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Employment Special Coverage

Questions, Questions

 

At a time when most companies and nonprofit institutions in the region are hiring, or trying to, many area business owners, managers, and HR directors are sitting across the table from job candidates trying to determine if that individual is the proverbial ‘right one.’

Given this climate, BusinessWest asked a number of area business leaders to identify one of their favorite, most effective interview questions. We asked them to explain why they ask that question and what it reveals to them about the candidate.

Suffice it to say, their responses provide some food for thought on a very important part of business.

 

 

Sara Rose Stack

Sara Rose Stack

Sara Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruiting Manager, Meyers Brothers Kalicka

The question: “Tell me something that you would do differently than your current boss at your current job.”

I ask this question to learn more about candidate’s awareness of people around them, their creative problem-solving skills, their desire to improve and grow, and their level of tact. A candidate’s answer to this question will reveal a lot about his/her ability to solve problems, but what I am most interested in is how they communicate their proposed solution. The question itself has a somewhat negative connotation because it is asking for the candidate to share something that their boss could do better or differently. My experience has shown that, if someone will bash a supervisor or competitor to you, then they will repeat the behavior to others. Further, anyone that can share suggestions for improvement in a positive way is a great addition to the team. Tact and diplomacy are powerful tools for making improvements, contributing ideas, and working in a team.

 

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran, President, Bay Path University

The question: A two-parter: “How will this position help you grow your career?” “Tell me about an experience or work project where you had to work across departments to accomplish the goal(s).”

 

In the first part of the question, I am looking for authenticity of the candidate and the ability to be introspective and share their current strengths as well as their vulnerabilities. As their experience grows, their value as contributors to Bay Path will also increase. The second question provides insights to their capacity to be a team player and team leader within our organization. Today, 40% of Bay Path students are students of color, and we are striving to increase the diversity of our employees. As a result, as the candidate explains the project, I am looking for how they respect and handle other opinions and perspectives, value diversity of thought, and exhibit multi-cultural competencies. Above all, the candidate must be both mission- and student-centered.

 

Brenda Olesuk

Brenda Olesuk

Brenda Olesuk, President, Graduate Pest Solutions Inc.

The question: “What do you consider to be your professional and personal strengths, and, conversely, what areas do you struggle with or are not interested in doing professionally?”

 

This is a mainstay question in all of my interviews since it encourages the applicant to be introspective and reflective about themselves — and this tells me a lot about them. Learning what they consider to be their professional strengths and how they’ve applied those strengths often creates context for what they can and will bring to the table in the position they are applying for. Perhaps more important to me is the level of candor with which they communicate areas of struggle or lack of interest and how they have managed this in their career. This question often leads to an additional discussion that unveils the applicant’s openness to coaching and development, which is a trait that is important to me as a leader, manager, and employer.

 

 

Ellen Freyman

Ellen Freyman

Ellen Freyman, Esq., Partner, Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C.

The question: “What would make you satisfied in this job?”

 

This question lets the applicant know that we care whether our employees are happy working for us, and at the same time, it helps us determine if this applicant will be a good fit. It is also another way of finding out the applicant’s strengths without asking directly, and discloses what part of the job they may not care to do. The answer to this question can reveal why the applicant hasn’t stayed in previous jobs and potentially lead us to rethink some of the things we are doing in our office. The question helps us determine if the applicant understands the position they have applied for and if they have the right skill set. Getting an honest answer to this question helps both the applicant and us know whether hiring this person will be satisfying to both of us.

 

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi, President, TommyCar Auto Group

The question: “How do you delegate responsibilities to team members?”

 

I ask this question to potential hiring candidates because most managers fail at delegation. As a good leader, it is their responsibility to be clear about what they are delegating and their expectations. In our company, it is our manager’s responsibility to offer their team the tools they need to succeed by encouraging and supporting the decision-making environment. The effective delegation and empowerment of their employees is essential for their success as a manager. By asking this question, I am able to learn if a potential candidate is able to release control and effectively delegate, empower, and hold accountable their future team members.

 

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar, Chief Strategy Officer, Universal Plastics

The question: “Why did you leave your last job?” Or, if they are still employed, “Why are you looking to leave this job?”

 

As an employer, I value continuity and longevity in job history. However, the résumé is just a piece of paper. The interview is the opportunity to either rise above what the piece of paper says or minimize it. How someone discusses a job change tells me whether they are a team player, whether they are growth-mindset-oriented, and what kinds of cultures, people, and attributes they either enjoy or don’t. In short, it is the ‘heart’ (as opposed to the ‘head’) part of the interview, which answers the most important question of all for me — do I want this person on my team?

It is never easy to leave a job, whether you do it on your own terms or have been asked to do so. So, how you answer this question brings up your response to a difficult situation, which may even involve conflict or confrontation. As an employer, I want to know how you handle difficult situations. At Universal Plastics, we believe in giving people chances, lots of them, but it has to start from a place of candor and commitment to our culture and the values we espouse, and this question aims to ascertain exactly that.

 

Michael Matty

Michael Matty

Michael Matty, President, St. Germain Investments

The question: “What did your parents do?”

 

I like to ask this because we are all a product of our background, and it is a great opportunity to gain some insight into the person. If, for example, the parents ran their own business, the candidate probably has a good understanding of the needs of a small business and what it takes to make it work. It is also a good opportunity to ask why the candidate doesn’t want to work there. Conversely, the mom may have been stay-at-home, and dad worked in a factory job in a blue-collar role. The candidate may be first-generation college and first-generation in a professional role — sometimes a bit less polished in presentation, but likely with good reason. And if they are smart, energetic, and willing to learn, I’d potentially think they were a good hire. Overall, it’s a good, open-ended question that can lead to some good conversation.

 

Jane Albert

Jane Albert

Jane Albert, Senior Vice President and Chief Consumer Officer, Baystate Health

The question: “What impact has the pandemic had on you?

 

This is a newer question I ask because it opens the door to conversation about a current topic of significance with many pathways to get to know the candidate. Asking a broad, open-ended question provides the candidate with a choice to respond with an orientation toward their personal life or their work experiences. like to provide that option to make it most comfortable for the candidate during the interview. This question enables conversation about how they handled changes and challenges related to the pandemic and offers glimpses into how they may handle and adjust to changes within our healthcare environment and their potential new work responsibilities. It also opens the door to learning about the candidate’s priorities, relationships, engagements, and abilities to adapt to change, along with how they handled this in their daily life as well as throughout their work experiences.

 

 

Kate Campiti

Kate Campiti

Kate Campiti, Associate Publisher and Sales Manager, BusinessWest

The question: “Have you had experience in the service industry?”

 

When I interview for sales, I look for — and ask about — experience in the service industry. If the candidate has it, I ask how they’ve handled a tough customer or table and how they turned it around or were able to shake it off to continue successfully serving the rest of the shift. If candidates can wait tables or bartend successfully, it shows they have what it takes to think on their feet, appeal to customers, and provide high-level service to earn tips. It also shows they are driven by both money and customer service, which bodes well for a sales position with BusinessWest. For other positions, I typically ask what motivates them, what they do to unwind, if they have tactics for stress relief inside and outside the office, and what they think their best assets and weaknesses are and what they think their current or previous employers would say.

Cover Story COVID-19

Help Wanted

Long before COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., businesses across many sectors were struggling to find adequate supplies of good help. But now, just as the economy seems ready to surge, the problem, fueled increasingly by unemployment benefits that are conspiring to keep workers on the sidelines, is getting considerably worse, with no real end in sight.

 

Steve Corrigan has been in the landscaping business for more than 40 years now, and for most of that time, finding good help has been a challenge — to one degree or another.

But he says he’s never seen anything quite like this.

