Some Strategies to Combat a Jobless Recovery

What a difference a year makes.

Twelve months ago, people in business — and the media — were talking about how bad things were, and how much worse they could get. Today, as we get set to turn the calendar again, people are talking about how things are better (for the most part) and how much better they can get in 2010.

Unfortunately, the consensus among most economists and bankers is that, while we should expect a recovery, it will be of the slow and steady variety. Making matters worse is that the expectation that this looks to be a ‘jobless recovery,’ where perhaps some, but probably not many, of the jobs lost over the past 12 to 18 months are regained through expansion.

It is our hope, of course, that the experts are wrong. But, realistically, we believe that employers who have learned to make do with fewer people will be cautious and slow to bring people back on the payroll.

So, while waiting and hoping for things to improve, we would encourage area economic-development leaders and elected officials to pursue strategies and policies that will help create new avenues for jobs in our region beyond our existing base. Here are three key areas of focus.

• Continue to pursue green pastures. We’re starting to see the emergence of a ‘green sector’ in the Pioneer Valley. It’s small in comparison to what’s happening in other areas of the country and in comparison to other other industries in this region. But it’s something to build on.

With the arrival of Qteros, a firm striving to revolutionize ethanol production through the use of something called the Q microbe, near Westover in Chicopee; continued research into other green-energy breakthroughs at UMass; and the beginnings of a green-energy cluster in Greenfield, this region has the potential to become a base for a host of industries that will meet what is becoming a national desire to ‘go green.’

The planned high-performance computing center in Holyoke, heading there largely because of the city’s green and inexpensive hydro power, could also draw attention — and perhaps more jobs — to this region.

• Keep young people here — somehow. If this region is ever to develop new sources of jobs, it must have a workforce that is large and attractive enough to entice businesses and emerging sectors to come here. And a big part of this equation is young people.

Many in this constituency will be tempted to leave if there are few job opportunities, equally few chances to move up the ladder, and the perception that there will be no jobs down the road. Thus, companies have to work to engage their existing young employees in the community and make them part of the fabric of this region. They should also support the various young professionals’ groups in Western Mass. that are thus far having great success with helping individuals grow roots in the region.

In the meantime, they should endeavor to create internship and co-op opportunities that will expose young people to the many fine businesses in this area and, in the process, perhaps find their workers of tomorrow. Such internships come with a price tag for the employer in terms of both money and time, but they should be seen as investments, not expenses.

• Continue to grow the ‘eds and meds’ sectors. While this region must continue to look imaginatively toward new and different sources of jobs, it must also strive to support and grow those that already exist, especially health care and education.

These are strong, somewhat healthy sources of employment that must become healthier. Many health-care providers continue to be strapped by insufficient reimbursement. Meanwhile, public colleges and universities, which are becoming more popular as the economy continues to struggle and people seek out the skills to re-enter the workforce, are facing crippling state budget cuts. At a time when many could and should be adding to their faculty and staffs to serve more people, they are instead laying off or implementing hiring freezes.

Elected officials and economic-development leaders alike must understand that the health and well-being of our region is tied largely to the health of these sectors, and respond accordingly.

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