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Space Jam

By Mark Morris

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says he had to reschedule in-home jobs at the start of the pandemic until he could figure out how to do them safely.

For home builders in Western Mass., 2020 brought opportunity and challenge in equal measure.

For example, Nick Riley, owner of N. Riley Construction, said 2020 was his best year based on the number of projects, but COVID-19 posed obstacles to nearly all facets of the job. In fact, when the pandemic first arrived, he rescheduled all his in-home projects until he could learn how to safely do those jobs.

“We were fortunate that we had several new construction projects that kept us working until we could figure out the right way to get our in-home jobs done,” Riley said.

Other home builders shared similar stories of adjusting to a new reality on the fly.

When many industries were mandated to stop working back in March, home builders were deemed an essential business by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration. That was the right call, said Bill Laplante, president of Laplante Construction. “We had projects with critical work that needed to be completed so people, in some cases, could get back into their homes.”

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on.”

The builders who spoke with BusinessWest all construct new houses as well as additions and renovations to existing homes. On balance, they say, renovations and additions account for more business than new home construction.

“Most of the calls we get are from people who want to stay where they are, so many of them are looking to build additions or do a renovation,” said A.J. Crane, partner at A. Crane Construction.

Of course, staying put became nearly universal as COVID-19 mandates resulted in many people working from home. Even those who continued to work at their place of business found themselves at home more often because so many recreational activities and destinations had been curtailed or shut down.

And that posed opportunity for builders. As Laplante observed, the more time people spend at home, the more looking around they do. “They start thinking about adding a room or renovating part of the house to make their space more comfortable.”

In the age of COVID, that means builders must approach job sites differently than in the past. For starters, more people — both adults and children — are likely to be at home while the work is getting done. While workers follow screening protocols before going into the home and wear PPE once there, Laplante instructs his crews to isolate the work area from the residents as much as possible. That’s easy to do for additions and outside renovations, but some work is just more intrusive.

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on,” he said, adding that other projects were pushed off because customers were simply not yet comfortable with outside workers in their homes during the pandemic.

But enough homeowners were OK with their presence to generate a successful, if unusual, year for the home-building and renovation industry.

 

Slow-building Issues

Keeping work crews and homeowners safe was only one challenge builders faced due to COVID-19. In a normal year, the process of getting a permit for a new home or addition is fairly straightforward. Builders bring plans to the appropriate municipal office and pick up the permit a week or two later. As COVID-19 shifted city and town business to e-mails and Zoom calls, it delayed the permitting process — in some cases, for months.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop.”

Meanwhile, supply-chain shortages of common consumer goods such as toilet paper and cleaning products marked the early days of the pandemic. The manufacturing supply chain around the world was disrupted for many building products as well. Riley said appliances and electrical components such as circuit breakers were often delayed by as much as three or four months. As another example, Crane learned that window companies were having trouble getting glass.

“As a result, we were only getting three-fourths of the windows we ordered for a job,” he said. “This created a delay that frustrates the homeowner and puts a big dent into our profit margin.”

In short, COVID-19 kept people at home, they wanted to improve their space, creating high demand for building materials at a time when many manufacturers were already experiencing delays due to the coronavirus, resulting in shortages. And in the wake of those delays, price increases followed.

Andy Crane

Andy Crane says he wants to present a home show this year, but only if he can do so safely.

“We saw a 45% spike in the cost of building materials,” Laplante said. “That was difficult to deal with because we had jobs that were already under contract.”

Shortages of special-order or custom materials were no surprise to the builders, but everyday items were affected, too.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop,” Crane said.

While they acknowledge that delays, shortages, and price hikes will be here for the near term, all three builders are optimistic about 2021. Because mortgage interest rates remain at historic lows, Riley does not expect a slowdown anytime soon. “For 2021, our company is operating full steam ahead for both new construction and remodeling projects.”

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office. I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

One challenge going forward, he noted, is finding property in Western Mass. to purchase at a reasonable price where he can make a profit on new construction.

For 2021, Laplante has plenty of new construction and renovation projects in the pipeline both in Western Mass. and on Cape Cod, where he recently opened a satellite office.

“We’ve always done work on the Cape, but this is the first year we made it official with an office,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of activity and opportunity there.”