“Between our Chicopee location, a small branch we have in Wilbraham, and the office we have in Manchester, Conn., we probably have 12 to 15 positions we could fill tomorrow if we could find the people,” said Corrigan, president of Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare, adding that this is a mighty big ‘if’ at the moment. “It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

Indeed, his company is one of countless businesses across virtually every sector of the economy that are struggling mightily to fill positions, even as unemployment remains somewhat high in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many reasons for this imbalance between open positions and adequate supplies of qualified help, but the main culprit comes in the form of federal unemployment benefits, including a $300 weekly bonus that is part of the American Rescue Plan. These benefits, say area employers, are serving as a strong deterrent to putting people back into the workforce.

“When you do the math, if you took a person making $20 an hour … with their normal unemployment, they’d be getting $500 to $600 a week,” said Corrigan. “Throw another 300 bucks on top of it … and why would you go to work for $20 an hour? It doesn’t make sense.”

Employers have been posing similar questions since the first stimulus-related unemployment benefits — complete with a $600 weekly bonus — were approved roughly a year ago. But the situation is even more precarious now, because the economy, after a slow to very slow 2020, depending on the sector of the economy, is starting to rev up again. And just as companies are looking forward to consumers going back out again and spending some of the money they’ve been saving over the past 14 months, businesses are being hit with pervasive hiring issues — and deep concerns about if and when the situation might improve.

As noted, the problem exists across the board — with landscapers, home-improvement companies, and pool installers; restaurants and banquet facilities; golf courses and local farm stands; manufacturers and service businesses.

In response to the problem, employers have tried a number of strategies — from sign-on bonuses to higher wages to rewards for referrals that lead to new hires. Meanwhile, most all forms of marketing for businesses in a variety of sectors now include references to looking for help, being a great place to work, or both.

For the most part, these strategies seem to be generating lukewarm results, with those unemployment benefits being just one of many issues to contend with. Another is the inability, or unwillingness, on the part of most states, including this one, to enforce the basic rules pertaining to unemployment eligibility.

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield, says his company has responded to the ongoing challenge of finding workers by hiking wages above the average for this region.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work,” said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, which has seen its hotline handle a number of calls related to this matter and a host of related issues. “In pre-pandemic times, if people were on unemployment, they had to prove that they were physically out there looking for work — applying for jobs, looking at the help-wanted ads, and actively seeking work. And those with the state would occasionally ask them to prove that they were doing all this. With the pandemic, the employment offices have been overrun, and states took away that requirement that you were looking for work.”

Perhaps the best hopes for area employers are that returning college students and area high-school students soon to be off for the summer might increase the pool of applicants — and that the unemployment benefits are due to expire in September.

But even those hopes are tempered by the realization that September is a ways off, and the benefits may well be extended by elected officials who have already shown a willingness to do that.

“It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

So companies, some of them with the help of EANE and even area marketing companies, are honing their messages and updating their hiring strategies in the hope they will have enough warm bodies to take advantage of what is expected to be an uptick — if not a surge — in the economy.

For this issue, we look at what they’re up against and what they doing in the face of this growing challenge to their ongoing success.

 

Labor Pains

As they talked with BusinessWest about the hiring challenges they’re now facing, business owners, almost with one voice, said that COVID has simply exacerbated a problem that has existed for some time now.

Indeed, the phrase ‘skills gap’ has been a part of the local lexicon for years now, with many businesses, especially those in manufacturing, but in other sectors as well, struggling to find adequate supplies of help, with the degree of difficulty varying with the relative condition of the economy.

Chad Jzyk, HR business partner for Charter Next Generation (CNG), a Turners Falls-based manufacturer of plastic blown film for the medical industry, said the company has been challenged to find help for several years now. But the problem has reached a new level in recent months.

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent,” he noted, adding that the company has been running with one and a half to two open positions monthly on an almost constant basis for some time now. COVID has made the situation worse, at a time when the opposite might be expected because of the number of people out of work, and for several reasons, he said.

“With the stimulus checks and unemployment extension, the availability of workers has been impacted in a negative way,” he said, referring to both the number of applicants in the pool and their willingness to accept an employment opportunity.

“We’ve tried to engage with a couple of temporary agencies,” he went on. “In the past, it was common that you would have an applicant pool of temporary workers of between 15 and 20 people that were already pre-screened and ready to go — you’d call the employment agency and, pretty much on the spot, get someone in 24 hours. Working with a few local agencies that we’ve traditionally worked with … there’s no applicant pool; they’re seeing the same thing.”

Jzyk said the company’s hiring challenges have yet to directly impact production or limit its ability to take on new orders. However, he said it does limit CNG’s ability to be more “proactive,” as he put it, and do more when it comes to training and flexibility with employees’ responsibilities.

For other employers, the shortage of workers represents a real threat to day-to-day operations and especially the ability to handle the larger volumes of business expected as the region returns to something approaching normal as vaccinations rise and consumers venture back out to restaurants, bars, museums, stores, and more.

Nadim Kashouh, owner of Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill in downtown Springfield, said he’s looking forward to the return of shows to the MassMutual Center and other forms of vibrancy, but he quickly, as in very quickly, changed to the subject of staffing and his ongoing concerns about whether he can find enough help to handle whatever surge comes.

Meredith Wise says the escalating challenges facing employers looking to hire are prompting wage skirmishes in some sectors.

“I hesitate to get too excited because one of the things we’re dealing with right now is the lack of people who want to work,” he told BusinessWest, gesturing to a lighted message board behind the bar. Among the many messages being delivered is that help is wanted — and that display is just one of many ways that point is being made.

“We have created a commercial that focuses on how our patio will be open soon,” he said. “But it also notes that we’re looking to hire people — we need to keep letting people know that.”

Fran Beaulieu, second-generation president of Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement in Chicopee, said the hiring crunch, which is certainly nothing new for that sector, has resulted from a number of factors, with COVID-related issues being only the latest additions.

Overall, fewer people have been getting into the trades, he said, and this has left the region with a shortage of carpenters and other specialists.

“You basically have an entire generation that didn’t get into the trade,” he noted, adding that, despite a wide-ranging effort involving social media and other strategies, the company has a workforce that is 30% short of what is needed. And this harsh reality is certainly impacting the firm’s ability to take on jobs — at a time when jobs are plentiful, again, due to COVID and people home so much and often of a mind to improve their surroundings.

“Finding projects has never been the problem; the problem has been managing your labor in accordance with how many projects you have sold,” Beaulieu said. “You almost have to stop selling after a while because you just don’t have the help.”

 

Hire Power

In the wake of the ongoing struggle to find adequate supplies of help, area businesses are taking a number of steps, with aggressive marketing of their staffing needs being just one of them.

Indeed, companies have initiated hiring bonuses and rewards for those who refer candidates who eventually sign on. Meanwhile, others are hiking wages, said Wise, adding that, in some sectors, wage skirmishes have arisen, the likes of which have not been seen in some time, if ever.

“What we’re seeing happening, and it’s a little scary, is that, for some positions, wage battles have ensued,” she said. “People are saying, ‘I’ll pay you $2 more an hour to come work for me because I need the help,’ and the employee goes back to his employer and says, ‘they’re willing to give me $2 more an hour; will you give me $3 more an hour to stay here?’

“There are some positions where people are willing to pay a premium to get individuals to come to work,” she went on. “And it’s starting to affect different kinds of businesses.”

One of them is the broad landscaping and lawncare sector, she noted, which has historically faced challenges to maintaining adequate staffing and is now seeing its problems escalate due to the many aspects of COVID.

Greg Omasta, owner of Hadley-based Omasta Landscaping Inc., said this has certainly been a trying year.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work.”

“The government incentives allow people to stay home and get paid more than if they actually went to their job on a daily basis — so some of the problems small businesses are facing in this country are inflicted by our government,” he told BusinessWest, adding that some of those the company had to lay off at the end of last season have opted not to come back when offered the chance, instead choosing to collect unemployment. “But there’s a general lack of people out there in the labor force who want to work hard, like in the trade we’re in, the landscaping business. A lot of people want to sit beyond a computer screen and punch a keyboard all day.”

