Plan for Progress Gets a 10-year OverhaulTim Brennan acknowledged that it was a loose analogy, but thought it worked effectively.
He was comparing the Plan for Progress — a document first drafted two decades ago by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), which he serves as executive director — to an automobile.
“They both need regular maintenance, like oil changes,” Brennan explained, noting that the plan requires periodic fine-tuning to reflect changes in everything from demographics to economic-development strategies to government funding priorities. “And they both need major engine overhauls.”
For the Plan for Progress, those overhauls come every 10 years — less-involved updates are undertaken every five — which means the one announced May 4 is the second since the document was first inked in 1994.
And it stresses a number of priorities for this region moving forward, especially the all-important matter of workforce supply and creating more of it. Many Baby Boomers have retired, and tens of millions more will do so over the next 10 years or so, said Brennan, and the task of replacing them will severely test the region and pose a significant challenge for virtually all business sectors, from healthcare to manufacturing to the huge service industry.
This isn’t exactly a news flash, Brennan acknowledged, noting that the Plan for Progress and a host of other reports have sounded the alarm on this phenomenon for more than a decade. But the situation — which was in many ways helped by the Great Recession and its impact on retirement-savings efforts, which forced many Boomers to stay in the workforce longer than they planned — will soon reach a critical stage, if it hasn’t already.
That means the region will soon have to address the matter far more aggressively, and effectively, than it has, despite all those warnings.
“On the talent side, we’re having this whoosh,” he said, using that term to describe the Boomers who have left the workforce or soon will. “Talent is job one; the most important issue for economic development isn’t tax breaks or raw materials or land — it’s really talent now.
“This has been going on for a while,” he went on. “But it’s becoming more intense, and all the projections for the next 10 to 15 years are for labor shortages. We need to intervene.”
There are many other focal points, or so-called ‘decade declarations,’ within the 27-page report, titled “2015-2025: Building Strategies for the Region,” which is available for viewing at www.pvpc.org. They come in three forms — goals, key opportunities, and key challenges — and all of them are regional in scope and focus.
Improving flow in the talent pipeline obviously falls in that last category, where it is joined by “fragile infrastructure systems” and “retention and growth of existing businesses.”The key opportunities, meanwhile, involve “leveraging new connections that significantly enhance the region’s economic competitiveness” — a reference to everything from enhanced rail service to broadband networks; “leading the Commonwealth’s clean-energy transformation while moving the region toward a balanced and diversified energy portfolio”; and “harnessing the economic-development potential of the New England Knowledge Corridor.” That’s something Brennan says both Western Mass. and Northern Conn. have essentially failed to do since the corridor was conceptualized 15 years ago.
As for goals, well, there are four of them, which essentially encompass both those challenges and opportunities:
• Develop and maintain a globally competitive and regionally engaged talent pool;
• Foster an environment where established, new, and growing businesses and organizations can thrive;
• Implement and enhance the infrastructure that connects, sustains, and ensures the safety and resiliency of the region; and
• Conduct economic-development activities in a regionally responsible manner, prioritizing collaboration and engagement.
Of course, putting goals, challenges, and opportunities — all identified by a large Plan for Progress coordinating council over the past 16 months or so — down on paper is only one step in the process, said Brennan, adding that the report also identifies specific strategies for reaching those goals and addressing concerns.
As an example, he cited the plan’s last major overhaul, which, among other things, identified a critical need to cultivate young leadership in the region. Strategies to address that matter included creation of what came to be known as Leadership Pioneer Valley, which has created an extensive program to groom young leaders and familiarize them with the region.
Regarding the stated goal of developing a talent pool, the report recommends strategies ranging from bolstering early education to improving K-12 achievement and graduation rates, to enhancing career and workforce training initiatives.
For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look under the hood at the latest update of the Plan for Progress and the priorities it has identified.
Over the past 15 years, Brennan noted, the Knowledge Corridor, the region stretching from the Vermont border to New Haven, has become a brand. Just how well-recognized a brand it is, both regionally and nationally, is a subject for debate, he said, but added that it clearly hasn’t become much more than a brand.
Moving forward, however, it must do so, he went on, noting that, when it comes to economic development and attracting and retaining employers, there is obviously strength in numbers. The corridor has those, he said, citing a combined population of more than 2.7 million people. It also has more than 40 institutions of higher learning, several major healthcare providers, an international airport, and a host of other assets.
All of these must be exploited and effectively sold, he told BusinessWest, because promoting the Valley’s place in this broader region is perhaps its best hope for growth, given trends Brennan believes will only accelerate in the years and decades to come.
“That critical mass makes us the 20th-largest market in the country, and that’s not inconsequential,” he said. “Our future fortunes are tied to moving beyond this being a brand, and putting as much substance as we possibly can into this and working together.
“It’s a whole new economic ballgame out there; we have to put a different team on the field, and we’ve got to play differently than we did 10 or 20 years ago,” he said, adding that the two states and their leaders will have to put aside the parochialism that his existed historically. “Our nation is going to morph into about a dozen mega-metropolitan regions, and we need to be part of that. I remember one guy said, and I’ll never forget this, ‘you guys better watch out, or you’ll become a cul-de-sac in New England.’”
Harnessing the potential of the Knowledge Corridor is one of the opportunities identified by the report, said Brennan — and they are opportunities, he added, even if some people don’t necessarily recognize them as such. He puts the corridor, those aforementioned ‘connections’ — especially rail service — and the potential to lead the state’s clean-energy transformation firmly in that category.