Expanding to Cape Cod is a bet Laplante is willing to make because he believes that the pandemic has severely shifted consumer trends. As he sees it, the people who would have sought out exotic travel to places like Europe are now spending their money on their home or investing in a vacation home close to where they live.

 

On with the Show?

For 66 years, hundreds of home projects started with a tour of the Western Mass Home and Garden Show held in late March on the Big E fairgrounds. In 2020, the show was canceled for the first time in its history as the initial wave of COVID-19 swept across Massachusetts just before the event.

Will there be a show in 2021? Andrew Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts, faces a common dilemma in this time of COVID-19: there is plenty of interest in holding the show, but no one knows if conditions will allow it to take place.

“When things clear up and people can safely go out and stay healthy, we will run a home show, and not until then,” he said. At the same time, his organization, which runs the home show, has nearly sold out all available booths.

“We don’t even have dates for when the home show will happen, but I sold two booths this week,” Crane said, noting that his members are involved in nearly all areas of home improvements. As most of them had success in 2020, they would like to keep the momentum going this year.

Bill Laplante

Bill Laplante says the more time people spend at home, the more they think about how to improve their homes.

When BusinessWest spoke with vendors in preparation for last year’s event, several said a key strength of the home show was the opportunity for people and contractors to speak with each other, as well as the ability to see and touch the latest products in home improvements.

Plexiglass dividers, one-way aisles, and mandatory mask wearing are among the different ways Crane and his staff are looking to configure this year’s show. He doesn’t want a situation, however, in which a member pays for an expensive booth only to allow one person at a time to visit.

“That’s not fair to the vendor or the people attending the show,” he said. “It’s not even fair to the folks who just drop by a booth to take the candy.”

Because planning events is so difficult these days, Crane continues to move forward in planning the home show, but understands that nothing is certain. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know if it’s a freight train or if it’s the vaccine coming to solve our problems.”

Even with an effective vaccination rollout, Laplante predicts the home-building industry will continue to thrive locally. In addition to new construction, he has several whole-house renovations in the works — projects in which an existing house is torn down and a new one is built on the same lot. With many projects in the pipeline, Laplante believes people have changed their behavior long-term, and the home will continue to be a focal point long after COVID-19 is under control.

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office,” he said. “I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

Cover Story

Selling the Region

Rick Sullivan was talking about the pandemic … and about how it just might present some opportunities for this region to prompt companies currently located in expensive office buildings in pricey urban centers to at least look this way.

And he paused to reference an article he had just read that morning about how those in the Aloha State were thinking pretty much the same thing.

“Hawaii seeks to be seen as a remote workplace with a view,” he said, referencing the headline he had just read. “They’re making the same pitch we are — it’s a great place to work remotely … with a view. It’s the same concept — we have great outdoor recreational opportunities, we have the mountains, the skiing, the rafting, and the biking.”

Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, quickly acknowledged that Western Mass. is not Hawaii. But to one degree or another, it can, as he noted, offer at least some of the same things — like those nice views. And a sticker price — for commercial real estate and many other things — far, far below not only Boston, Cambridge, and New York, but many other regions of the country as well.

There is a certain quality of life that has always been here but has taken on perhaps greater importance in the midst of a pandemic as people — and some businesses as well — are starting to think about whether they want or need to be in an urban setting.

These factors may be enough to turn some heads, said Sullivan and others we spoke with, all of whom noted that, as the pandemic approaches the 10-month mark, the emphasis is shifting locally — from talk about how there may be an opportunity to seize, to action when it comes to seizing such an opportunity and getting those heads to turn.

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, is taking action in the form of online tools, through which interested businesses, agencies, and individuals can obtain needed information about the region and even explore options within the commercial real-estate market for a new home.

“We’ve invested in a whole suite of tools, one of which has seven or eight tools that basically walk a business through everything from why the Springfield region is a good place to start a business or expand a business, all the way through where your competitors are, where your customers are, and where your workers are,” she said of a product called Localintel. “And then it continues with information about where to find real estate that fits your purpose; it heatmaps everything for you.”

Meanwhile, Sullivan said the EDC, which has received an uptick in the number of incoming calls from businesses and site selectors looking to learn more about the region, has made efforts to promote the area and take advantage of pandemic-related trends and movements as one of its strategic priorities for the coming year.