Historically, the company, like others in this sector, has relied heavily on legal immigrants, many from Mexico and Guatemala, he said, adding that even this pipeline has become less reliable in recent years.

As a result of this ongoing challenge, he said the company has changed the way it compensates employees, with the goal of attracting and retaining better candidates. By and large, it’s a strategy that has worked, although this year, given the many additional COVID-related challenges and responses within the industry, it is certainly being tested.

“We’re probably one of the higher-paying landscape contractors in the area,” said Omasta, whose company handles a number of large commercial accounts and municipal facilities, such as the recently reopened Pynchon Plaza in downtown Springfield, as well as residential customers. “We do that because we try to attract better people and keep those people here. Paying that higher hourly wage makes a difference in the people that we’re able to find, keep, and employ.”

Corrigan, who can certainly relate to all that, said his company hired someone to handle recruiting full-time just before COVID hit. To say her job has become difficult, and frustrating, in the wake of the pandemic and the various stimulus packages would be an understatement.

“She’s at her wit’s end with people right now,” he said, adding that, between a hesitancy to work among many people and drug tests often standing in the way of those do want to work, the talent pool has become increasingly smaller.

Chad Jzyk

Chad Jzyk

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent.”

And this shrinking pool has definitely impacted Mountain View’s ability to expand the commercial side of its business and grow.

“We’ve had discussions — heated discussions — in our budgeting processes,” Corrigan said. “We ask ourselves, ‘how can you grow if you can’t get the help?’ And the obvious answer is, ‘you can’t.’”

 

The Job at Hand

It is that obvious answer that is keeping many business owners and managers awake at night.

Indeed, at a time when the challenges seem to be mounting for businesses of all sizes and in most all sectors — Omasta referenced the rising cost of materials such as lumber, still-escalating fuel prices, the specter of inflation, and the very real possibility of higher corporate taxes — finding good help is the one that poses the biggest threat to companies at a time when many are poised to break out from pandemic-induced doldrums.

What will happen between now and September, and even after September, remains to be seen, but it seems clear that these scary times, as Wise and others called them, are certainly far from over.

 

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

Employment Special Coverage

Remote Possibilities

Most of Big Y’s 11,000 employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, about 70% of them have worked remotely since the start of the pandemic.

“This past year, we learned that remote work can work, and it allows for a lot of flexibility for individuals,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at the supermarket chain. “That being said, we’re a company where we stress collaboration and teamwork, and that has definitely been a challenge at times. Meetings using technology are different than having in-person meetings. It definitely can work, but there are pros and cons to it.”

The company’s pandemic response team was quick to set up safety protocols last spring to protect the thousands of customer-facing, frontline employees, but it also set many employees up with the necessary technology to work from home, put together a best-practices guide for working remotely, and has carefully followed the public-health data to determine when to bring them back.

“As time has gone on, they’ve seen the productivity; they see that the work is getting done, customers are being served, and people are happy. Now they’re saying, ‘maybe we don’t need to have everyone in.”

One important finding? Productivity never flagged — which tracks with accounts from many other area employers over the past 12 months. Thus, many employers feel no rush to bring everyone back before the pandemic is in the rear view — and that poses a question no one expected last March: does every employee really have to come back? And what if they don’t want to?

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise says employers run the gamut when it comes to bringing back remote workers; some are anxious to do so, while others may see value in changing their model altogether.

Most employers last March thought shutdowns would last a couple months. But a year later, millions of workers are still working from home — and the result has been a national experiment with remote work that has borne some surprising data.

“It’s striking — we’re seeing a little bit of everything,” said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. “We have a number of companies — like manufacturers — that never shut down and had employees come in the whole time. And we have companies starting to have employees coming back on a sporadic basis — maybe not five days a week, but two or three days a week. Then others have said, ‘we aren’t even thinking about having employees back until later in the year.’”

One reason for that hesitancy is the fact that workers have not only adapted to remote work, but have, in most cases, been as productive as they were in the office. So employers are taking their time bringing them back, looking to state guidance and public-health metrics to guide decisions.

“As time has gone on, they’ve seen the productivity; they see that the work is getting done, customers are being served, and people are happy,” Wise said. “Now they’re saying, ‘maybe we don’t need to have everyone in.’”

UMassFive College Federal Credit Union is one example of that phenomenon.

“We moved about 60% of our workforce home last spring, and it continues to be that way,” said Craig Boivin, vice president of Marketing. “We’re developing plans and processes for what this will look like in the post-pandemic world, but we’re not looking to bring people back until the state says it’s safe for large groups to gather indoors.”

During the exodus from office to home last March, he recalled, “I won’t say it was chaotic, but we had to make a lot of quick decisions at the senior level to make sure everyone had the equipment and support they needed at home,” in addition to developing guidelines to ensure accountability and making sure everyone understood new (to them, anyway) communication tools like Zoom and Slack.

“We found there are some real positives with productivity and being able to shut off some of the distractions,” he went on.

Employees — especially those who have grown to appreciate working from home, and even prefer it — are thinking similar thoughts, and that may pose a problem of pushback at some companies when they try to bring their teams back in. For now, in most cases, there’s no rush, but those days won’t last forever.

 

National Conversation

The same story is playing out nationally, with some companies planning to remain 100% remote post-pandemic, while others — including big names like Microsoft — taking a hybrid approach, giving workers more flexibility about where they work. Other companies are clamoring to bring everyone back.

“I see a hybrid approach in the future, finding balance, again, between meeting the needs of the business and allowing people flexibility to take care of their home life.”

“It’s no longer, ‘do you offer remote work?’ but, ‘do you offer it with enough organizational support so I can be as successful as the people who work in the office?’” Andrew Hewitt, senior analyst at market research firm Forrester, told CNN recently. He expects about 60% of companies will offer a hybrid work model, while 30% of companies will be back in the office, and 10% will be fully remote.

Since last summer, Big Y’s support-center workers have been required to be on site at least one day a week, and the company continues to discuss internally what the full transition back will look like.

“Productivity has not been an issue,” Galat said. “But, with our company, the culture is a huge component of it. Collaborating and having discussions on Zoom … you can do that, but it’s not the same.”

By essentially being forced into a mode of flexibility since last March, he believes companies — including Big Y — have learned some important lessons going forward. “I see a hybrid approach in the future, finding balance, again, between meeting the needs of the business and allowing people flexibility to take care of their home life. It’s a constant discussion we’re having with the executive team about what’s working, what’s not working, and what this will look like in the future.”

The fact that the support center is not just an 8-to-5 operation, but requires coverage on nights and weekends, allows for some flexibility of schedules for workers juggling their kids’ remote learning or taking care of parents, he added. “We continue to take care of business, while allowing people the flexibility to take care of home needs as well.”

Another of the region’s largest employers, MassMutual, continues to keep a large swath of workers off campus, and is in the process of evaluating their return to the office, said Chelsea Haraty, communications consultant in Media Relations for the company.

Craig Boivin

Craig Boivin

“At a high level, we expect to have MassMutual employees return to our corporate offices in a slow, phased manner later this year,” she told BusinessWest. “We will continue to monitor and reassess that plan, factoring in a number of considerations — including guidance from medical experts and government officials, a sustained reduction in cases, broader availability of testing and vaccines, as well as our employees’ circumstances and comfort in returning.”

What employers are starting to understand, Wise said, is that employees are also weighing the pros and cons of coming back, and while some are eager, others would rather stay home, and may make that fact known.

“Employers have employees all over the spectrum — some want to get back into the office and don’t feel part of the team when they’re not. Others are saying, ‘I’m not sure I want to come back; I’m not sure about the cleaning protocols and sanitation protocols. Are people wearing masks? I’m not sure I’m comfortable in the office.’”

She noted that some companies are fine pushing those decisions into the future. “They’re saying, ‘things are going pretty smoothly; we don’t have quite as much water-cooler talk, not as much gossip going on, and people are really productive when they’re remote. We don’t have to have people come back to the office and incur the expense of coffee and bathroom supplies. Maybe we can cut some of our expenses.’”

