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Cover Story

Getting into the Game

“We’ve been hearing this for years, but it had just reached a boiling point.” That’s how Kermit Dunkelberg chose to sum up the conversation in this region regarding how many individuals lack the soft skills and the essential skills needed to be workforce-ready. This ‘boiling point’ status helped inspire a regional response to a request for proposals for state funding — and a $247,000 grant aimed at putting more qualified workers in the pipeline.

Since the end of the Great Recession, nearly a decade ago now, the region’s economy has been in a slow-but-steady expansion mode characterized by growth in most all industry sectors and almost historically low unemployment.

It’s been a good time for employers and job seekers alike, but there are some who have just not been able to take part in this improved economy, said Kermit Dunkelberg, assistant vice president of Adult Basic Education and Workforce Development at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

These individuals are sitting on the sidelines and not getting in the game for a number of reasons, but the two most common denominators — and this is across the board, in all sectors of the economy — is that they lack hands-on experience in a given field, basic job-readiness skills, or both.

“And in many cases, it is both,” said Dunkelberg, who noted that a soon-to-be-launched, HCC-led project will address both of these concerns.

Indeed, through a $247,000 grant from the Mass. Dept. of Higher Education’s Training Resources and Internships Networks Initiative, better known by the acronym TRAIN, HCC will work with a long list of regional partners to develop a three-stage program that includes:

• Pre-training job readiness;

• Industry-specific training in culinary arts or manufacturing; and

• Some kind of work experience with a local employer.

That list of partners includes Greenfield Community College and Springfield Technical Community College; the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board; the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board; the MassHire career centers in Holyoke, Springfield, and Hampden, and Hampshire counties; and several local employers — University of Massachusetts Auxiliary Dining Services in Amherst, the Log Cabin Group in Holyoke, MGM Resorts in Springfield, Peerless Precision in Westfield, and BETE Fog Nozzle in Greenfield, which have agreed to provide internships, apprenticeships, or job-shadowing opportunities to program participants.

That long list of players speaks to the breadth and depth of the problem and the need for a regional solution, said Dunkelberg, adding that the TRAIN initiative is an ongoing state program, and when area agencies and institutions mulled whether to apply for grants individually or collectively, there was a clear consensus for the latter.

“We brought these partners together, and one of the questions on the table was, ‘should we develop one proposal for the region, or should we develop competing proposals — what do people want to do?’” he recalled. “There was a very strong feeling that we should collaborate and develop a proposal jointly, across the entire Pioneer Valley.

“And part of the reason for that is that we all face the same issue of job readiness,” he went on. “We wanted to develop something we can agree on with all of our partners that meets the standards of what job readiness means.”

As noted earlier, there are three components to this project — pre-training, industry-specific training, and work experience with an area employer, and all three are critical to individuals becoming able to shed those classifications ‘unemployed’ or ‘underemployed,’ said Teri Anderson, executive director of the MassHire Hampshire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board.

“One of the primary pieces of feedback we receive from employers is that people coming to them looking for work need basic job-readiness skills, and we’ve heard that for several years now,” she told BusinessWest. The career center has been interested in creating a foundational skills program that would prepare people for any job across multiple sectors, and that’s exactly what this program is going to do.”

The job-readiness component will focus on a number of skills lacking among many of those on the outside looking in when it comes to the job market, she said, including communication skills, teamwork, customer service, basic math, reading, and computer skills, along with financial literacy, job-search skills, and more.

Kermit Dunkelberg says the TRAIN initiative

Kermit Dunkelberg says the TRAIN initiative will provide participants with not only job-readiness skills, but also hands-on experience in one of several fields.

Such skills will be provided through 60-hour pre-training courses, after which participants will have the opportunity to continue into an industry-specific training program — a four-week, 120-hour program in culinary arts and hospitality at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, or a 44-hour manufacturing training program at STCC. Also, participants might instead choose to enter another industry-specific training program offered by one of the community colleges.