Western Mass. can position itself as an effective place to work

Rick Sullivan says that, like Hawaii, Western Mass. can position itself as an effective place to work — with a view.

“Part of our strategic plan is to increase the marketing for such efforts and make that pitch,” he explained. “We’re going to work through what that looks like, but we are certainly not equipped to do a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign. I do think we can raise our profile and make that pitch.”

But while there is opportunity in the midst of this pandemic, challenges exist as well.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin and a long-time promoter of Springfield and especially its downtown area, said there are some lingering perceptions about the city and region — regarding everything from workforce to housing stock to public safety — that have to be overcome. Also, there remains considerable work to do when it comes to simply getting the word out about Western Mass. and all that it has to offer.

Meanwhile, as for trying to convince companies and state agencies to move here — something Plotkin has been doing aggressively for some time now — he said there are cost and logistical concerns that remain stumbling blocks.

“When I talk to people about this, I see a lot of heads nod in agreement — they see why this region makes sense on many levels,” he said. “The pushback comes with people not wanting to uproot themselves and make that move. We have to be able to overcome that.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic may change the landscape in some positive ways, and also what has to happen for the region’s fortunes to improve.

 

Moving Sentinents

Plotkin told BusinessWest that, whenever he meets attorneys or other professionals from Boston or New York — and that’s often — he invariably makes a point of asking them where they’re based and how much they’re paying to do business there.

He then offers a pitch for this region, letting the individual across the table know that things are less expensive and — in some ways, at least — better here.

“I’ll say, ‘you know what … you can probably do a lot better here,’” he said. “I’ll tell them, ‘if you have a big office, maybe you can keep an office in Boston and move your back-room operations here.’”

Moving forward, the assignment for the region, said those we spoke with, is to take these pitches, these efforts to sell the region, to a higher plane — now more than ever, because of what the pandemic has shown people.

In short, Sullivan noted, it has demonstrated that people can work remotely, and effectively, and that companies don’t necessarily need to lease as much space as they’re leasing now, or lease it in high-traffic (although not at this particular moment in time), high-rent areas.

It has also shown professionals, and especially young people, that they don’t necessarily have to live in one of those urban areas — like Boston, Seattle, or San Francisco — to get the kind of rewarding, high-paying jobs they’re all looking for.

“Because of the pandemic, quality of life has become something that people can really consider when they’re determining their work/life balance — you don’t need to be in the expensive big cities to be able to have the kinds of jobs people are looking for,” he explained. “You can really focus on your work/life balance, and you can really focus on your quality of life, and that’s where Western Massachusetts really shines. You can be working remotely, you can be telecommuting, and you can have that quality of life, that cost of living, that we have in Western Mass. that’s very attractive.”

As that story about Hawaii makes clear, Western Mass. is certainly not alone in this thinking. Indeed, there will be plenty of competition. But in this region, there is, by most all accounts, more recognition of possible opportunities and more of a combined enthusiasm for seizing it.

“I think there’s more of a critical mass,” Creed noted in reference to the collective efforts she’s seeing. “Before, it was this organization or this person; now, everyone is seeing it, and I’m hearing that more real-estate brokers are actively seeking businesses to come here.

1350 Main St

Evan Plotkin wants to convert three floors within 1350 Main St. to space where people can both live and work, an example of how the region may be able to benefit from the changes brought about by the pandemic.

“And I’m hearing it from business owners as well,” she went on. “They’re saying, ‘why do I need to have downtown space in the larger markets?’ So I think there is opportunity.”

But there have always been opportunities for this region when it comes to effectively selling its quality of life and lower cost of living. The $64,000 question at the moment is whether COVID will become a type of X-factor and drive interest in an area that has traditionally drawn that kind of head-nodding that Plotkin talked about, but certainly not as much action as most would like.

And the answer to that question is certainly unknown at this point. But it’s clear that there is now growing interest in at least trying to sell the region in a more aggressive way.

Measures like Localintel, a step recommended in the Future Cities study released in 2016, are a part of such efforts, said Creed, noting that the platform is currently being tested and should be on the chamber’s website soon.

