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Promising Pipeline

Tricia Canavan (far left) and HCC President George Timmons (far right) in the Tech Hub digital classroom with Tech Foundry graduates (and current Tech Hub fellows) Lasharie Weems, Shanice McKenzie, and Anelson Delacruz.

Tricia Canavan (far left) and HCC President George Timmons (far right) in the Tech Hub digital classroom with Tech Foundry graduates (and current Tech Hub fellows) Lasharie Weems, Shanice McKenzie, and Anelson Delacruz.


Tech Foundry was launched in 2014 with a specific goal: to increase the technology workforce in Western Mass. at a time when employers were struggling to attract and retain talent.

“Since then, we’ve grown and really have focused on working with low- to moderate-income people and also people from non-traditional backgrounds who may be underrepresented in the tech sector,” said Tricia Canavan, who came on board as Tech Foundry’s CEO last year.

The nonprofit does so by offering professional development, technical career training, career coaching and internships, and job placement in order to connect people to existing IT opportunities, she added. “We’re very proud of the fact that our alums access living-wage jobs and are on these great career pathways.”

If anything, she noted, the need for Tech Foundry is stronger than ever. Recent studies of the workforce environment in Massachusetts suggest up to 400,000 people need to be attracted, recruited, or reskilled in order to keep business in the Bay State humming at optimal levels — many of those in the broad realm of IT.

“There has been a talent shortage in the tech sector and in other sectors, even pre-pandemic, but since the pandemic, we’ve seen those trends accelerate.”

“We all know that the tech sector is on fire, and there are lots and lots of opportunities for growth, and you don’t always need a college degree to access those things,” Canavan said of Tech Foundry’s innovative model that lets students stack certifications to help them get their foot in the door in IT and then progress up the career ladder.

“There has been a talent shortage in the tech sector and in other sectors, even pre-pandemic, but since the pandemic, we’ve seen those trends accelerate,” she added.

The reasons are varied, from mass retirements of Baby Boomers — which means the departure of much senior and middle management, as well as rank-and-file IT workers, from the workforce — to fewer children in the K-12 pipeline.

“Just by sheer numbers, we have fewer kids that are going to be graduating from high school and entering the workforce and/or going to college — that’s fewer kids to engage as young professionals once they complete their education. Also, some of the forecasts that I’ve seen have upwards of 60,000 young professionals projected to move from Massachusetts,” she added, for reasons ranging from cost of living to a housing shortage.

“It’s sort of this perfect storm of economic conditions that are creating persistent needs in the workforce for workers of all types, but there is absolutely a need for more workers in the tech sector.”

Tricia Canavan says Tech Hub is a way to address the region’s digital divide.

Tricia Canavan says Tech Hub is a way to address the region’s digital divide.

The core, 18-week Tech Foundry program has helped produce more of those workers locally, but the nonprofit is equally excited about its newest initiative, called Tech Hub, a broad collaboration that also includes Holyoke Community College (HCC), the Western Massachusetts Alliance for Digital Equity, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the Accelerate the Future Foundation, Comcast, Google, Bulkley Richardson, and other partners.

“This has been created as part of the Western Mass. Alliance for Digital Equity’s efforts to address digital equity, and the digital divide here in Western Mass.,” Canavan explained. “We, as part of the consortium working on the digital divide in Western Mass., identified an opportunity to be able to support digital-equity efforts while also continuing professional-development training for our staff, students, and alums.”

Located at 206 Maple St. in downtown Holyoke, Tech Hub, which opened to the public on Oct. 26, offers basic and intermediate digital-literacy training, with an eye on enabling people to access jobs of all kinds, not just specifically in IT.

“It starts off as basic as, ‘do you know how to use a mouse? Do you know how to use a trackpad? This is how you get on the internet,’ all the way up to exposure to things like Google Sheets, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Excel, that sort of thing. We want to help people access the basic digital literacy that they need to thrive at work, at school, in healthcare, and connecting to others in the community.”

That’s the first leg of the Tech Hub stool, she explained; the others are providing computers free of charge to eligible people, and providing technical support and one-on-one troubleshooting services to people in the community.

“Everybody probably has someone in their family that uses technology but maybe is not an expert. When they have a problem, where do they go? So we envision providing that support for the community through Tech Hub.”


Confidence Restored

As a single, stay-at-home mother with young boys, Lasharie Weems often felt overwhelmed — particularly when it came to technology.  “My 5-year old was probably more digitally literate than I was,” she said.

The remote instruction her children required during the pandemic proved even more baffling, she added. “My older two sons go to a science and technology school. I struggled to even help them with their homework.”

