment (there are full- and part-time jobs and several shifts); and even reimbursement of the tuition cost.

Still, with all those incentives and flexibility, creating a large, talented corps of table-games workers in an area new to the casino industry will be a daunting challenge, said Dixon.

But he’s hoping, and expecting, that some of the first students to enter the pipeline — people like Garvey and Marrero — will become effective spokespeople, if you will, and help in the recruiting effort.

This is exactly what happened at MGM’s property in Maryland, National Harbor, which opened just over a year ago. There, a school similar to MCCTI and operated in conjunction with Prince George’s (County) Community College, was instrumental in helping that facility staff up with table-games workers.

“In many cases, our best recruiting tool will be our current students,” he explained. “They can certainly help people understand that this is an opportunity; if you’re a recent retiree or you’re currently employed and are looking to pick up a couple of shifts a week, just about anyone with a good attitude can do this.”

Marrero hasn’t even been hired yet, and he’s already helping in this regard, with comments like these when asked about why he was looking forward to returning to the casino floor — sometime soon, he hopes.

“This is what I like doing,” he explained. “I like interacting with the customers; we have a good time. I have a ball when I’m dealing.”

Marrero was a dealer for several years at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods. He relocated to Western Mass. so his wife could take a job here, and he has taken odd things (like delivering propane) since. He first contacted Holyoke Community College with inquiries about a dealer school about three years ago, and was one of the first to sign up for the initial cohort of classes.

“I haven’t been a dealer for seven years, and wanted to refresh myself,” he explained, “so I can work at the new casino.”

Overall, Marrero fits just one of many profiles that TWO administrators are seeing in the group signed up for the first cohort that started on Feb. 26, said Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College.

He told BusinessWest that students come in all age groups and with a host of different backgrounds. Some signed up looking for a new career; others arrived on the ninth floor at 95 State St. hoping to find something new, different, and fulfilling to do in their retirement.

Orlando Marrero is an experienced dealer who enrolled at MCCTI to refresh his skills and learn more games.

Orlando Marrero is an experienced dealer who enrolled at MCCTI to refresh his skills and learn more games.

“So far, we’ve had a good response, but we’re always looking for more people,” said Hayden. “We’re seeing a mix that reflects the region; we’ve had a significant number of people who have some experience and are looking for a refresher course, or they know two games and want to know four games.

“We’ve had more women than men, but the men are primarily the ones with the prior experience,” he went on. “Some are unemployed, but many others are employed, but feel they’re underemployed or in a dead-end position. Still others are looking for something new and different, and MGM appeals to them.”

Dixon told BusinessWest that widely diverse student bodies are typical at these so-called ‘dealer schools,’ which exist even in areas, like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where the gaming industry has a huge presence. That’s because table-games workers will often seek to add to their skills by mastering new games or by refreshing themselves on ones they already know, perhaps with the goal of winning a supervisory position.

In markets like Greater Springfield, however, a larger number of students are being introduced to these games — and to careers in gaming.

Hayden said that students essentially sign on for a 10-week block of classes. The first six weeks are spent on a so-called ‘level 1’ class in either blackjack, roulette, craps, or poker. A student would then take a four-week ‘level-2’ class in everything from mini baccarat to pai gow poker to follow-up sessions in blackjack, roulette, and craps.

Successfully completing classes for two or more games guarantees the student an audition with MGM, said Hayden, adding that, if a student were so inclined, they could sign up for two 10-week blocks and learn three or four games, thus likely improving their odds for employment and perhaps advancement.

Those auditions could come as early as mid-spring, said Dixon, noting that MGM Springfield will begin hiring experienced table-games workers in April and early May, and will likely start the hiring process with the first MCCTI graduates around that same time, meaning they could be on the payroll by June.

With that timetable, Diane Garvey will likely need an extension of her unemployment benefits to get by — something individuals can apply for and something that is often granted to those enrolled in training programs like MCCTI.

She told BusinessWest that she didn’t come to her decision to enroll in these classes quickly or easily. Instead, after much consideration, she decided that this seemed like the most logical path to take from the crossroads she arrived at, and maybe the best fit.

“I would have interaction with people, which is what I liked most about sales,” she explained. “And to be in an exciting environment like MGM … I thought that would be good for me as well. It looked like an opportunity I wanted to pursue.”

Improving Their Odds

While each student currently enrolled at MCCTI has a different story and a different perspective, there is a common denominator: they all use that word ‘opportunity.’

They see MGM and a job on the casino floor as a chance to add a missing piece — whether that piece is a career that’s not at a dead end or a part-time position that can add an intriguing wrinkle to retirement.