The chamber is partnering with the city, which will also be able to put Localintel on its website, she went on, adding that the chamber will be adding another tool specifically for startups, partnering with Valley Venture Mentors in that initiative.

“It walks you through all the steps you need to go through to start your business,” she explained. “And then, you go to the next suite of tools, which will walk you through the customers, the competition, and more.”

 

In Good Company

Beyond simple lessons in geography regarding where companies can be located, the pandemic has provided some other lessons as well, said Sullivan, especially those related to supply chain and what can happen when overseas links in that chain are broken.

Indeed, a number of major manufacturers, as well as local anchor businesses such as hospitals, colleges, Big Y, and others, have expressed interest in making their supply chains more reliable, he told BusinessWest, adding that these sentiments would indicate that there are opportunities for this region to build on its already-strong manufacturing sector.

“We’ve seen, partially because of the pandemic, that supply chain, when it’s overseas and all split up, is much less reliable,” he explained. “That’s an opportunity for us because manufacturing is one of our strengths in this region.

“This is just one of the ways that we can come out of this pandemic in a stronger position than when we went into it,” he went on. “We need to be able to move forward where there are opportunities that we’ve identified.”

And the growing number of phone calls to the EDC, and the nature of those calls, would seem to indicate some potential opportunities, Sullivan went on, adding that there have been calls from companies looking for more of a campus-like setting; from manufacturers looking to move operations onshore; from call centers looking for smaller, more affordable facilities; and even from modular-home builders intrigued by the region’s accessibility and highway infrastructure.

Such calls lead to the inevitable questions about whether the region has the ability to actually move forward in the fashion he suggests. Does it have the housing inventory? Does it have an adequate workforce? Does it have communities that would attract businesses and individuals? Does it have the vibrancy and amenities needed to attract young people?

Plotkin has been answering some of these very questions as he vies to make the property he co-owns, 1350 Main St., home to what’s being called a remote-work hub that would enable people to live and work in the same building, a concept that has become more intriguing as the pandemic has lingered.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin was preparing to meet with those looking to site such facilities — he believes he has made it to the next round in the process — and state his case. He said he’s got a solid one, when considering both his building and the three full floors he’s proposing for a remote-work hub and this region, but as he was preparing his response to the RFP, he realized that, while the region has a lot to sell, it has to work harder at selling it.

“It’s all about salesmanship and about trying to overcome some of the negativity and the obstacles,” he explained. “It’s trying to overcome a perception that doesn’t reflect what we really have here.”

And one of the more critical perceptions, or misperceptions, in his view, at least, involves workforce and fears that this region cannot support certain types of industries or specific businesses.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“I think there’s more of a critical mass. Before, it was this organization or this person; now, everyone is seeing it, and I’m hearing that more real-estate brokers are actively seeking businesses to come here.”

“There’s a fear that workers wouldn’t want to live in Springfield,” he explained, “and also the fear that their chances of finding the talent they need in Springfield and the surrounding region would be harder; that’s the biggest impediment I’m seeing.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped matters, he said, adding that, before it arrived, the city was enjoying some momentum. But many of its major attractions, from its hockey team to its symphony orchestra to its $1 billion casino, are shut down or operating much differently than before the pandemic.

Taking the long view, though, he said these institutions will return, and they will be part of an attractive package the region can market, a package that seems to make more sense with each passing day living and working during a pandemic.

 

Bottom Line

Time will obviously tell whether Western Mass., Hawaii, or anywhere else will benefit greatly from the lessons learned from COVID-19 and the trends emerging from this unique time in history.

What is apparent at the moment is that this region seems committed to at least trying to seize what appears to be a clear opportunity to benefit from attitudes about where companies can and should be located, and how they can and should be conducting business.

“Let’s just say I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Creed said.

So is everyone else.

 

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

 

The Cannabis Industry

Growing a Job Market

By Mark Morris

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says the Cannabis Education Center was developed to train people for the hundreds of jobs being created in the industry locally.

When a new industry in Massachusetts reaches $1 billion in sales in only four years, it certainly gets people’s attention.

The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) recently announced that, four years after legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use, and only two years after the first retail shops opened, this relatively new industry surpassed that $1 billion mark on Oct. 30.