“We want to help people access the basic digital literacy that they need to thrive at work, at school, in healthcare, and connecting to others in the community.”

After enrolling in Tech Foundry’s free, 18-week program, she said her confidence was restored, and it actually brought her family closer together.

Weems now works for Tech Foundry. She told her story at the grand opening of Tech Hub, where she will be serving as an American Connection Corps fellow.

“Today is an exciting occasion for all of us,” Weems she told the crowd assembled outside Tech Hub’s digital classroom. “But for me, it’s a personal achievement as I celebrate the journey it took to get me here. Tech Hub is my opportunity to pay it forward, to help countless others identify and bridge the gap in digital equity.”

Canavan said connections like that are important.

“What was exciting to us about this project was the ability to expand the impact of Tech Foundry, but we’re also staffing Tech Hub in part with alums of Tech Foundry through a one-year professional digital fellowship program,” she explained. “They work under the guidance of Tech Foundry staff to provide the training and technical support services. In addition, we will have students who will be doing co-op and internship work while they’re in the program.”

From left: Tech Hub fellow Shanice McKenzie, Tech Hub manager Shannon Mumblo

From left: Tech Hub fellow Shanice McKenzie, Tech Hub manager Shannon Mumblo, and Tech Foundry deputy director Michelle Wilson in the Tech Hub digital classroom.

HCC President George Timmons said it was fitting for Tech Hub to be based at the Picknelly Adult & Family Education Center (PAFEC), one of the college’s satellite campuses in the heart of the city, which also houses HCC’s Adult Learning Center as well as other community programs, including the Holyoke High Opportunity Academy, an alternative public high-school program. 

“The mission of Holyoke Community College is to educate, inspire, and connect,” he said. “Through this initiative, we hope to promote access to technology and connectivity, digital literacy, and education, while giving individuals the tools they need to be successful.”

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia agreed, noting that four students who attend the Holyoke High Opportunity Academy at PAFEC have already signed up to be part of the Tech Hub program. 

“I think we can all agree that digital literacy in 2023 is as vital as reading literacy was 50 years ago,” the mayor said. “Whether it’s filling out a job application, communicating with a customer, maintaining accessible records, or even booking a flight, digital fluency is a necessary life skill.

“But the Tech Hub mission recognizes something else: that there exists a digital divide that is the result of inequities in access, opportunity, housing, income, and schooling,” he went on. “The free training and support that will take place at this site and at community partner locations is going to be a liberating game changer.”


Opportunity Knocks

Meanwhile, important work continues at Tech Foundry, Canavan said, and applications for the next cohort of students are open at thetechfoundry.org through December.

“We work very intentionally to engage with the community to get the word out about TechFoundry, and there are a lot of different strategies that we use to do that,” she noted, including social media, referrals from community organizations, and partnering with schools to make students aware that Tech Foundry can be a career-development option for them.

“I think it’s a really good option for people because the training is excellent,” she added. “It’s really an intensive training with a great track record of people accessing employment in the tech sector after they graduate, and it’s at no cost.”

Canavan, who has a deep background in nonprofit management and was also president of a staffing agency, United Personnel, said it’s gratifying to see people come through the Tech Foundry program and improve their lives, and she’s hoping for similar impact from Tech Hub.

“I was eager to return to the nonprofit world after selling my business a couple of years ago and felt very fortunate when this job was open at Tech Foundry. I think it’s a great opportunity for me to use my background in recruiting and staffing and also leverage the workforce and economic-development work that I was doing in that role in the nonprofit world, in partnership with residents and community partners and employers,” she told BusinessWest.

“I love this job because it’s pragmatic and solutions-focused,” she added. “There’s tons of opportunity right now, so how do we work together to help residents of Western Mass. access those opportunities? It’s exciting.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 187: November 13, 2023

Joe Interviews Tech Foundry CEO Tricia Canavan

Since its launch almost a decade ago, Tech Foundry has trained hundreds of students and partnered with scores of employers across Western Mass. to get people trained for good IT careers and help businesses grow with local talent. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Tech Foundry CEO Tricia Canavan talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about how the organization continues to play a key role in the region’s high-tech ecosystem — and how its new partnership with Holyoke Community College, called Tech Hub, promises to help even more people navigate the digital world and improve their job prospects. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.


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Women of Impact 2019

President, United Personnel

By Connecting People with Opportunities, She Impacts the Economy — and Many Lives

Tricia Canavan spent much of her early career as an educator. Today, in a much different role, education is never far from her mind.