The objective is make people currently not ready to enter the workforce better able to do so, said David Cruise, executive director of the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, adding that employers in every sector of the economy are challenged to find qualified workers, and in some fields, especially manufacturing, their inability to do so is impacting their ability to grow.

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the TRAIN-funded program and its prospects for becoming a model for helping regions like this one enable individuals to become part of the ongoing economic expansion, rather than merely spectators.

A Hire Reach

It’s called the ‘benefits cliff,’ or the ‘cliff effect.’

Both terms are used to describe what happens when public benefits programs phase down or out quickly, leading to an abrupt reduction or loss of benefits for families as household earnings increase through employment, but have not increased enough for self-sufficiency to be reached.

“What had really risen to the top as far as everyone’s sense of urgency was just basic job readiness across all sectors. We’ve been hearing this for years, but it has just reached a boiling point.”

Often, just a small increase in household earnings can trigger loss of eligibility for a benefit, making a family substantially worse off from a self-sufficiency standpoint than prior to the earnings gain. And fear of this eventuality is enough to keep many individuals from trying to enter or re-enter the workforce, said Anderson, adding that understanding and managing the benefits cliff will be an important component of the pre-training aspect of the TRAIN program.

“Oftentimes, people lose their benefits faster than their income rises, particularly if they’re moving into entry-level positions,” she explained. “So we’re incorporating into this training efforts to work with people on how to manage that cliff effect.”

And while it’s difficult to do so, this situation can be managed, or better managed, she told BusinessWest, adding that the state Department of Transitional Assistance is in the process of revising some of its procedures in an effort to ease the cliff effect, and the TRAIN program will help communicate these changes.

And that’s one example of how this program is necessarily broad in scope to address the many barriers to employment and reasons for underemployment in this region, said Dunkelberg.

Overall, and as noted earlier, the TRAIN initiative is a proactive response to a persistent and statewide problem, he noted, adding that it was launched in 2016 to engage long-term unemployed adults, offering foundational education programs, wraparound support services, and industry-specific skills that would enable entry or re-entry into the workforce.

The first funding round resulted in a number of specific training and employment pilot programs, he went on, adding that, locally, the program funded an initiative involving HCC and STCC to train and place individuals as home health aides.

“It was very successful; we had 56 people who went through that training, and we saw close to 90% of them get jobs,” he recalled. “Retention was high, and we received great collaboration from our employer partners.”

The program was not funded in 2017, he went on, adding that by the time the next RFP was issued earlier this year, the conversation in this region had changed somewhat.

“What had really risen to the top as far as everyone’s sense of urgency was just basic job readiness across all sectors,” he said. “We’ve been hearing this for years, but it has just reached a boiling point.”

Alyce Styles, dean of Workforce Development and Community Education at Greenfield Community College, agreed, and said surveys of area employers leading up to the grant proposal revealed that job seekers in the manufacturing sector and many others were lacking many of what are often referred to as the ‘soft’ skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

“Employers responded that they want employees and individuals who have the ability to effectively communicate orally, have ethical judgment and sound decision-making, work effectively with others and in teams, have the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings, and have critical-thinking and analytical reasoning skills,” she said. “So all of those are being embedded into this pre-training program.”

Work in Progress

The latest TRAIN initiative, proposed with the goal of creating a model for other regions, will involve up to 120 individuals from Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties, and is relatively short in duration — until only next June.

Over the next six months, the regional career centers are slated to develop three-week, 60-hour ‘essential skills/job readiness’ pre-training courses that will be offered at least four times at locations in the three Pioneer Valley counties.

Teri Anderson

Teri Anderson

“One of the primary pieces of feedback we receive from employers is that people coming to them looking for work need basic job-readiness skills, and we’ve heard that for several years now.”

Dunkelberg said the area career centers will soon commence recruitment of individuals for the program, adding that they are likely to come from several different pools, if you will, each facing some unique challenges, but some common ones as well.