“There are a lot of jobs that go along with a billion dollars in industry activity,” said Jeff Hayden, vice president for Business and Community Services at the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

Shortly after cannabis was legalized in the state, Hayden spoke with advocacy groups and business leaders in the industry, which led to establishing the Cannabis Education Center at HCC to provide training for in-demand occupations in the burgeoning industry.

“Our focus wasn’t on the product itself; we wanted to identify the occupations that make the most sense so we can train people for those jobs,” Hayden said.

After completing a core course to familiarize students with the cannabis industry, more concentrated training is available in four career tracks:

• Patient-service associates work behind the counter at a cannabis dispensary, interact with the public, answer technical questions, and provide information to registered cannabis patients, as well as recreational customers;

• Culinary assistants prepare cannabis-infused products such as gummy candies and baked goods infused with cannabis;

• Extraction technicians work in a lab assisting production managers in extraction, purging, oil manipulation, and quality control of cannabis products; and

• Cultivation assistants provide daily care of the crops from seed to harvest.

“Because HCC offers courses in business and customer service, culinary, chemistry, and agriculture, the career tracks for cannabis training line up well with the expertise the college already has,” said Michele Cabral, executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at HCC, who worked with instructors to set up the cannabis course offerings.

As a community college, HCC doesn’t allow cannabis or associated products on campus. That means classroom instruction might involve using computer simulations to show chemical reactions, for example. When a physical demonstration is needed, legally approved items like hemp plants are used in class.

“While we will not have cannabis or related products on campus, we will still do the job education has always done: share with our students the best knowledge we can provide and the best examples,” Hayden said, noting that students can get actual hands-on experience when they land internships or get placed in a job.

He added that the courses are designed to provide an entry-level workforce for the cannabis industry. Wages are usually comparable and sometimes slightly higher than other industries at entry level.

“Even more important than landing that first job is the ability to make a career out of cannabis, because the levels of compensation can be significant,” he told BusinessWest.

Whether a person is looking for an entry-level job or a second career, Cabral said cannabis can be a “phenomenal career track” for people who have never considered it before.

For example, someone with a sales background could train as a patient-services associate training to build on the skills they already have. Or someone with a science background and wants to work in a lab could train as an extraction technician to learn about cannabis-infused products such as skin creams and shampoos.

“This person with science and lab training would find an entire industry that is exploding, where they could have an amazing career,” she said. “Who knows? They could come in at entry level and work their way up to be the head of the lab.”

There’s much more to the industry than rolling a joint, Cabral continued, noting that cannabis-infused shampoos and skin creams are only two examples of the many different items that appeal to the general public. “These products are extremely clean, closely regulated, and environmentally sustainable. It’s not just about getting high.”

 

Elevating an Industry

Elevate Northeast, a nonprofit workforce-training and cannabis-advocacy group has partnered with HCC on career-training programs at the Cannabis Education Center.

Beth Waterfall, founder and executive director of Elevate Northeast, said the program at HCC is designed to help people become familiar and comfortable with the industry. “The coursework helps people see that this is real. There’s a place for their interests and their skills.”

Elevate Northeast’s main mission is to provide opportunities for people who have been marginalized or were disproportionately harmed by previous marijuana prohibitions. The CCC administers a Social Equity Program to provide assistance and training to encourage those impacted by the ‘war on drugs’ to pursue careers as workers or entrepreneurs in the cannabis field.

Waterfall said righting past wrongs is one of the mandates of the CCC. The Certified Economic Empowerment application process is a way to encourage people from neighborhoods and communities that suffered from the impact of the war on drugs to seek licenses to open cannabis microbusinesses. She added that establishing microbusinesses also prevents larger companies from dominating the cannabis market.

“I’m excited about the cannabis industry because, through programs like social equity and economic empowerment, Massachusetts has an opportunity to be a leader in business ownership by people of color and women,” she said.

Waterfall called HCC’s Cannabis Education Center a “wonderful” way to provide people with both an initial exposure and a deep dive into the cannabis industry, as well as helping people understand how they may fit into it. “Who knows? This exposure may encourage them to someday own their own business.”

While retail cannabis operations have launched in many Western Mass. communities, the city of Holyoke has been most active, currently boasting four dispensaries, with at least two more scheduled to open in 2021. Based on workplace needs identified by these companies, the job market for cannabis looks to be healthy through 2021.