Including some major expenses — most notably the office space itself. “Some of these companies have leases coming up in the next year, so they’re asking, ‘can I reduce my footprint? Do we need as much space as we have?’”

 

Back and Forth

On the other hand, Wise said, questions about workplace culture are very real. “Some companies are looking at their culture, their camaraderie, their teamwork, just the ability to walk down the hall and talk to somebody, and they want to get all their employees back in the office as soon as they can.”

She noted the importance of age-old rituals of the workplace, walking in the door at the start of the day and asking co-workers about their weekend, or their family, or whatever might be going on, whether it’s related to their jobs or not.

“How do you incorporate new personnel into the culture outside of the physical environment? That’s a big challenge.”

“When people are removed from an environment that really is a team, where you’ve gotten to know each other’s family situations and personal life, you really do lose that with a remote connection,” she said. “When people come into an office meeting, they sit down and chit-chat with the person next to them a little. It’s hard to recreate that on a Zoom meeting; you lose some of that personal connection.”

Boivin agreed. “The productivity piece seems to be working out pretty solidly now,” he told BusinessWest. “At the same time, the collaborative, in-person aspect is missed.”

One big topic of conversation is new-employee onboarding, he said, noting that orientation is conducted in person, and video communications are a regular reality, but he wonders if that’s enough to keep them engaged.

Mike Galat

Mike Galat

“I have a new graphic designer in the Marketing department who started at the end of August. She’s been [physically] at UMassFive for just a day or two. How do you incorporate new personnel into the culture outside of the physical environment? That’s a big challenge.”

Also challenging is the way boundaries between work and personal life have blurred, whether it’s juggling job responsibilities with helping kids with remote schoolwork, or simply working too many hours.

“Productivity is up,” Wise said, “but some of it is putting in longer hours — rolling out of bed, having breakfast, and getting right to work instead of commuting, and then at 5, instead of getting in the car and driving home to fix dinner, they keep working. Something we’ve heard is that people need to build in some transition time so they don’t start working at 7 and quit at 6.”

Whatever the reason, many employees will be more than happy to return to the pre-pandemic work world.

“Now that we’re going on a year, a lot of people are saying, ‘I thought I wanted this, but I really want to be back in the office — maybe not five days a week for 52 weeks a year, but maybe in the office three days and at home two days,” she added. “A lot of employees are saying, ‘this isn’t what I thought it was going to be — I need to be back around people; I need to have boundaries by being back in the office.’”

Each industry is different, too, Wise added. For example, companies where creativity is crucial, like marketing firms, probably find it easier to brainstorm when people are together in one physical space, able to immediately bounce ideas off one another.

“I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all answer that’s going to fit every organization,” she said. “My guess would be a lot of manufacturers, since they have individuals on the floor who have to be at work, are going to be less likely to have their office staff remain totally remote because that creates an us-and-them mentality. But some other organizations will allow many people to stay totally remote, or there may be that hybrid of people working in the office and then from home.”

Galat agreed, adding that that he’s heard of some companies staying fully remote, but most seem to be moving toward a hybrid approach — which speaks to one way COVID-19 may have permanently altered the American workplace.

“We’ve learned a lot through the year,” he said. “We miss that component of teamwork and collaboration; not having that makes it more challenging. But I think the hybrid approach might be the approach we look at going forward. We’ll evaluate and fine-tune it as we go.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Economic Outlook

Higher Ground

Scott Foster says small cannabis businesses are being assailed with offers from large, out-of-state players.

The cannabis industry is in full swing in Massachusetts, with about three dozen dispensaries currently selling products for recreational and medicinal use — about a third of them in Western Mass. — not to mention cultivators, product developers, and a host of other related enterprises.

With 17% of cannabis sales going back to the state as taxes, and communities collecting at least 3% more — usually higher — it’s easy to recognize the financial impact.

But Scott Foster says said it’s important to remember the jobs being generated.

“You can get good employment in this field. A shop might have 20-plus employees working there,” said Foster, a partner at Bulkley Richardson, the Springfield-based law firm that launched a specialty cannabis practice last year to provide guidance for individuals, companies, and municipalities entering this very young industry. “These aren’t small businesses in the sense of 200 or 300 employees, but it’s not just four or five people working, either. It’s a pretty steady base of employment.”

And it adds up, said Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC), which recently launched a Cannabis Education Center to provide needed training and resources for people who want to enter this burgeoning industry.

“In Holyoke, 13 companies have applied for 21 different licenses,” Hayden told BusinessWest. “At present, 50 to 75 people are employed in cannabis-related businesses in Holyoke, but the anticipation is, within a year or two, that will be in the range of 400 to 500 people. It’s potentially a significant occupational opportunity for people. And if Holyoke is looking at 400 to 500, what is Springfield looking at? What about Northampton, Easthampton, Chicopee?”

This career potential is what inspired HCC to partner with the Worcester-based Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) on the Cannabis Education Center.

“In Holyoke, 13 companies have applied for 21 different licenses. At present, 50 to 75 people are employed in cannabis-related businesses in Holyoke, but the anticipation is, within a year or two, that will be in the range of 400 to 500 people.”

“At HCC, we focus on what kinds of job skills people need in order to get jobs, whether entry-level or skills to do their job better. The fact that there is so much potential in this new industry in Massachusetts piqued my interest.”

No economic outlook is complete without touching on the early expansion of the cannabis industry in Massachusetts — and its immense promise for further growth, especially as dozens more shops plan to open their doors in 2020. Whether they’ll be able to maintain the sector’s early momentum remains to be seen — but most analysts agree the potential is certainly there.

On Fire

Foster recently came across an article that listed cannabis among the top four new legal practice areas, among heavyweights like cybersecurity.

“It’s interesting that cannabis has become a front-and-center legal issue across all the U.S., not just Massachusetts,” he said. “It’s becoming more recognized as a legitimate industry. Even though federal law hasn’t changed, it seems to be moving in that direction.”

Indeed, with Illinois joining the list this month, 11 states have now legalized recreational marijuana, and 19 others allow medicinal marijuana. With others set to follow this year, it’s not hard to imagine an eventual shift at the federal level, even if that doesn’t appear imminent.

As one step in that direction, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in 2019 allowing banks to handle marijuana accounts; currently, most cannabis businesses are all-cash enterprises since they can’t use banks.

“Will banks ever start lending to the industry?” Foster asked. “I think yes, but most people in the industry think it probably won’t be in 2020. Maybe, but probably not. They’re expecting it to stall in the Senate, and Washington is occupied at the moment with lots of other stuff.”

For now, communities that have embraced this new world — like Holyoke, which is starting to fill its former mills along the canals with a mix of cannabis-related businesses — appreciate the additional tax revenue and retail traffic in town, but also, as Hayden notes, those jobs.

“Will cannabis provide thousands of jobs, like the state has predicted? Who knows, but 300, 400, 500 new jobs is significant,” he said. “More than 90% of the businesses in the Valley are small businesses — not by the definition of the Small Business Association, with 500 employees or fewer, but with 50 or fewer.”

Collectively, that’s a lot of positions to fill, especially as more of those small businesses come online.

“This is like any other business in the sense that they need people ready to work and have some skills to do the jobs they want to hire for,” Hayden said. “The more we can work as a community college on skills training that gets people ready for work, the better.”

In many cases, shops are hiring people who may face skill barriers to other types of employment; it’s a relatively even playing field in that, because the industry is so new, almost everyone needs training. HCC’s Cannabis Education Center is doing its part, both through courses and one-day programs like an upcoming workshop series on planning and starting a cannabis business, as well as getting into medical marijuana.

“Our goal is to get people into jobs, but in the context of a career,” Hayden said. “A job is a great thing, but if it’s just a 15- or 20-hour job, that’s not going to support you or your family for long. We want to get people on a career pathway through skills training.”

For example, he went on, “in cultivation, someone might come in trimming plants, working with growers, learning what the process is, and might become a cultivation technician, an assistant grower, even a master grower. There are definitely steps along the way to get not just a job, but a career in cannabis.”