Older workers finding difficulty re-entering the workforce comprise one constituency, said Anderson, adding that there are more people in this group than the announced unemployment rates might lead people to believe, because the numbers generated by the state do not count those who have become discouraged and have thus stopped looking for work.

“A lot of the people we see here are older workers who have been laid off, and they’re having trouble becoming re-employed,” she said, adding that other likely recruits face barriers to employment that include everything from lower educational attainment to a lack of basic transportation.

“There are many people who want to work and are ready to work, but they can’t get access to the training or to job sites because they can’t afford a private vehicle and public transportation doesn’t get them there,” she said, adding that the grant provides for some bridge transportation and child-care services so individuals can take part in the training components of the program, and agencies will explore options for keeping such services available to individuals if and when they do find work.

Cruise concurred, and told BusinessWest that, in addition to transportation issues and the benefits cliff, many of those on the outside looking in are simply not ready for prime time.

“Two of the industries we’re identified as high priorities over the next five years are advanced manufacturing and culinary and food service,” he explained. “At MassHire, we offer a number of training programs — as does Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College — in those two areas. And whenever we go out to look for potential applicants for those seats, there are some who, from an academic perspective or a language perspective, just aren’t ready for the rigors of a 14- or 15-week intensive program.

Dave Cruise says the TRAIN initiative is designed to help those who are unemployed or under-employed

Dave Cruise says the TRAIN initiative is designed to help those who are unemployed or under-employed, and are thus on the outside looking in when it comes to the job market.

“These people are very employable; they just need some additional support,” he went. “And that’s what this program will provide.”

Beyond the needed basic job-readiness skills, many of those still unemployed or underemployed need hands-on experience in a chosen field or exposure with different fields so they can better decide on a career path. The TRAIN program will provide these as well, said Dunkelberg.

“Career exploration is an important part of this,” he told BusinessWest. “Beyond not having the skills or the soft skills, many people are not really sure what they want to do, and they’re not really clear on what some of the opportunities are.”

“Employers … want employees and individuals who have the ability to effectively communicate orally, have ethical judgment and sound decision-making, work effectively with others and in teams, have the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings, and have critical-thinking and analytical reasoning skills.”

In response to these realities, the program will provide some hands-on exploration of culinary and hospitality careers, primarily because of the many opportunities now opening up in that field across the region, and also in manufacturing, another sector where there are jobs coming available and not enough people in the pipeline.

This exposure will take a number of forms, including internships, job-shadowing experiences, and actual employment, said Dunkelberg, adding that the various employer partners, from MGM to Peerless Precision, have agreed to provide some type of hands-on experience with the goal of helping participants both understand where the opportunities are and discover if these fields are good fits.

When asked if there was a model for what the many partners involved in this initiative are working to create, Dunkelberg said the goal is to build a model for others to use.

And that’s just one of many potential quantitative and qualitative measures of success when it comes to this program. Others include everything from the number of job interviews granted to the program participants — a low bar, to be sure — to growth in enrollment in academic programs such as GCC’s CNC course of study, to ultimate progress in closing the nagging skills gap in this region.

Course of Action

That gap won’t be closed easily or soon, but movement in the right direction is the goal — and the priority — at the moment.

As Dunkelberg noted, the problem has reached a boiling point, and the TRAIN initiative, a truly regional response to the problem, will hopefully help matters cool down considerably.

By doing so, more people in this region — and probably others — can then take part in the economic expansion of which they have only been observers.

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

Cover Story

Tracking Progress

Springfield Train StationThe launch of the Hartford line last month, which expands rail activity from Union Station in Springfield to a host of Connecticut stops, has been a success, judging by early ridership. More important, it has municipal and economic-development leaders from Greater Springfield thinking about the potential of a Springfield-to-Greenfield service beginning next year, as well as the viability of east-west service between Boston and Springfield. It’s about more than riding the trains, they say — it’s about what riders will do once they get here.