Regarding rail service, which Brennan has long advocated as a potential economic engine, the emphasis moving forward must be on not only enhancing north-south connections — which have dominated the discussion and the progress made to date — but expanding east-west connections as well.
At present, there is one train a day (the Vermonter) running from Vermont to Springfield, and real potential to bring perhaps a dozen trains a day running between Springfield and New York. A Springfield-Boston connection is further from reality and will come with a hefty price tag, probably hundreds of millions of dollars, said Brennan, but there is considerable interest in one, there have been some signals of support from the Baker administration, and a 2024 Boston Olympics may provide the needed incentive to get the job done.“We think this has a lot of benefit potential,” he said of rail service in any direction. “Wherever you have a place where trains land, whether it be at Union Station [in Springfield] or one of the platforms to the north, you get these sort of hotspots of development around it — a quarter-mile or half-mile around the station, you tend to get a development surge.
“If you have enough service and it’s reliable out on that rail line,” he went on, “young people and seniors tend to gravitate toward this kind of living situation more and more.”
He cited Boston as an obvious example, even with all the problems that visited the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority this past winter.
“We’re not arguing that we’re Boston, but we have a toehold on north-south connections to New York,” he explained. “And if we can offer good, robust, reliable service … we’re an affordable area, and people can commute from here. We think we can capture folks, and that’s one way to build the talent pool in the Valley.”
As for the movement away from fossil fuels, this could be an opportunity to create jobs, said Brennan, and also maneuver around what is becoming a growth-stifling problem with natural-gas distribution.
“I think there’s a transformation going on,” he said of what some call a nationwide trend toward greener sources of energy. “And those who lead it are going to be in a better situation to be economically competitive.
“The numbers seem to indicate that we’re a leader inside a state that’s a leader,” he went on. “So let’s keep that going.”
Going into Labor
While the report urges action on the many opportunities it identifies, the main thrust of the document is its focus on the talent pool — how to ensure there is a deep one for the years and decades to come, and the sense of urgency that must be attached to efforts to address this concern.
“One of our biggest assets in the Valley and the Knowledge Corridor is one of the most highly productive workforces in the country,” said Brennan. “But the question we’re facing is, how do we replace those men and women and keep that asset in place?
“On the supply side, we need lots of replacement troops,” he went on, adding that, while the situation hasn’t reached a critical stage (at least in some sectors) because many individuals are working longer than they anticipated a decade ago and others have embarked on what’s known as ‘soft retirement,’ where they’re still in the workforce but on a part-time basis, serious crunch time is fast approaching.
The emphasis isn’t solely on numbers, he said, adding that the accumulated talent must possess the skills required by businesses — and there will be many of them — with ‘help-wanted’ signs out. “On the demand side, you have lots of jobs that are opening, but do the bodies have the skills to fill those posts?” Brennan asked rhetorically, adding that, too often, the answer is ‘no.’ “So it’s a two-pronged problem.”
The region’s employers, not to mention workforce-related agencies such as the regional employment boards, have long recognized the existence of a skills gap, Brennan went on, and there have been efforts to address it.
Moving forward, there must be more initiatives such as Training & Workforce Options (TWO), created by Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College to assist employers with the challenge of training individuals for specific jobs, and Westfield Vocational Technical High School’s new program to train people for jobs in the aviation field.
“We need to intervene over the next decade,” said Brennan, “so that, by the end of this 2015-2025 period, we’re not wringing our hands about how we had a problem, we forecast it, and yet we didn’t do enough it to change it.”
Such intervention efforts must involve a number of players, including the workforce-development agencies and the region’s many colleges, he said, adding that the focus will be on everything from early childhood education to training and retraining those already in the workforce or on the outside looking in, to stemming the so-called brain drain.
“There’s a lot of talk about how we get more of the public and private colleges to offer internships in jobs that are in the career paths of young men and women, so they get a job as they come out with their degree,” he said, adding that the talk needs to turn to action. “The message has gotten through, but we need a lot of implementation out there to tackle this for the long term.”
But talent is only one of the issues facing area business owners and managers, said Brennan, noting that one of the updated plan’s goals is to foster an environment where established and new businesses can thrive.
Like efforts to grow the talent pool, meeting this goal will be a multi-pronged effort, he said, adding that there is a great deal of entrepreneurial energy in the region and thus a large number of startups and early-stage businesses. Likewise, there are a number of businesses led by Baby Boomers who will be retiring soon and are thus facing the many daunting issues involved with transitioning to the next generation — or deciding if there will be a transition.
These ventures will need assistance in forms ranging from capital to succession planning to, yes, talent, Brennan said, noting that the region must build on an already-significant support network.
“When we did a growth-business study with the Donahue Institute, they said the good news from the recession period was that most of the small businesses hung in there — we didn’t have an avalanche of closures; they sort of held their ground,” he explained. “And now, many of these companies are growing; what resources will they need in order to continue growing?
“Many of them need an infusion of capital, and some of them are so small that they can’t get away from the oven or the drill press to go look for help,” he went on. “We need to create ways to get information to these small businesses in a user-friendly way, and we need to make these services more seamless so they don’t have to go here for this and there for that.”
Like the original Plan for Progress and the first 10-year update, this latest document is intended to serve as a road map of sorts, said Brennan, identifying preferred routes and speed bumps on the way to a more prosperous future for the Pioneer Valley.
With this latest overhaul, the region now has some directions to follow, he went on, adding that, if area leaders stay on course, they should reach the intended destination.
But the road ahead has a number of curves, he implied, and the region would be wise to heed both the speed limit and the many caution signs.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]