Maturing Industry

Foster said he doesn’t have a crystal ball when it comes to the cannabis industry, but he does have his eye on some intriguing trends.

“We’re already seeing consolidation. Many of our clients are receiving unsolicited offers to buy them out. They’re not actively soliciting offers; people are contacting them. It’s mostly out-of-state money — and it’s not small money. That will be interesting to see, if the industry changes from being completely locally owned to being owned by out-of-state players, creating national cannabis businesses.”

Another murky area right now is the effectiveness of the state’s social-equity piece, which aims to provide priority access, training, and technical assistance to individuals and communities negatively affected by the drug war — a key target audience for HCC’s training efforts. “That’s another big unknown which may get some clarity in 2020,” Foster said.

What is clear is that the market, as it stands now, is humming along — and creating those jobs.

“All the folks I’m seeing are still trying to keep up with customer demand. At least from what I’m hearing, competition hasn’t slowed business. Will that change if New York and Connecticut were to legalize? Possibly,” he noted, citing casinos as a case study; there’s no doubt Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have lost some business to their northern neighbor since the Bay State got into that business. “But for the moment, Massachusetts is the only game in town when it comes to cannabis.”

It’s a game with lofty goals and an uncertain — but undoubtedly promising — future.

“It’s a maturing industry,” Foster said. “So it’s going to have maturing-industry challenges.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Uncategorized

This Agency Gets IT

Anthony Ciak and Jackie Fallon say building relationships with clients and candidates is key to finding the right fit for both parties.

Finding the right candidate for a job can be a difficult task. In the tech industry, finding someone who not only has the technical skills, but also the right personality for the position, is especially challenging. That’s why FIT Staffing was established — to help companies find the right people to fill these positions, and keep them for the long haul.

Putting a square peg into a round hole just doesn’t work out.

Jackie Fallon says this goes for putting people in jobs as well. If a candidate is not the right fit for a position, things won’t work out in the long run.

Unfortunately, she says many large staffing companies habitually try to do just that — make people fit in positions where they aren’t meant to be in order to increase their numbers and help their bottom lines.

This is one of the reasons why Fallon started FIT Solutions, a technology-focused staffing company that digs deeper — much deeper — to find the right fit, for clients and candidates alike.

Fallon, president of the company, is a former engineer and employee at one of those larger staffing companies. She told BuisnessWest that she started FIT back in 2004 because she felt the Western Mass. area was underserved by the national staffing companies, and that smaller organizations that had IT needs were being overlooked.

So, she went into business for herself to change that.

“We don’t want to put people in positions that they’re not going to be successful at. We take a good, long time with our candidates and assessing what they want to do.”

The mission at FIT Solutions is to provide value to both candidates — those seeking jobs in technology, and the company’s commercial clients, those seeking employees for their open technology positions — and to do it in a thorough manner.

“We don’t want to put people in positions that they’re not going to be successful at,” said Fallon. “We take a good, long time with our candidates and assessing what they want to do.”

Division Manager Anthony Ciak emphasized the difference between FIT and larger staffing companies, adding that creating a solid fit requires more than simply looking at what’s on paper to figure out where a person might belong.

“I think that, with the larger staffing companies, maybe moreso in the IT space, it’s all about numbers,” he said. “They want to get quick placement to get numbers up, and, in the long run, that really doesn’t help anyone.”

He maintains that finding the perfect match always goes well beyond just the technical skills a candidate has. It comes down to finding the right culture and personality fit.

“Tech skills aside, sometimes it’s more about putting a hiring manager and a candidate in the same room and seeing how the sparks fly,” said Ciak, adding that good communication and chemistry are big parts of the process. “What a lot of people are looking for is a good teammate.”

One of the most common stereotypes surrounding those in the tech industry is that people are unsocial and unwilling to interact with others, but Ciak says the opposite is true, and clients look for someone who will work well with their teams.

That’s why FIT focuses on forming long-term relationships with candidates and clients so they can find the right fit for both parties.

Tech Talk

In fact, all this is spelled out loud and clear in the mission statement of the company: “to provide industry insight alongside quality staffing solutions delivered with sincerity, trust, and friendliness for our partners and candidates.”

“Our goal going into a chat with a candidate is to let them know that it’s not just about the job we might be talking about at that moment,” Ciak said. “It’s building a foundation for that opportunity and then anything else further down the line.”

In order to fill positions for clients, those at FIT often reach out to candidates they talked to months or maybe years ago. A suitable fit may not have been found back then, said Fallon, but candidates remember the service they received and are generally happy to come back for another try.

“I think that, with the larger staffing companies, maybe moreso in the IT space, it’s all about numbers. They want to get quick placement to get numbers up, and, in the long run, that really doesn’t help anyone.”

“We go back to the candidates we already have in the pipeline,” she said. “That’s our goal, to get people that we’ve already met, and we already understand what they’re looking for and make that match.”

She added that, frankly, the candidates who have résumés out on job sites like Monster or Dice are being pursued by everyone else in the industry, making it more difficult to reach them.

One thing Fallon hopes will help expand the company’s candidate pool is its recent merger with Marathon Staffing, a $70 million regional agency. Despite the reputation national staffing agencies have, she’s confident that it will help bring more more resources into the Western Mass. area.

“It gives us more bandwidth as far as options with our candidates,” she explained, adding that Marathon didn’t have an IT division, which is where FIT comes in.

Another attribute that helps FIT stand out from competition is its vetting process. Fallon said one of the best compliments the company has ever received came from a hiring manager who told her that, whenever they get a résumé from her, they know it’s a good candidate.

To explain the significance of this for the company, Ciak recalls the story of a client who was looking to fill a position at its location in Franklin County. Geographically, those at this firm knew they were going to have a harder time filling the position because of its location, and after a few months of frustration went by, they had to get creative and think outside the box.

They reached out to a female candidate who — on paper, anyway — had progressed into a few other roles that weren’t directly related to the job they needed to fill. But when FIT reached out to her, they found out that she wanted to get back into that kind of position.

When they presented her as a candidate, the decision maker for the client was reluctant to meet her. But FIT didn’t give up.

“We had a conversation with the hiring manager about trying to help them understand why we felt this person may be a good fit for the role,” said Ciak, adding that the decision maker agreed to a phone call with the candidate. As it turns out, they found she was a perfect match for what they were looking for.

“I think it was a good example of how it wasn’t about what was on the résumé … it was about a lot of the stuff in between the lines,” Ciak said. “Yes, they have to be able to do the job technically, but it’s so much more than that.”

Quality over Quantity

Using this operating mindset, the company has sustained a significant pool of candidates to reach out to, including a database of roughly 20,000 people. And it is constantly looking to make this pool even wider and deeper.

As just one example, the team recently visited Western New England University’s computer science club to talk to the seniors and other students about job opportunities in the area, how to go about looking for a job, interview preparation, salary information, and more. They also attend job summits, workshops, and other similar events to not only be a presence in the community, but also to ensure that they are constantly learning in an ever-changing industry.

“The more that we’re aware of how things are changing, the more we can impress on the candidate the importance of keeping up with technologies, too,” Ciak noted. “A lot of our clients expect the same. They expect folks to keep up with the latest and greatest and to stay educated and to challenge themselves with new technology.”

This, along with a mission to find the right fit for a candidate and client, is what makes FIT Solutions stand out from the competition. It’s what landed them on the ITS63 list as the only Western Mass. vendor, and it’s also what keeps clients and candidates in the area staffed and employed.

“It really comes back to providing value to our candidates and our clients,” Fallon said, “and being a trusted adviser to both of them.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Closing the Skills Gap

Caron Hobin says Strategic Alliances can help fill skills gaps that exist in the region’s workforce.

The ever-changing workforce environment is a continuous challenge for employers seeking qualified people to fill their positions.