When is a train not just a train?

Because the ones stopping at Union Station as part of the so-called Hartford line — which connects Springfield with New Haven via six other stations that roughly track I-91 through Connecticut — represent more than that, said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief Development officer.

“The simplest way to explain it is, the future is about connectivity, whether that connection is physical or electronic,” Kennedy told BusinessWest. “That’s going to be the case for the next 20 to 30 years going forward. And, in the case of rail, it’s critical that we increase our activity in Union Station.”

The reason is simple symbiosis. At a time when Springfield is preparing for an influx of visitors with the opening of MGM Springfield next month, in addition to other significant economic-development activity downtown, a train stop for several CTRail trains each day promises to make the city a more attractive destination, Kennedy said. That could have spinoffs for other regional attractions, particularly after a northern rail line is completed next year, connecting Union Station with Greenfield.

“The simplest way to explain it is, the future is about connectivity, whether that connection is physical or electronic,” Kennedy told BusinessWest. “That’s going to be the case for the next 20 to 30 years going forward. And, in the case of rail, it’s critical that we increase our activity in Union Station.”

“When they bring Greenfield and Northampton and Holyoke into the loop with new depots (all built over the past few years), that’s going to have a dramatic effect on how everyone comes and goes from Springfield,” Kennedy said. “MGM is an entertainment giant, and we’re basically going to be sharing [visitors] up and down the Valley, sending some of our visitors to MGM north to see what goes on up there, and seeing an awful lot of people come here. That’s connectivity.”

Michael Mathis, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, agreed that expanded rail will benefit not just the casino, but the city and region as a whole, helping to brand it as an accessible travel destination.

“This new high-speed connection will be a welcome catalyst for business and tourism in the city and connect two important regional economic hubs,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “As awareness of the service continues to grow, we anticipate more and more people will be attracted to the area.”

To further promote exploration of the city from Union Station, MGM and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority will launch the Loop, a free shuttle service linking downtown tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants, and arts and culture destinations. Debuting Aug. 24 as part of MGM Springfield’s opening, the Loop will connect Union Station, the Springfield Armory, Springfield Museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, MGM Springfield, and the MassMutual Center, as well as four downtown hotels.

Rail activity in Union Station has picked up significantly

Rail activity in Union Station has picked up significantly, and expanded Springfield-to-Greenfield service next year will continue that trend.

“Any time you have a significant number of individuals coming into the city, that’s an economic opportunity,” said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. “Certainly, things are happening in the region, and downtown Springfield in particular, and it’s a big plus that it’s very walkable, or an easy commute with the MGM trolley to different venues here.”

All Aboard

Looking ahead, Gov. Charlie Baker recently announced that passenger rail service between Springfield and Greenfield will begin on a pilot basis in spring 2019. Under the agreement, MassDOT will fund the cost and management of the pilot service, which will be operated by Amtrak and conclude in fall 2021.

The pilot will provide two round-trips each day and make stops at stations in Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield. Southbound service will be provided in the morning hours, and northbound in the evenings. This pilot service will leverage the MassDOT-owned rail line currently used by Amtrak’s Vermonter service.

Economic-development officials in the Pioneer Valley, and the cities connected by that future line, will likely be cheered by the early success of the 62-mile Hartford line, which began operating on June 16, with trains running approximately every 45 minutes between Springfield and several communities in Connecticut, including Windsor Locks, Windsor, Hartford, Berlin, Meriden, Wallingford, and New Haven. This expanded service is in addition to the existing Amtrak service throughout the corridor.

After two days of free rides, the line began running at regular fare prices on June 18, and in that first full week of June 18-24, ridership on the Hartford line totaled 10,719 customers, which Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy characterized as a success.

“I’ve spoken with scores of riders who have begun to use the Hartford Line and who are saying their commute has become much easier and less stressful,” ConnDOT Commissioner James Redeker said in a statement. “With easy access and connections with our CTtransit buses, we are opening up all kinds of options for getting around Connecticut — whether you’re going to work, to school, or simply playing the role of tourist.”