In both cases and a host of others that fall somewhere in between, it’s an opportunity. And to seize that opportunity, many are doing just what Orlando Marrero decided he had to do.

Roll the dice.

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

Sections Workforce Development
One-stop Career Centers Rely on Partnerships to Fulfill Their Missions

Executive director Rexene Picard

Executive director Rexene Picard says FutureWorks has made changes in the way the agency serves customers due to shifts in the economy and advances in technology.

When one-stop career centers began opening across the state 16 years ago, David Gadaire said, the mantra connected to them was “no wrong door.”
“The concept was one of universal access,” said the executive director of CareerPoint in Holyoke. “If someone needed to brush up on their skills, get help with writing a résumé, learn to network, or get more training, they could find it under one roof, whether they were a school-age person or an older worker.”
The concept was forward-thinking, but the funding was never in line with the complexity of need that job seekers brought to the table. Still, the problem wasn’t nearly as evident in the early years when the economy was flush.
“For the first few years we were open, 50% of the people we saw were employed,” said FutureWorks Executive Director Rexene Picard, explaining that many came to the center to brush up on skills or take a Saturday class.
Gadaire agreed. “In the beginning, we had enough resources. It was a different game then, and the funding we had supported people who needed to harness their skills,” he said.
FutureWorks and CareerPoint achieved national recognition in 1998 when they were selected as Career Centers of the Year by the National Alliance of Business.
“It was a tremendous honor, but the funding kept dissipating as the numbers grew,” Gadaire said. “We were originally chartered to serve 7,000 people a year, and last year we served between 14,000 and 18,000. The numbers have gone up steadily, and although they have plateaued in the last few years, it is only because our capacity is so overstretched.”
The unemployment office has a representative at both centers, and many people confuse the entities. But the former is run by the state, while the one-stops were established through competitive charters.
CareerPoint was chartered as a nonprofit and opened 16 years ago via a partnership that included the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Holyoke Community College, the Department of Transitional Assistance, and the UMass Donahue Institute. “They joined together because there was a disconnect between the jobs that were available and the skills of the people available to fill them,” Gadaire said.
The story of FutureWorks is quite different. It was opened in 1996 as the first one-stop in the state by the Employment Training Institute in Ringwood, N.J., owned by Ken Ryan. Granting a charter to a private, for-profit corporation was controversial, but “it gave us a chance to think outside the box,” Picard said. “In the beginning, we said that what we did was not going to be about numbers, it was going to be about customer service. We had welcome centers and made people lifetime members. We could have fallen under the realm of social services, but we felt we were role models for job seekers and wanted to reinforce soft skills, so the center had the atmosphere of a business,” she told BusinessWest.
Although their evolution has been different, it soon became apparent that the needs of the people who came through the doors of both centers were complex, and the funding to help them was far from adequate. “In 1998 when the Workforce Investment Act was passed, the intent was that community partners would support the one-stops. But it never happened,” Picard said.
Still, they have found a way to meet a myriad of complex challenges. “We don’t tell our story well, and it’s a very impressive story,” said Gadaire. “But if 10,000 more people came to our door, I don’t know what we would do.”

Complex Situation
After CareerPoint received its award, it became even more committed to its mission, said Gadaire.
“Universal access meant we had to serve the older worker, the school-age person, professionals, and mid-level executives who found themselves out of work and needed to grow their skills, as well as people with a disability, those who had been incarcerated, homeless people, and individuals who didn’t have an education or didn’t speak English,” he explained. “All of those things required a more significant amount of time than the one-stops were prepared to address. But we realized that we were part of the answer for every one of those populations.”
Since the state did not have money to serve these subgroups, CareerPoint began writing grant proposals, seeking help from corporations and forming alliances with a wide variety of venues, such as the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office.
Today, it operates via seven or eight funding streams and grants that are continually changing. “We have a youth center due to six or seven grants, but we had to carve out a funding strategy,” Gadaire noted.
Finding sources of revenue is a constant struggle because the number of organizations looking to them for help continues to rise. “We’ve tried to create a marketing budget, but it keeps dwindling away. If the choice is marketing or helping a homeless person, the answer is obvious,” he said.
Although the agency initially provided free in-house training for businesses, it began to charge for those services. “We conduct sessions for businesses to help them manage their workforce. We’re giving a series of workshops right now to teach mid- to upper-level managers leadership skills — how to resolve problems, make their workers more productive, and avoid turnover,” Gadaire explained, adding that his organization is also set to launch a videoconference-training program to teach businesses how to conduct remote, face-to-face interviews, which he says will save them time and money.
Since the way people find jobs has changed, CareerPoint has two computer labs where people can become versed in new software and learn how to apply for jobs online. It also stages classes in networking, résumé writing, and a host of other topics related to finding employment.
When the one-stop center opened, it had 36 staff members, but that number has been reduced to around 30. However, it has compensated by forming alliances with many agencies and organizations. It has nine people from different agencies stationed within its office, and makes use of interns.
CareerPoint has also benefitted from countless hours of volunteer help from the Americorps Volunteers in Service to America program. VISTA volunteers have worked with youths involved with gangs as well as seniors, and include one volunteer who is the center’s information-technology manager. “We’ve also tried to build bridges with Westover Job Corps and agencies that offer veterans’ services,” Gadaire explained.
The agency’s staff members are so dedicated that, when they were told recently that two positions had to be eliminated, they offered to save them by taking a 10% pay cut for six months. Gadaire was against the idea, but finally agreed that everyone (including himself) would do it, and much to his surprise, it worked.
“These people are extraordinary; they believe in the community and want to make a difference,” he said. “But they are always exhausted, and I forever worry about burnout.”
Many sit on local nonprofit boards where they build partnerships. “Our partnerships are absolutely critical,” he said. “We are not experts in everything, but hopefully, if we do it right, we can expand our capacity. The community is better-served by our willingness to partner on just about every issue.”