However, not all employers are looking for people with a college degree. In fact, the World Economic Forum reported recently that skills are in higher demand in the labor market than occupations and degrees.

This is one of the many reasons why Bay Path University started a new division on campus — Strategic Alliances, which provides customized training and learning experiences for area employees, as well as the latest online certifications and recertifications.

Caron Hobin, Bay Path’s vice president of Strategic Alliances, said the goal for this new division is a direct reflection of the overall mission of what was then Bay Path Institute when it was founded in 1897. And that is to always be attentive to the needs of the employers in the region and to make sure the university is preparing prospective employees to succeed in the workplace.

“That’s what I see our division doing here in an authentic way,” said Hobin, adding that this initiative strives to help employers target areas of recognized need through specialized training. Whether the focus is on cultivating emotional intelligence, working in teams, storytelling for success, or any other topic a company may need help with, Strategic Alliances uses carefully selected faculty from Bay Path as well as practitioners who have expertise in the topic to create programs that address these issues.

“Time is always of the essence, money is critical, so how do you provide training, and how do you help close the skills gap that employers say is definitely an issue out there?” said Hobin. “We do discovery sessions with companies and prospective clients, and we listen to what they are looking for, and then we create customized programs to meet their needs.”

She said these trainings may last anywhere from a few hours to weeks or months; however, she does her best to encourage companies to choose a lengthier program in order to get the most out of the experience, noting that, if the goal is changed behavior, employers aren’t going to get it with a one-hour training.

Longmeadow-based Glenmeadow, which provides of variety of senior-living options, is one of about a dozen clients of Strategic Alliances. It recently completed a six-month leadership academy for all its managers.

“They used a best-practice model for adult learning, which is learning something new and then putting it into practice,” said Hobin. “It’s not theory; it’s not just a couple of hours, then you’re done. You go through an intensive training.”

“We do discovery sessions with companies and prospective clients, and we listen to what they are looking for, and then we create customized programs to meet their needs.”

Anne Miller, Glenmeadow’s vice president of Operations, scheduled six training sessions with Strategic Alliances for 20 managers at the facility, with each three-hour session going into detail on specific topics, with the aim of improving overall leadership skills. After each training session, Miller put together breakout sessions held at Glenmeadow that helped her employees apply what they learned from the trainings.

“We wanted to do some things that reinforced some of the training or actually made it come to life a bit,” Miller told BusinessWest, adding that post-training sessions are important in order to help with retaining and applying what’s been learned.

These training sessions, conducted by a host of individuals from Bay Path, covered a wide array of topics ranging from how to de-stress to how to complete a good performance review, which Miller said are critically important for customer-service purposes within the many aspects of Glenmeadow’s broad business portfolio.

“I think it set a good base for us to continue the learning,” she said.

Interactive Approach

Glenmeadow’s case provides a perfect example of how Strategic Alliances works and why it was created, said Hobin, adding that, today, adult learners not only want to learn new information, but they want interactive, applied learning that goes along with it.

So, after the initial presentation session, Strategic Alliances hosts a practice session, where participants take the training they’ve received and apply it using strategies like role play in order to engage the employees.

Hobin said this training, coupled with ongoing work to determine specific needs among industry sectors and specific businesses, helps Strategic Alliances tweak its customized programs. And it also helps Bay Path when it comes to teaching students in its classrooms.

“We recognize that, with declining numbers of high-school graduates and with just a changing work environment going forward, we are going to need to find new markets,” she said, referring to the need to improve the skills of those already in the workplace and those seeking to advance within the workforce. “We can tell you very concretely that these are the skill sets that employers are looking for.”

Bay Path also partners with MindEdge, a provider of online continuing-education courses, to deliver various certifications and recertifications to any interested student or employee. When Bay Path launched its American Women’s College, its online degree program, Hobin said, she was hearing that more and more employers were not necessarily interested in people having a degree, but rather specific skill sets and certifications.

She hopes this will encourage students to get a professional certification before graduation, and she has a specific goal for the future — to have every Bay Path student complete a certification before they graduate.

For now, Hobin said Bay Path is implementing several strategies to reach out to the community, improve the visibility of Strategic Alliances, and build relationships with area business and economic-development-related agencies.

In addition to being a member of several local chambers of commerce, Strategic Alliances hosts virtual roundtables which provides viewers with a free, one-hour training course on various topics, which Hobin said have brought in many interested companies. These videos host a panel of professionals in the field and have focused on topics including using one’s power voice, having difficult conversations in the workplace, and diversity and inclusion.

Overall, Hobin wants Strategic Alliances to be a resource for the region, its business community, and individuals who want to be better-equipped to succeed in an ever-changing workplace.

“We’re here,” she said. “We’re interested in innovative approaches to professional development going forward.”

— Kayla Ebner

Opinion

Editorial

It’s certainly nothing new.

Workforce issues have long been a stern challenge for this region’s manufacturers, and especially its precision machine shops. Companies have long struggled to not only gain the attention of young people and their parents, but also convince them that manufacturing has a solid future in this region and is something they should be part of.

Like we said, that’s nothing new, nor are many forms of response to this problem, everything from bringing students on tours of plants (and their parking lots so young people can see what their solid wages can buy) to improving salaries and benefits, to plant owners going to area schools and making students aware of what they make, how, and why they should consider becoming part of that team.

But this problem is reaching what might be called a critical stage. Indeed, a recent survey of about 40 area precision manufacturers revealed that, at the rate they’re growing — and the rate machinists currently on the floor are retiring — they will need to hire more than 500 over the next few years.

Extrapolate that number over the entire sector, and the need is roughly three times that number. Meanwhile, over that same period, the region’s technical and vocational high schools and Springfield Technical Community College will graduate only about 300 people from their manufacturing programs.

You can do the math.

This is a problem not without real consequences. Area machine shops are very busy at the moment, especially with aerospace, defense, medical devices, and other work, and projections are that things will stay hot for the foreseeable future. Many companies say they have the potential to grow, but what’s holding them back is finding enough talented people.

As the story explains, BusinessWest is now taking an active role in work to find a lasting solution to this problem with a new publication called Cool STUFF Made in Western Mass. That name itself is a nod to the specific target audience for this publication — young people, as in students in high school and even (make that especially) middle school.

Many of them don’t know about the many cool things made in this region — the list includes everything from golf balls to the paper for the Super Bowl program; from parts for attack helicopters and night-vision goggles to components for artificial limbs. And they also don’t know that the jobs making all these things are those proverbial good jobs with good wages and benefits, the kind of wages and benefits that can lead to a comfortable lifestyle, especially in an affordable region like Western Mass.

Cool STUFF is intended to help make them aware. It will include profiles of many area companies, complete with the thoughts of young people now working for them, individuals who were in high school only a few years ago themselves. It will also include many facts, figures, charts, and graphs designed to bring home the point that manufacturing is a solid option and a solid career.

Sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and MassDevelopment, Cool STUFF will be distributed at area high schools with tech programs, middle schools, workforce-development offices, area employers and other locations, and BusinessWest subscribers.

It is intended to inform, but also to inspire the next generation of manufacturing employees. With their help, a sector that has a long and proud past can also have a secure future.

Banking and Financial Services

Giving Some Insight

By Terri Judycki

Terri Judycki, CPA, MST

Terri Judycki, CPA, MST

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has resulted in many changes for taxpayers. One area in particular is charitable giving.

For those who regularly make charitable contributions, changing philanthropic giving habits may result in greater tax benefits. This article will explore various strategies for maximizing the tax benefit of charitable giving under the new law.

The TCJA increases the standard deduction to $12,000 for a single taxpayer and $24,000 for a married couple filing a joint tax return. In addition, the itemized deduction for taxes has been capped at $10,000 for all combined state and local tax payments. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that these changes will reduce the number of taxpayers who itemize deductions by more than half.