The Hartford Line connects commuters to existing rail services in New Haven that allow for connections to Boston, New York City, and beyond, including the New Haven Line (Metro-North), Shore Line East, Amtrak Acela, and Northeast Regional services.

“We know that it will take some time for this new rail service to grow to full maturity and become part of the everyday lives of Connecticut residents, but there is definitely an excitement about this long-overdue train service,” Malloy said at the time. “At the end of the day, this transit service is about building vibrant communities that attract businesses, grow jobs, and make our state a more attractive place to live, visit, and do business.”

This is precisely the model Massachusetts officials want to see replicated here — right away around Union Station, and eventually up and down the Valley as well.

“With the Loop service starting there, it will provide an opportunity to see Springfield even beyond the casino,” said Chris Moskal, executive director of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority.

The activity at Union Station has impacted other downtown development as well, Kennedy said, including Silverbrick Lofts and future market-rate apartments in the Willys-Overland building. “The 265 units at Silverbrick wouldn’t have happened without Union Station,” he noted. “They were very specific about that.”

Down the Line

Beyond north-south rail, however, are much more ambitious rumblings — and they’re rumblings from far, far down the proverbial track at this point — about east-west rail service connecting Boston and Springfield, and perhaps Albany one day.

MassDOT plans to carry out an extensive study over 18 months, analyzing many aspects and options for potential east-west passenger rail service. This will include engaging with stakeholders and evaluating the potential costs, speed, infrastructure needs, and ridership of potential passenger rail service throughout this corridor.

“Carrying out a comprehensive study on east-west passenger rail will allow us to have a rigorous, fact-based discussion regarding options for potential service,” state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said last month. “Many legislators, local and regional officials, and business leaders called for such a study, and we are pleased to take a step in advancing this planning for future service.”

Eventually, Kennedy told BusinessWest, rail service from, say, Montreal to New York and from Boston to Albany would position Springfield in an enviable spot as a central hub along both lines.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said as much when the Hartford line opened last month, calling enhanced rail service between Springfield and Boston a potential “game changer” for the region. “Investing in our transportation infrastructure will benefit people across the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Between Amtrak and now CTrail, riders have several options

Between Amtrak and now CTrail, riders have several options each day to travel to and from Connecticut and beyond.

Sullivan said increasing the speed and ease of travel to a destination like Springfield, with more frequent schedule options, will open up opportunities to attract visitors from both the north and south. He’s not as optimistic about east-west rail, at least not in the next decade, since it’s not in the state’s five-year budget plan and has many logistical and cost hurdles to overcome.

“But certainly, the Connecticut line coming in gives the Convention & Visitors Bureau some travel and tourism opportunities, and it’s incumbent on those entities to sell the region hard — and they’re doing that,” he said. “It’s a significant opportunity.”

Kennedy noted that, when he travels on the eastern part of the state, each T stop is marked by renovated buildings and generally lively activity around the stations. If Massachusetts can be traversed in all directions by rail, he believes, highways could become less congested while trains bring economic energy into each city they stop in. “I see really good things ahead and significant potential,” he said. “Trains are a key component of the future.”

That’s why it’s important for Springfield to continue to grow with rail in mind, he added.

“One of the reasons for our recent success is that we planned bigger rather than smaller,” he said. “Springfield had a history of thinking too small, but certainly over the past five to eight years, we thought bigger, and it’s worked very well. We’ll continue with that big-picture thinking with Union Station as a critical node.”

Moskal agreed.

“Believe me, we’ve had an unbelievable response from people who use Union Station every day,” he said. “From what I’m hearing from people, they’ve said, ‘where has this service been?’ I’m like, ‘it’s here now.’ The spinoff potential has excited people. You can take the bus from there. The activity in and around the station is enormous. And the opportunities are only going to expand.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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