Radical Changes
When FutureWorks opened, it was the only one-stop center in the state operated by a private company. Although profits were capped, Picard said many grassroots organizations and labor groups were upset that a private firm was operating with funds from the state and federal government.
So, in January 2002, after a series of meetings with then Springfield Mayor Michael Albano and Bill Ward, director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, the owner agreed to turn over FutureWorks, with the caveat that it become a nonprofit agency. “The decision meant a lot in terms of restructuring,” Picard said, noting that the corporate headquarters of the Employment Training Institute handled the agency’s finances and human-resource issues.
“It was like starting a new company,” she said. “But having our own board of directors turned out to be one of the best things that happened; we had a very business- oriented team, and the community began viewing us differently.”
The change in status also allowed FutureWorks to pursue grants and funding unavailable to it as a private company. “We also began partnering with staff from other agencies,” Picard said.
One of its most profitable ventures was a shared contract that allowed the agency to work with welfare recipients in Hampden County. “We put more welfare recipients to work than in any other part of the state,” she said.
But despite such gains, the customer base continues to mushroom. “When we started, we saw between 3,000 and 5,000 people a year; last year, we served more than 16,000 individuals,” she noted, adding that FutureWorks consistently leads the state and serves more minorities, youths, and individuals with disabilities than any of the other career centers. “But in order to do so, we have had to look outward to other opportunities.”
These include a unique partnership with the Department of Revenue. The joint effort allows FutureWorks to work with non-custodial parents to help them get jobs so they can pay child support.
The program began as a pilot and expanded to include the family court system. In time, FutureWorks received a performance-based contract to extend the initiative. “It’s been a great program, and we have been told there is only one other place in the nation doing this. It’s in Tennessee, but we are unsure if we will be able to continue it,” Picard said, adding that they have not heard if their latest grant proposal will be extended.
Since Springfield is four times the size of Holyoke in terms of population, FutureWorks receives more funding than CareerPoint. But agency partners are equally critical to its ability to serve people and their on-site representatives. Those partners include Westover Job Corps, the Mass. Rehabilitation Commission, the Department of Education, the Resource Partnership, Hampden County Jail, the Mass. Commission for the Blind, the Commonwealth Corp., and state agencies such as the Department of Social Services and the Division of Employment and Training.
As the labor market has undergone change, FutureWorks has focused on health care and precision manufacturing, since those industries continue to experience growth.
The agency takes advantage of every opportunity, and was the second one-stop in the state to receive a national emergency grant related to a weather disaster. Picard said the Regional Employment Board received $3 million after the tornado on June 1, 2011 that allowed FutureWorks to hire people to do humanitarian work as well as clean-up, which in some instances led to full-time employment.
“We hired four staff people to administer the grant money; two focused on Springfield, and the other two focused on Monson and Brimfield,” Picard explained, adding that the agency has also deepened its link with Springfield Technical Community College.
“There is work taking place on both sides of the fence,” she said, adding that the agency has an STCC staff member on site.

Changing Tide
Gadaire said the one-stop career centers are opportunistic.
“Sometimes a program starts because we can easily fill a need, and sometimes the need has been there, and we finally find a way to fill it. But we don’t ever give up trying,” he said.
Picard agreed. “The one-stops have achieved a 50% rate of employment for the people they serve,” she said. “We’re here to give people hope.”