To maximize the benefit of the higher standard deduction, consider bunching charitable contributions in alternating years. For example, if a married couple with no mortgage ordinarily gives $12,000 to charity each year, they will likely take advantage of the $24,000 standard deduction ($12,000 to charity plus $10,000 in state and local states is less than the $24,000 standard deduction). If, instead, they give $24,000 every other year, they will use the $24,000 standard deduction in the ‘off’ year and $34,000 in itemized deductions in the year with the gifts ($24,000 charitable contributions plus $10,000 state and local taxes), resulting in lower taxable income without any increase in cash expenditures.

From the charity’s perspective, though, this could leave some budget challenges.

Another way to bunch deductions without bunching the charities’ income is through the use of a donor-advised fund (DAF). DAFs are funds controlled by 501(c)(3) organizations in which the person establishing the fund has advisory privileges as to the ultimate distribution to charities.

In our example above, the married couple might establish a DAF with $24,000 in one year and direct or ‘advise’ that donations be made to specific charities over time. Amounts used to establish the DAF are deductible charitable contributions when transferred to the sponsoring organization.

“For those who regularly make charitable contributions, changing philanthropic giving habits may result in greater tax benefits.”

Whether the idea of bunching appeals to you or not, don’t overlook the benefits of gifting appreciated stock to charity. The stock must have been held for more than a year to take advantage of this planning opportunity. The charitable deduction is the fair market value on the date gifted. Gifting the stock instead of cash avoids income tax on the appreciation.

For example, if a taxpayer wants to make a gift of $10,000 to a charity and sells stock worth $10,000 for which he paid $7,000, he would have a $10,000 deduction and $3,000 taxable gain. If, instead, he directs his broker to transfer the stock to the charity, he is still entitled to a $10,000 deduction, but does not report the $3,000 gain.

Finally, taxpayers age 70½ or older have another option available. An individual who is 70½ or older on the transfer date can direct the trustee of his IRA to distribute directly to a qualified public charity. The distribution is called a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). The amount transferred counts as a distribution for purposes of meeting the minimum distribution requirement but is not included in the taxpayer’s income.

There are a few requirements. The charity cannot be a private foundation or a donor-advised fund. No more than $100,000 can be donated by an account owner each year. The gift to the charity must be one that would have been entirely deductible if made from the taxpayer’s other assets — for example, the donor should obtain adequate substantiation from the charity, and the donation should not be one that entitles the donor to attend a dinner, play golf, or receive any other benefit.

In our example above, the couple who makes a QCD from IRAs for the $12,000 each year reduces taxable income by $12,000 and still uses the standard deduction.

Another possible advantage is the effect the reduction may have on other taxable items. Depending on the taxpayer’s total income, reducing adjusted gross income could result in reduction of the amount of Social Security benefits that are taxed, an allowed loss from certain real-estate rentals, or a reduction in the net investment income tax (if the amount of excess AGI exceeds the net investment income).

Reducing income may also result in lower Medicare premiums that are based on income for higher-income taxpayers. In addition, some states do not provide deductions for charitable donations, but do follow the federal treatment of excluding the QCD from income.

These changes may result in tax savings that could be used to make an even larger donation to a favorite charity.

Terri Judycki is a senior tax manager with the Holyoke-based public accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 322-3510; [email protected]

MGM Springfield

In Good Company

Editor’s Note: From the start, one of the main focal points of the discussion involving MGM Springfield has been the employment opportunities it will bring to the region. Overall, MGM has had to fill roughly 3,000 positions, and it’s filled most of them with residents of the 413. With each job awarded, there is a story. Here are five of them:

Karisma Roach

Karisma Roach

Name: Karisma Roach
Age: 24
Residence: Springfield
Position: Cage Cashier

Why did you seek employment at MGM Springfield?:

I’ve been looking for a better job opportunity for so long and it is finally here. When I came from St. Thomas a couple years ago I never thought I would have the opportunity to build my career at such an amazing company.”

What does this opportunity mean for you?:

This feels just like a dream come true. This is my first full-time and steady job. I remember I cried when I got the position, because I really needed it. I have no words to describe how I feel. But I feel like I’m part of MGM Springfield. I love the management and the staff.”

 

Keishla Morales

Keishla Morales

Name: Keishla Morales
Age: 21
Residence: Springfield
Position: Table Games Dealer

Why did you seek employment at MGM Springfield?:

First of all, I think that MGM is one of the biggest companies worldwide, but most of all in United States. I am taking advantage of the opportunity of working for the first casino at Springfield. This is my reward for all my hard-work successfully completing the Blackjack and Carnival Games courses at MCCTI.”

What does this opportunity mean for you?:

This opportunity means EVERYTHING to me. I have never gambled before, but now I love dealing cards. I’m thankful for all the instructors that helped me out in the process. I’ve had so many struggles in my short life, but being part of this company makes me feel that I can finally take control and secure my future. It makes me feel that I will be able to raise and provide my daughter everything she needs. I’m very happy to finally be here. I look forward to being in the casino life and meet all my co-workers. This experience makes me feel excited, comfortable, but most of all thankful.”

Miguel Figueroa

Miguel Figueroa

Name: Miguel Figueroa
Age: 43
Residence: Longmeadow
Position: Executive Chef at TAP Sports Bar

Why did you seek employment at MGM Springfield?:

I saw the opportunity to grow and the stability the company provides. It’s exciting to grow a concept like TAP. I’m very lucky to lead an outlet like this. I’ve been to Vegas a few times, and I thought it would be great to have something like that in Springfield. It was a no-brainer when I was asked to join the team.”

What does this opportunity mean for you?:

This means a lot. It solidifies that I have made it far, and my hard work has paid off. Running this operation means the world to me, and gives me a sense of pride. Leading one of the outlets the casino has is the ultimate goal as a chef. It separates the good from the great. I feel like I have arrived.

Timothy Mock

Timothy Mock

Name: Timothy Mock
Age: 40
Residence: Connecticut (Moving to Springfield)
Position: Security Officer

Why did you seek employment at MGM Springfield?:

I wanted to be a part of the SHOW. I am a people person, and I love helping people. I wanted to meet different types of people from all different cultures, and MGM provides that. I wanted to be a part of it all.”

What does this opportunity mean for you?:

Working here allows me to be me. I’m fun-loving, outgoing, and I love life. This is who I am. I appreciate MGM for giving me this opportunity. It’s dear to my heart. Being chosen to be a part of this family is very special, and I get to embark on this journey of my life.

Jonathan De Arce

Jonathan De Arce

Name: Jonathan De Arce
Age: 32
Residence: Springfield
Position: Executive chef for the South End Market

Why did you seek employment at MGM Springfield?:

Because I’m from Springfield! I heard about this property since the beginning. I went to Boston for five years, I gained experience, and as soon as I knew that this was real I knew it was my opportunity to come back. I know what MGM Springfield means to the area, I’m aware of where this city has been, and excited about where it is going to be very soon.

What does this opportunity mean for you?:

It means everything! The possibilities are endless. Learning from all the leaders, being able to receive training in Vegas, visiting other properties, meeting all the Executives, this is definitely an eye opener! Sky is the limit!”

Law

Degrees of Improvement

By Kayla Ebner

Claudia Quintero was inspired by a lawyer who helped her — and now gets to do the same for others.

Claudia Quintero was inspired by a lawyer who helped her — and now gets to do the same for others.

In the years immediately following the Great Recession, many law-school graduates were challenged to find employment, let alone their dream job. But the picture is gradually improving, as evidenced by the experiences of recent graduates of Western New England University School of Law.

Claudia Quintero calls it her dream job.

That’s how she characterized the position she landed as a migrant/farmworkers staff attorney at the Central West Justice Center in downtown Springfield.

It’s a dream job, because she’s doing essentially what she always wanted to do and what she went to Western New England University School of Law to do — help people, but especially in the same way that an attorney helped her when she was 16 years old.

She met an attorney through a legal-services program in Los Angeles, where she grew up, who helped her apply for and obtain her permanent residence in just five short months. Quintero was always impressed and grateful for her own attorney’s diligence, and thought, “I want to be just like her.”