“By rough estimate, I anticipate, within the coming year, we will have 400 to 500 workers in the cannabis industry, just in Holyoke,” Hayden said.

Because Western Mass. offers both skilled workers and cheaper land compared to the eastern part of the state, Waterfall sees real growth potential and cited Holyoke as quickly becoming a center of cannabis commerce. “The city needed innovation and needed jobs. Cannabis is doing that very effectively in Holyoke.”

Such strong demand for talent would normally be an opportunity for career centers like MassHire to be involved. That’s not the case, however; David Cruise, president of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, noted that his organization receives most of its funding from the federal government, which has not recognized cannabis as a legal substance.

“Until laws change at the federal level, we cannot be actively engaged in getting involved with job seekers in the cannabis industry,” Cruise said. While he is aware of the increase in local job opportunities in the industry, MassHire will be taking a hands-off approach to cannabis employment.

That presents a stark opportunity for HCC’s programs. In her conversations with cannabis-industry employers, Cabral found they are looking for workers who represent the diversity of their customers. One dispensary owner said clients can range from a 40-year-old woman craving a good night’s sleep to a younger person looking for a recreational product.

“The people who use the products are as diverse as the population in general, so that’s who we want to train, and that’s who the employers want to hire,” she said.

During training, Cabral reminds her students that success means following basics like showing up on time with a good attitude, effectively communicating with the management team, and putting their cell phones away. “These are real careers in real businesses that are trying to make money, so come ready to work.”

Hayden echoes that point and noted that, while it’s not surprising for someone who has an interest in cannabis to work in the industry, employers will expect them to put in an honest effort and have an open mind to learn more and grow. He also advised they pay attention to the little things that can make a big difference.

“One employer told me, he chooses his customer-service people by whether or not they walk into the room with a smile.”

 

Cultivating an Ecosystem

While the cannabis industry offers many career pathways, Hayden said it’s easy to forget about all the traditional back-of-house functions such as accounting, marketing, and data analytics that companies need on top of the industry-specific positions.

While it’s called the cannabis industry, Waterfall added, it’s really more of an ecosystem that encourages people to bring their diverse skills to it.

“While I run a nonprofit, I pay my bills by consulting with cannabis companies on marketing communications and business development,” she said, noting that she started out doing similar work, except her clients were lawyers and accounting firms.

While COVID-19 has made it difficult to get a clear sense of job growth, Hayden said the industry is just getting off the ground and still promises a strong growth trajectory.

“Like any industry, there will be ups and downs,” he added, “but the projections post-COVID are suggesting we could hit a billion dollars a year in a short period of time.”

That kind of success helps overcome some of the stigma of cannabis use, which Waterfall admits can be very strong, whether coming from family or community. While she has been educating her own family, some are still not comfortable with cannabis use.

“Then I hear from someone who tried an infused gummy and has never slept so well, or the person who told me she drinks a CBD tincture in the morning, and it makes her a better mom.”

Anecdotes like those help debunk the stereotypes and stigmas about who uses cannabis, and why. Cabral hopes more people come to understand this is a serious industry with products that can be helpful to a wide range of customers. As such, cannabis needs a committed workforce that also takes itself seriously and moves past old stereotypes.

“Jobs in this field can be extremely technical,” she said. “It’s not just go listen to Bob Marley and have a party.”

Technology

Into the Breach

Cybersecurity experts say there’s still plenty of misunderstanding when it comes to the reality of data threats. For example, it’s not just big companies being attacked — these days, everyone is a target, and data thieves are becoming more subtle and savvy with their methods. That means companies need to be more vigilant — but it also means career opportunities abound in a field that desperately needs more young talent.

Everyone knows what cybersecurity is. Fewer know what people who work in the field actually do — and how much they earn.

And that’s a problem, Tom Loper said, when it comes to drawing young talent into a field that desperately needs it — and will need it for many years to come, as the breadth and complexity of data threats continue to evolve.

“That’s why we need to start with the high-school students,” said Loper, associate provost and dean of the School of Science and Management at Bay Path University. “They don’t really understand cybersecurity, and that’s a big problem because we have this incredible shortage of folks qualified to work in cybersecurity.”