“As I’ve done this job for the last eight years, I’ve learned how education is tied to workforce development and people being successful. It’s not just about being able to write well or have the fundamentals of math — can you support yourself?”

She’s been helping people support themselves for much of the last decade as president of United Personnel Services, but also as a voice for the importance of education and workforce development in giving people the skills they need to access job opportunities. At the same time, by helping connect employers with talent, she’s helping companies grow, which boosts the region’s economy.

“When we have good jobs and we have thriving businesses, that’s good for everybody,” she told BusinessWest. “The health of the economy in Western Mass. is absolutely critical to every single person who works here and lives here.”

That’s real impact — which is why it’s no surprise Canavan is being honored with this award. But she’s not one to seek out accolades, said Jennifer Brown, United’s vice president of Business Development, who nominated Canavan as a Woman of Impact.

“Tricia is incredibly humble,” Brown said. “In spite of her success, she never considers any task to be beneath her. On any given day in the office, you can find her sitting beside her staff, fielding phone calls, or greeting clients and candidates. When understaffed, she jumps in to help and consistently proves that she is not just a leader, but also a partner to her team.”

Canavan similarly deflects praise to her team. “I’ve been really fortunate to have the opportunity to run this company and be able to combine my interests with an amazing team of colleagues,” she said. “I’m so lucky in that regard. I would not be able to do everything I’m able to do without them behind me. No, not behind me — with me.”

Knowledge Is Power

Back to that role as an educator, though. “I’ve always been very driven to give back, and I really thought my career was going to be in education or nonprofit management of some sort, and that’s a lot of where my career has taken me,” she explained.

As a freshman at Trinity College in Hartford, Canavan volunteered teaching English as a second language, and later worked as a tutor-counselor with Upward Bound, a federally funded program that helps high-school students become first-generation college students.

“It’s not just about being able to write well or have the fundamentals of math — can you support yourself?”

“I really fell in love with these kids and their families. It became very clear to me that education is the key to so much,” she said. “I could see the impact that we can have working in partnership with them, helping them achieve their goals. I loved that opportunity.”

Prior to taking over her family’s business — her parents, Jay Canavan and Mary Ellen Scott, launched United Personnel in 1984 — Tricia ran the venerable lecture series known as the Springfield Public Forum. Prior to that, she worked in myriad teaching roles, including a stint at Berkshire Community College.

So her original career path wasn’t focused on following her parents’ path. Still, “when you’re part of a family business, it’s always part of you. I’ve worked here at various times as a younger person and have always been involved. My sister, my mother, and I are the board of directors. United has never been too far from my mind or my heart.”

After her father passed away about 20 years ago, Scott continued to run the company, and when she was getting ready to retire eight years ago, she was unsure what the best pathway forward was, Canavan said.

“So we hired some consultants to work with us and talk to me and my sister and the members of the senior management team at that time. At the end, they came to me and said, ‘we think you’re best suited to run this organization.’”

At the time, she was happy running the Springfield Public Forum, an organization she loved and remains involved with today.

However, “I had a mentor who knew I was considering this great opportunity — and how lucky am I to have had this opportunity? — anyway, she said to me, ‘you know, I think you want to make a difference in the world. And I think you will be able to make more of a difference running United Personnel than you will running the Public Forum. As great an organization as that is, you’ll have a different voice than you have now. And you’ll be able to make a difference and perhaps a bigger impact in your community than you currently can.’”

United Personnel moved its downtown Springfield headquarters to a larger space a few years ago.

That turned out to be a critical conversation as she considered how to move forward, she said. “I sometimes say I have a nonprofit heart, and I’ve tried to bring that sense of responsibility to the community and to my employees and my clients in this job.”

Clearing a Path

Many well-paying careers, Canavan noted, are in reach without a college education for those who are willing to access training, start small, and work their way up. Part of United Personnel’s mission is to dismantle as many roadblocks to employment as it can.

For example, employers typically prefer to hire someone with at least six months of recent, steady work without gaps. But, realizing there are reasons those gaps exist, United offers myriad short-term jobs to help people build a portfolio and references and prove they can handle something more permanent. Meanwhile, it helps connect job seekers with the myriad workforce-training resources available in the community.

There are institutional barriers as well, such as the so-called ‘cliff effect,’ which throws up financial disincentives to people on public benefits who want to work. She said a bill currently making its way through the state Legislature would address that scenario through a pilot program that would help low-income Springfield residents access jobs while reducing the need for public benefits.