Like she said, hers is a dream job.

And those have been quite hard for law-school graduates to attain in recent years. In fact, for some time after the Great Recession, taking any job became the goal and, for most, a hard reality.

But the situation is improving, said Laura Fisher, director of Law Career Services at WNEU Law. She used the phrase “pretty steady” to describe the current climate, and while that’s a long way from ‘robust,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘solid,’ or other, more positive terms, it represents an improved picture and a better forecast for recent graduates.

“When the economy really took a hit in 2008 and 2009, every sector of the economy was disrupted, including law schools and law graduates,” said Fisher, adding, however, that “we’re seeing a rebound now.”

She offered some numbers to back up those words.

At WNEU Law, the class of 2017 graduated 101 students. According to data from the American Bar Assoc. (ABA), 43 of those graduates were employed at long-term, full-time, bar-passage-required jobs 10 months after graduation. Nineteen graduates were employed at what are known as ‘JD advantage jobs,’ meaning passage of the bar exam is not required, but that having a juris doctor degree provides a significant advantage.

Of the 101 graduates, eight were unemployed and seeking. Others were employed at both professional and non-professional positions or seeking a graduate degree full-time.

“The 10-month report for the class of 2017 indicates that the percentage of students with full-time, bar-passage-required, JD advantage, and other professional positions is 71.2%,” said Fisher. “This figure is approximately equivalent to, but slightly elevated, over the previous year, which was 68.9%.”

Laura Fisher

Laura Fisher

The ABA gathered that, nationally, 75.3% of the class of 2017 had long-term, full-time jobs requiring or preferring JDs. This is an increase from the previous year’s sum of 72.6%. However, the ABA credits the higher percentage of employment to “an approximately 6% decrease in the size of graduating classes at law schools nationally” (more on that later).

“When the economy really took a hit in 2008 and 2009, every sector of the economy was disrupted, including law schools and law graduates. We’re seeing a rebound now.”

Slicing through all those numbers, Fisher sees an improving job market and more opportunities for the school’s graduates — in the field of law, but also other sectors where a law degree is quite valuable, and these sentiments are reflected in the experiences of some of WNEU’s recent graduates, like Quintero.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked with Fisher and several recent graduates to get some barometric readings on the job market and where a law degree can take someone these days. For many, their landing spot was, in fact, a dream job.

Cases in Point

In 2013, the graduating class at WNEU included 133 students, said Fisher, summoning more numbers to get her points across. At that time, 49 students were employed at long-term, full-time, bar-passage-required jobs.

Although the class size at WNEU has decreased since then, Fisher said this is entirely by design. She noted that WNEU, along with other schools, are keeping the class sizes at “a reasonable size that’s reflective of what the market entails.”

Daniel carey

Daniel carey

Despite smaller class sizes, Fisher believes these numbers do not reflect a lack of opportunity in the job market.

“Although the market out there still feels pretty flat and we’re being careful about the number of law students we’re producing, I still feel like there’s plenty of opportunity out there,” she said. “Our alumni go on to do wonderful things.”

“Law school to me seemed like a natural way to really combine a lot of my interests and abilities. I’ve always kind of viewed the law as a way to help people.”

And she used that phrase to describe work both inside and outside the courtroom.

Daniel Carey, assistant district attorney (ADA) at the Northwestern District Attorney’s office and WNEU Law class of 2017 graduate, fits into both categories.

“Law school to me seemed like a natural way to really combine a lot of my interests and abilities,” said Carey. “I’ve always kind of viewed the law as a way to help people.”

Beginning law school in 2013, he was looking for a way to get his foot in the door, so he applied for a job at the DA’s office. He landed one as district court administrator, working behind-the-scenes to help the ADAs. He’s been there ever since, but has continued to move his way up. Since starting his role as ADA, Carey has served as director of the Drug Diversion and Treatment program for two years, a new initiative he helped launch for people struggling with addiction. It assists with treatment, rather than putting people through traditional criminal-justice prosecution.

In addition to his role at the DA’s office, he also served on the Easthampton School Committee and was elected to the Easthampton City Council. And he’s currently running for state representative — a significant change in career-path course from his original plan of being a high-school English teacher.

He is not the only one who was initially unaware of where a law career could take them. Nicole Mule, another member of WNEU’s class of 2017, did not know she was interested in law until she took classes during her time as an undergrad.

Nicole Mule

Nicole Mule

With a major in criminal justice and a minor in communication at the University of New Haven, she was required to take several law courses that were taught by lawyers. She mentioned that the classes were taught very much like they are in law school.

“It made me realize why advocating for businesses was so important. As an attorney, I can have a significant effect on my clients’ businesses for their benefit.”

“After that, I was hooked,” she told BusinessWest.

When in law school, she noted that she did not put all her focus into one practice area, and eventually gravitated toward employment law. In 2016, she accepted a summer position with the firm Robinson+Cole, which has offices in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and several other states, and was offered a job.

She’s currently an associate in the firm’s labor and employment group, representing both public-and private-sector employers in a variety of labor and employment matters.

Both of her jobs during law school helped her realize her love for this profession.

“It made me realize why advocating for businesses was so important,” said Mule. “As an attorney, I can have a significant effect on my clients’ businesses for their benefit.”

Firm Resolve

Both Carey and Mule graduated with law degrees but have gone on to completely different professions. This wide variety of career options is another reason why the job market for law school graduates is doing better than it was 10 years ago.

For Caroline Montiel, another 2017 graduate from WNEU, combining two of her biggest passions was important, and she was able to find the perfect fit.

She completed her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering, and after receiving some inspiration from her host dad while studying abroad in Spain, she decided to get her law degree. However, Montiel had a different experience than some of her peers while applying for jobs during law school.

“I was applying every week, at least one job a day,” said Montiel, adding that she applied to five jobs a weekend. For every 50 applications she filled out, she hoped to get one interview.

After she passed the bar exam, she began her career with a judicial clerkship in Connecticut Superior Court. In mid-June of this year, she began her new job as patent examiner at the Patent Trademark Office in Washington, D.C., working in the field she fell in love with during law school.

Much like Carey, Montiel, and Mule, Quintero completed several internships during her time at law school, including one with the people who helped her obtain permanent residency. She began applying for jobs during her third year of law school, and ended up sending in applications to about 10 jobs. Quintero’s strategy was simple: apply to places where she knew she would be happy.

“I was very picky about the kinds of jobs that I applied to just because I have a very specific thing that I want,” said Quintero. “I don’t like to divert energy or waste time doing things that I know I’m not going be happy doing.”

She got about three offers and ended up at Central West Justice Center. She said she was nervous that she wouldn’t get a job she wanted or that made her happy, but having a strong network was an important factor. Though it was a fairly seamless process for her, she noted that it took some of her friends much longer to find jobs.

“I was very cognizant that I was lucky,” she said.

There are certainly benefits to knowing what you want, and Montiel noted that having an idea of the type of career one wants to go into before starting law school can be very helpful.

Overall, Fisher said she sees that JD-advantage jobs are rising in popularity, both nationally and at WNEU. She noted that a lot more people are using their degrees for JD-advantage jobs in positions like higher education, data privacy, and security.

The JD-advantage sector is a route that students are becoming more interested in, she went on, not because there are fewer jobs elsewhere, but because they are interested in trying alternative paths.

Fisher mentioned that some students choose to opt out of the traditional path at a law firm because it can be stressful, and they want a good work/life balance.

Market Forces

Fisher wouldn’t say the market is booming for law-school grads — again, ‘steady’ was the word she chose, and she chose it carefully — but she does believe there are many opportunities out there in the legal job market because of how valuable it is to have a law degree in countless professions.

“A law degree is valuable far above and beyond how it can help you practice law,” said Fisher. “There’s a lot more you can do with it. Going through the process of learning how to think about laws and regulation and risk, I think all of that just lends itself to creating an employee who’s very aware, very mindful, and very responsible.”

For the graduates, that means a better chance of landing a dream job.

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