Bay Path is doing its part, he said, not only with two undergraduate programs in the field and a graduate program in cybersecurity management, but by actively promoting those tracks to incoming students with undecided majors.

“We allow them to take cyber courses that first semester just to try it out, and the whole faculty is steering them toward it because the pay is so good in this field. Most of the ones who take it, believe it or not, they stay in that field,” he said, noting that about 90 students are currently enrolled in the three programs. “That’s a pretty good number for a small school like this. Now, we’re trying to get more high-school students to understand.”

“Companies are becoming more savvy. They’re asking, ‘how protected am I?’ The word’s getting out there, but unfortunately, it’s getting out because someone hears that a friend or another company got attacked.”

Loper said Bay Path’s programs are tailored specifically to the requirements of various cybersecurity careers, so students can get entry-level jobs immediately and go on to earn whatever further industry certifications they may need. “We have graduates making $60,000 to $80,000 coming out of school with these degrees. And if they get some experience before graduation, they’re worth even more.”

Tom Loper said cybersecurity is a complex challenge best tackled from a region-wide, ‘ecosystem’ perspective.

To that end, Bay Path recently won a grant from the Mass Cyber Center at MassTech to support internship and workforce experiences for students. That’s just one aspect, he said, of the way the region can build a cybersecurity hub from what he calls an “ecosystem perspective,” one that encompasses high-school and college students, workforce-development programs, government agencies, and business sectors where cybersecurity is important. These days, that’s most of them.

“Companies are becoming more savvy,” said Mark Jardim, lead engineer at CMD Technology Group in East Longmeadow. “They’re asking, ‘how protected am I?’ The word’s getting out there, but unfortunately, it’s getting out because someone hears that a friend or another company got attacked. But they are calling us and saying, ‘how can we be more protected?’”

Chris Rivers, vice president of Phillips Insurance in Chicopee, agreed that more companies are coming around to the threat potential.

“It sometimes depends on whether they’ve had an incident or a near miss,” he said, adding that, while people may hear news reports about data breaches at large companies, no business of any size is totally immune.

In fact, “smaller businesses tend to have less security, and sometimes it’s easier for hackers to get in there, taking credit-card information or any type of information, really. Think of a law office, and the risk of private information being taken and used against clients.

“Things we’ve preached over the years still hold true — they just keep changing the vector of attack. And the damage to smaller companies is more significant because they often don’t have the resources to deal with it, and it’s painful.”

“If you have a breach and data is stolen,” Rivers added, “it can get pretty costly.”

Data security has become a primary form of business insurance at all commercial agencies, but a policy to recover damages, even a comprehensive one, isn’t enough; the long-term brand damage, Rivers noted, is much harder to quantify. “Once your reputation is gone, it’s gone.”

The fact that businesses are catching on to this reality, combined with high-tech advances that will making defending against cybercrime more challenging, has created significant opportunities in what promises to be one of the most important career fields over the next decade.

Human Nature

Charlie Christianson, president of CMD and its sister company, Peritus Security, said data breaches cost companies $11.5 billion in 2019. And the threats come in many forms.

“Things we’ve preached over the years still hold true — they just keep changing the vector of attack,” he told BusinessWest. “And the damage to smaller companies is more significant because they often don’t have the resources to deal with it, and it’s painful.”

The human element to data breaches is still prominent, as e-mail phishing schemes remain the number-one way cybercriminals gain access to networks. These often arrive with URLs that are very close to a legitimate address. More importantly, phishers are ever-honing their ability to replicate the tone, language, and content of the supposed sender.

“They look incredibly realistic,” Christianson said. “A week doesn’t go by where we don’t get one and say, ‘wow, this looks good.’ For people who don’t live it every day, it can be very easy to fall into the trap. The trick is to just stop and think about it before you click on it.”

These attacks are more specific and targeted in the past, he went on, but they’re not the only way data thieves are getting in. Another is through employees’ personal devices, which don’t typically boast the security features of a large corporate system.

“Devices are hit and used to launch an attack, or they’re infected and brought into a secure environment. What’s on that device can get into the corporate network and spread,” he explained, which is why many companies have tightened up their BYOD (bring your own device) policies.

