Opinion

Editorial 2

A Stern Challenge for the Region

If it seems like you’re spending more of your time reading about people retiring or going to functions where the guest of honor leaves the room with a rocking chair, gold watch, or gift certificate for a cruise, it is most definitely not your imagination.
Instead, it’s more evidence of a demographic phenomenon, one that reflects the size and influence of the Baby Boom generation.
Indeed, all that talk years ago about how this generation was going to start retiring — and in big numbers — is no longer talk. It’s reality.
And while this inevitable consequence of the passage of time is good for the people who handle IRAs, make watches and rocking chairs, host retirement parties, and operate cruise lines, it poses a huge challenge for this region as a whole and specific business sectors as well.
In just the past 12 to 18 months, this region has seen the retirement of several chamber of commerce directors, nonprofit managers (Gary McCarthy at the Springfield Boys & Girls Club is just one example), economic-development leaders (Bill Ward at the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County tops that list), and healthcare executives — Carol Katz, longtime director of Loomis Communities, retired in 2012, Holyoke Medical Center CEO Hank Porten stepped down earlier this year, and  Mark Tolosky, president and CEO of Baystate Health; Peter Straley, president and CEO of Health New England; and Craig Melin, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital, will leave their jobs in 2014.
And there have been countless people whose exploits didn’t make the pages of BusinessWest who have also moved on to that proverbial next stage of their lives, with tens of thousands more to do so in the next several years.
The challenge is obvious: these people must be replaced.
And while it would seem that this wouldn’t be a problem with a statewide unemployment rate of roughly 7% and a number closer to 10% in major urban areas in this region, the reality is that many of those who are unemployed simply do not have the skills to move into these positions.
This is especially true in sectors such as precision manufacturing and healthcare, where employers have openings — hundreds and perhaps thousands of them — that they cannot fill because of that skills gap that we keep reading about. Like those aforementioned retirements, that gap is real, not your imagination.
And while there will always be people who can step into the shoes of leaders like Ward, Lee, Tolosky, Melin, and Straley, it is fair to ask if those who will occupy their offices and those of executives across the region possess the leadership skills that enabled their successors to be so successful.
So, moving forward, this region has to continue its efforts to address this demographic challenge — which is no longer looming, but actually here — and accelerate and intensify them.
Programs like Leadership Pioneer Valley, created at the encouragement of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission with all these retirements in mind, must continue to educate area young people about this region and its strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, and prepare them to be the leaders of tomorrow.
Meanwhile, people like David Cruise, who will have the unenviable task of succeeding Ward at the REB, must work in collaboration with local employers, area colleges and universities, and other economic-development agencies to close that skills gap. If they don’t, employers will be increasingly challenged to find that most important ingredient in any business success story: talent.
In reality, it is mostly the very oldest of the Baby Boomers (and those who belong to the generation before it) who are retiring these days. The huge bubble is still to come, and it may be delayed somewhat by the need for many members of this generation to work longer to secure a comfortable retirement.
But while there is still time to address this challenge, that time is running out.

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