Sections Supplements

Moving Beyond ‘Steady’

Jobs Market Sees Little Pain, but Not Much Gain


That’s the one and only word apparently needed to describe the local jobs scene. It represents the good news — “at least we’re not declining,” said Rexene Picard, executive director of the FutureWorks one-stop career center in Springfield, as well as the bad news, meaning that there is little if any growth to speak of. Steady is, in many respects, the only news.

The term applies, generally speaking, to the employment rate, which, for Hampden County, at 5.1%, is down one-tenth of a percentage point from this time last year. As for overall employment in the county over the past five years, the line on the bar chart is practically straight; the number was 204,800 in 2001, the start of the last recession, and it was 198,300 for mid- 2006, the latest data available. Conversely, the same line for the state looks more like an abbreviated ‘U,’ with 3.4 million people working at the start of ’01, 3.16 million at the low point in December of ’03, and 3.23 million by July of this year.

Steady also defines the broad picture in terms of job losses and gains. There have been a few hundred losses, most in manufacturing, over the past 12-15 months, and some gains, but mostly in the hospitality and distribution sectors, said Picard, meaning comparatively lower-wage jobs. This has been the trend for the past several years.

“In Western Mass., we don’t see the peaks and valleys that other regions of the country, and this state, do,” she said. “We tend to stay level, with no big drops.”

Steady, as defined in Webster’s Collegiate as ‘showing little variation or fluctuation,’ would also describe the state of the so-called skills gap in the region, a phrase used to depict scenarios when and where companies have the ability to grow but have difficulty finding individuals with the skill sets needed for the jobs in question.

This phenomenon is seen in precision manufacturing, and also in health care and especially nursing, said Bill Ward, director of the Hampden County Regional Employment Board (REB), noting quickly that grant-funded programs are underway to address the comparatively high job-vacancy rates in both sectors.

In the precision manufacturing arena, a $150,000 grant from the John Adams Innovation Institute is being used to fund a broad-ranging effort to improve the image of the that sector among both young people and their parents, and to put more individuals in a pipeline that will yield skilled workers who will provide long-term security for that industry. Similarly, a $250,000 grant is being utilized to address an ongoing nursing shortage in the region. Called CAN DO (Collaborating for the Advancement of Nursing: Developing Opportunities), the program will develop a structural framework for nurse advancement, from LPN through to a doctoral degree, and raise the bar for cultural proficiency within the profession.

Hampden County is one of 10 regions from across the country selected for the program from among nearly 200 applications, said Ward, adding that, if successful, CAN DO will put more individuals in nursing positions at the entry level and incentivise people to earn advanced degrees in nursing, enabling them to teach the subject at area colleges, thus allowing schools to accept more people into their programs.

The REB-orchestrated programs are among many short- and long-term efforts to help the region move beyond ‘steady,’ with regard to its employment picture and register real gains across several sectors.

For that to occur, many things will have to go right, said Joe Ascioti, owner of Agawam-based Reliable Temps, a company that handles staffing assignments across the board but is perhaps best known for its work in the manufacturing realm. He listed everything from the policies of the Deval Patrick administration, especially with regard to the cost of doing business in the Commonwealth, to efforts to improve local schools.

“We have a simple math test that we give to people when they come in the door,” he said of applicants for temp and temp-to-hire positions. “When I say simple, I mean basic multiplication, addition, and maybe some long division. And many people can’t pass it. We’re not going to lure jobs to this region if people can’t pass a math test.”

Work Study Job

Ascioti is also a frequent user of the word steady, and one can detect a general sense of frustration when he does.

Indeed, like others, he doesn’t mean it necessarily as a synonym for ‘good,’ although he acknowledges that things could be worse, and have been in years past.

Recently, he’s seen an ongoing trend among area companies, especially area manufacturers, to utilize staffing agencies as extensions of their own HR departments.

Elaborating, he said firms like his are used by businesses looking to outsource many of the steps in the hiring process, especially advertising for and the screening of candidates.

Individuals who pass muster (and the math test) are then subjected to a trial period lasting several weeks or months, after which, if they show enough ability and promise, they are added to the workforce. This ‘temp-to-hire’ process is certainly nothing new, said Ascioti, but what is relatively new, and disturbing, is the greater degree of difficulty for Reliable and other firms when it comes to filling orders.

They are almost always filled, he said, but sometimes it takes awhile, because the pool of qualified candidates is shrinking, and everyone is fishing from the same pond.

Creating a bigger pool is the broad goal for the region, he said, adding that there are several components to this assignment, including an improvement to the overall business climate in Massachusetts, and steps to reduce the number of individuals flunking Reliable’s math and reading tests.

“The climate in Massachusetts isn’t very good, and it could get worse,” said Ascioti, noting that several companies have left the region in recent years, and more will if other steps, such as mandated health insurance, are taken. “I think a lot of companies are waiting for one more straw, and that will be the one that prompts them to leave.

“If you’re a CEO looking to expand, you want to be in a state that has a favorable climate for business,” he continued. “Massachusetts is at the point where it needs to be careful.”

In many respects, Western Mass. has performed better than the state overall, from an employment perspective, over the past five years, said Ward, noting a slower rate of out-migration, actual growth in the labor force, and a less-pronounced decline in overall employment.

Statistics provided by the REB show there were 6,500 fewer jobs in Hampden County in 2005 than there were in 2001, the employment peak for this region and the state. The biggest gains came in health care (nearly 1,500 new jobs); education (almost 800), and the broad category called ‘other services,’ meaning those not in hospitality and retail, for example (2,100). The losses, meanwhile, came in manufacturing, a decline of 4,700; retail (1,470); finance (1,199), transportation and warehousing (1,019); ‘information’ (1,200); and government (723).

Projecting what will happen for these sectors in the months and years ahead is difficult, said Picard, who again summoned steady to describe what is likely.
In October, job postings were down roughly 16% from September and 16% from October of ’05 at FutureWorks, she said, noting many factors could be contributing to a general state of cautiousness when it comes to hiring.

These include the state of the housing market (better than in Eastern Mass., but still slower than a year ago), energy prices and their instability, and even uncertainty about the future of the war in Iraq — a concern to many companies that supply defense contractors.

“Some area firms are hiring,” she said, listing Smith & Wesson, which has added some new product lines, Performance Food Group, Big Y, and others. But overall, the region is seeing individuals move within the market, as companies compete for skilled workers, rather than real gains in employment.

As for the long term, Ward projects that real job growth can and probably will occur in health care and education, and perhaps precision manufacturing, including the development of a medical instruments cluster — there are a few companies now specializing in such manufacturing, and there is potential to expand that base, he said.

Much will depend on efforts to reduce the region’s vacancy rates, which are, in several fields, higher than the state’s.

The precision machining initiative, a two-year program, is already producing some results, some Ward, noting that enrollment is inching up at area technical high schools, and work continues to develop an interactive Web site that will inform young people and their parents about the many benefits of careers in machining.
Meanwhile, Ward is optimistic about CAN DO and its potential to eventually increase the number of nursing graduates at area schools.

“UMass had to turn away a large number of applicants because it just didn’t have the space for them, because they didn’t have enough faculty,” he said. “This program will streamline and facilitate the process of people working toward their master’s and doctorate degrees.”

Employing Logic

When asked for a prediction on the job market for 2007, Picard didn’t venture very far out on the limb.

She said some companies and sectors will likely register some small gains, but the factors she listed earlier — the housing market, energy prices, even uncertainty over the Patrick administration — will probably trigger only tepid growth.

In other words — or in another word — the region can expect more (you guessed) of that term steady.

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