“That’s slowing down as businesses are becoming aware of the risk,” Jardim added. “We’re actually seeing a trend of slowing down the bring-your-own-device idea in the workforce; companies are saying, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do that because attackers are using those vulnerabilities.’”

The trend known as the internet of things, or IoT, poses new threats as well, Christianson said.

“When people think about securing their network, they think about their computers, their servers, their tablets, things like that. But they don’t think about the SimpliSafe security system or the time clock that hangs on the wall or the voice-over-IP phone system they use every day. You have all these devices that aren’t being maintained — they just let them run.”

He knows of one company that was attacked through its security-camera system, and said segmenting networks is one way to minimize such a threat. “That shouldn’t be on same network as your finances.”

The defenses against breach attempts are myriad, from password portals and multi-factor verification of online accounts to geoblocking traffic coming from overseas.

“A lot can be done with training,” Christianson said. “The most important thing you have in your business is your people, and educating people how to act and what to do when they see something — to make your staff savvy — is one of the most beneficial things you can do.”

Mark Jardim (left) and Charlie Christianson say cybercrime is constantly evolving, and so must the strategies businesses employ to prevent it.

It’s definitely a challenge, Jardim added. “We have to protect every single door and window, we have to be right 100% of the time, and a hacker just needs to find one vulnerability.”

Cultivating an Ecosystem

That list of threats and defenses — which only skims the surface — drives home the need for a more robust cybersecurity workforce, Loper said.

“We believe you have to take a regional approach to cybersecurity,” he noted. “We don’t believe you can just think of yourself as island unto yourself. Whether you’re a big organization or a small organization, you’re part of the supply chain, and there are opportunities for breaches. Everyone is connected.”

Boosting workforce-development programs is one spoke on the wheel. “It needs more attention. At one point, we didn’t have enough tool and die makers. The Commonwealth got behind it, and now we have enough. Something like that is going to happen in the high schools, and across this region, where we’re retraining people to work in this space just because there are so many opportunities.”

“The most important thing you have in your business is your people, and educating people how to act and what to do when they see something — to make your staff savvy — is one of the most beneficial things you can do.”

One plan is to develop a ‘cyber range,’ which is a simulated IT environment that emulates the IT structure of businesses, Loper explained. “We can bring people into the cyber range and help them deal with threats to a simulated environment.”

All these strategies are running headlong into the rise, in the very near future, of 5G wireless connectivity, which will dramatically increase data speed — and perhaps security threats as well.

“The threat we have now is going to go on steroids with 5G and with IoT,” Loper said. “The opportunties for business development will be greater than ever, and the opportunities for penetration will be greater than ever as well. It’s amazing what’s happening with 5G — it’s mostly good, but pretty darn challenging.”

Those threats provide business for commercial insurers, and that coverage is important, Rivers said, but businesses have to think about their own common-sense defenses as well.

“As we do renewals or reach out to clients, we try to bring out what policies are available to them to protect them from different things,” he noted. “It’s easy for us to recommend everything, but there’s a cost, so we try to inform them what’s out there so they can make decisions — ‘do I want this? Do I want that?’”

Rivers cited a statistic from Philadelphia Insurance Companies, which reports that the average cost of a data breach is $204 per lost record, with more than half of such costs attributable to lost customers and the associated public-relations expenses to rebuild an organization’s reputation.

“It’s one thing to take the data out, but when your brand is affected because you’ve had this incredible breach, that’s something else,” Loper added. “Your brand is what people think it is; it’s not what you think it is, like in the old days. Now, just look on social media, and that tells you what your brand is. Cybersecurity is one of those things that, if not done properly, can undermine your brand so quickly.”

In the end, Jardim said, the idea is to minimize risk.

“I always joke, the most secure machine is one that’s shut off in a locked room, but you have to find a balance,” he said — one that employs measures from simple common sense to choosing the right firewall.

“We see clients who have $5 million businesses buying a $100 firewall from Staples. You’re not going to protect your infrastructrure with that. You need the right equipment for your size. You need professional stuff for your business — you can’t use the same equipment you buy for your house for your business.”

“Well, you can,” Christianson added quickly, noting just one more way people might take a limited view of cybersecurity threats — and come to regret it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]