Her advocacy for people seeking work starts where she believes it needs to start — in the schools, by making sure students are learning at an age-appropriate rate. Only 7% of Springfield children are considered kindergarten-ready when they enter school, and if they don’t hit reading proficiency by third grade, it sets them on a never-ending pattern of playing catchup.

“That’s my nonprofit heart, asking what does social justice look like for our kids and our families, and what role does education play in that, and then how does that feed into workforce development and a strong economy? It’s all tied together, for sure,” she told BusinessWest.

“How do we help our students and our families get to the point where they are at a living wage and they can support themselves and thrive?” she went on. “One of the social determinants of health, when we look at population health, is economic stability. So it even drives health outcomes. It’s critical.”

For that reason, making sure kids have the same educational opportunities no matter their address or family circumstance is nothing less than a social-justice issue, she said.

“I sometimes say I have a nonprofit heart, and I’ve tried to bring that sense of responsibility to the community and to my employees and my clients in this job.”

“I believe everyone is aware of these inequities, and we’re all working on them, but the reality is, if you live on the Springfield side of Forest Park as opposed to the Longmeadow side of Forest Park, you’re likely having a very different education experience.”

At the end of the day, helping people — from childhood through life — access the education and skills they need to live the life they want is a critical element of Canavan’s impact, and one she takes seriously.

“I feel like it’s a little bit glib to say the best way out of poverty is a job. But we need to help everybody achieve the educational background they need — and that can mean different things for different people,” she said, whether that’s a certificate or degree from college or vocational training in a trade. “What is the pathway to a living wage?”

Growth Pattern

And that brings her to the second pillar of United’s business, helping companies access the talent they need to grow.

“It’s all tied to economic development,” she said. “I see so clearly the importance of education to a strong economy. If our employers don’t have the qualified candidates they need, they’re not going to stay, and if they do stay, they’re going to struggle.”

United has grown significantly since Canavan’s parents opened their first office in Hartford, specializing in professional, administrative, and finance services. A few years later, they opened a second office in Springfield, focusing on support to the light industrial sector. Today, the firm also boasts offices in Northampton, Pittsfield, Chelmsford, and New Haven.

Meanwhile, its roster of specialties has grown to include manufacturing, hospitality, information technology, nonprofits, medical offices, and even a dental-services division, which has proven to be a significant growth area.

Cavanan said she enjoys working in partnership with clients because it allows United to become a part of their business and operational strategy and provide real value. Whether it’s helping clients with continuous improvement, staff-retention strategies, joint recruiting events, or simply serving as subject-matter experts in matters like HR compliance, she said United does its best work when it’s able to take on that level of partnership.

That said, she noted that legislative mandates from Boston, such as increased minimum wage and broadened leave laws, continue to burden employers and make it more difficult than ever to do business in Massachusetts.

“I’m interested in educational policy, but also regulatory policy as it affects businesses,” she said. “As a younger person, I would’ve said, ‘she’s sold out, she’s gone to the dark side, she’s become conservative.’ But being in this role has given me a much more nuanced picture of all the different elements that make up a thriving region. Businesses can look at competing, surrounding states and see a more favorable regulatory environment. So I think we in Massachusetts really need to make sure we’re balancing the needs of our residents with the burden on businesses. I don’t think we, as a state, have figured that out yet.”

After providing staffing and HR support to its clients, and career opportunities to its candidates, United’s third pillar has long been giving back to the communities it serves, Canavan said, and she encourages her staff to volunteer and serve on boards — both on work and personal time — while the company supports area nonprofits financially.

“I’m really fortunate to work in an organization I love where we’re doing work to help our candidates and help our clients, but also gives us a platform to do things in the community, whether it’s policy or volunteerism or being able to endow a scholarship. I feel very, very lucky to be able to do that,” she said.

Several years ago, Brown noted, United launched an annual Academic Merit Award. This program identifies one contract employee, or the child of a contract employee, currently enrolled in college or a recent graduate, as the winner of a $1,000 award to recognize hard work both inside and outside the classroom.

“It is opportunities like this that show her employees that she’s invested in their futures,” Brown said. “Tricia stands behind everything that her employees stand for — drive, determination, heart, and community involvement.”

Bottom Line

Again, that’s real impact on real lives — something Canavan wondered whether she’d have when she left a career she loved eight years ago.

“As my mentor said, ‘you can have a voice. You can have impact,’” she recalled, quickly noting that scores of other women in the region are just as worthy of being called Women of Impact, and she hopes more of them are publicly recognized as such. “I’m always struck by how lucky I am that a handful of people brought me to the table. It’s a privilege to be able do all this.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]