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Implementing Such an Initiative Can Provide a Number of Benefits

By Kylie Brown and Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives are being discussed more than ever in conference rooms, boardrooms, human-resources departments, and administrative offices. This is exciting, and for companies implementing these initiatives, one of the benefits incurred will be the creation of internal processes and procedures that will mitigate perceptions of discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Massachusetts law requires that businesses maintain a harassment- and discrimination-free workplace. The law states, in summary, that it is unlawful to discriminate or harass in the workplace because of race, color, religious creed, national origin, or sex.

According to the related laws, a Massachusetts company has a duty to maintain a workplace that is free of discrimination and harassment. It would be fiction to state that it is possible for a company to ensure that it maintains an idyllic workplace for everyone. There are too many unique and diverse humans, too many variables. The good thing is the law does not require a company create an idyllic retreat.

However, it does require companies to do their due diligence to create and maintain a discrimination- and harassment-free workplace, and if something does occur that might meet the definition of discrimination or harassment, a company must address the matter in a timely fashion and implement remedial measures when and where necessary. As such, companies must prepare to manage the possibility of these occurrences. It would be most beneficial if a company did not wait to implement remedial measures in response to wrongdoing or after an incident has occurred; the programs should already be in place.

DE&I initiatives provide a multitude of benefits to an organization with returns that are both ethically and financially calculable, including assisting in the creation of discrimination- and harassment-free workplaces.

It can be difficult to calculate a financial return on prevention; however, in the realm of discrimination and harassment, prevention can be calculated by the declining costs of litigation. Creating a workplace that assures that policies are created to prevent harassment and discrimination, and that procedures are implemented to enable the consistent and equitable application of policies to all employees, will cause a decline in the appearance of harassment and discrimination and will diminish legal costs to a company — and costs to the company’s reputation.

The reason why DE&I initiatives work so well in this manner is because DE&I initiatives foster equity in the application of all workplace mechanisms and thus, once firmly established, naturally create a workplace environment free of discrimination and harassment, to the extent practicable. This is because, once DE&I initiatives are firmly established, most employees will feel a sense of belonging as they will feel heard and have a sense of empathy for their colleagues which fosters a team-oriented culture and problem-solving mindset. That not only prevents lawsuits, but it will also save money in the form of retention. Furthermore, data has shown that productivity and creativity increase, as does employee wellness.

Kylie Brown

Kylie Brown

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

“It can be difficult to calculate a financial return on prevention; however, in the realm of discrimination and harassment, prevention can be calculated by the declining costs of litigation.”

Unfortunately, many companies have leaders who have not identified DE&I as a cost-savings measure, or many leaders don’t know where to start. This article cannot, in the limited space provided, cover the entirety of what can be discussed in the realm of DE&I. However, we seek to plant a ‘can-do’ seed of desire to create DE&I initiatives in one’s workplace as a means of creating safe and discrimination- and harassment-free workplaces, by showing that creating such a workplace just takes a plan and a commitment to execute.

This article is one of a series that seeks to assist businesses with an inside-out approach, using existing resources to set up a sound foundation to grow a robust DE&I initiative within their company, and to create a workplace that is discrimination- and harassment-free while also becoming more ethical and more financially successful. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be tweaked along the way.

First, we start at the beginning. Let’s demystify DE&I.

 

What Does DE&I Even Mean? And What About Belonging?

Let’s broaden the concept to DE&I and B, or belonging.

Diversity means to be composed of different elements or offer variety. In application to the workplace, this translates to different people, through race, gender, and/or sexual orientation, with different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds, bringing their thoughts and ideas to the table.

Equity is the act of giving everyone in your pool of diversity fair treatment in access, opportunity, and advancement in the workplace, through processes and procedures implemented in a consistent manner. It’s recognizing we don’t all start from the same playing field and carries an idea of fairness and neutrality. That’s the difference between equity and equality.

Inclusion means being included in or involved in material decision making in the workplace at the appropriate level, and having the freedom or enterprise-level permission to weigh in on items of import that are relevant to one’s job and actually being heard. Identification of stakeholders are important here.

Belonging is what happens when a company has a strong foundation of continued diversity, equity, and inclusion processes, protocols, habits, and other customs of practice, and having a sense of being accepted as one’s authentic self at work that is supported by equity and inclusion. The goal should be to have an engrained DE&I model that is engrained in every aspect of the company so that it becomes common practice.

 

Where to Start?

First and foremost, focusing on DE&I must be in line with the overall business mission, values, and objectives in order to be successful. Second, there must be buy-in from all levels of the organization. Identifying what it will take to get that buy-in is important and will vary depending upon the audience. Third, identify the DE&I goals and why these are the goals. This is most likely dependent on what industry your company belongs to and how your company is structured.

Fourth, create a DE&I committee and identify who should be on the committee, and provide them with defined authority to act. This will create company accountability for continuing on with the initiatives. Fifth, do gap assessment. Where is the company now? Where does the company hope to be? What needs to be accomplished get there? What are the potential obstacles? How will they be overcome?

 

Gather Data

Focus on the return on the investment (know your audience). The return on investment might look different for the frontline supervisors than it does for procurement or accounting. Analyze the upfront costs, such as change in recruitment tactics, utilizing more networking forums, and potentially creating new roles to support the new business outlook

Where can we implement DE&I initiatives? DE&I can be external, by using diverse vendors, or internal, by establishing an equitable approach to handing out assignments. Every time a new business development is discussed, whether internally or externally, it creates another opportunity to include DE&I.

Identify stakeholders and talk to them. Encourage discussion on the topic of DE&I. Discuss their opinions on issues that impact them in the workplace. Gathering employee opinions and concerns will enable the company to make positive changes that will prevent issues and increase employee engagement. Hold open-forum discussions such as town-hall listening sessions — not talking sessions, where company executives talk at employees. These are great opportunities to listen to others and allow all staff to be heard.

A review of company documentation should be conducted to find existing areas where improvements may be needed. Obtaining statistical knowledge and data of the current demographics throughout the general workplace, as well as upper-level management, will help assist you in realizing where there is a need to implement DE&I.

 

Sell It

Make DE&I identifiable in the company mission. Make it a part of the company brand if possible. Involve company leaders in the celebration of meeting goals around DE&I initiatives. It is vital to get leadership support for the success of any DE&I initiative. Sell it to all employees. Create a well-thought-out communication plan. It is important that companies are knowledgeable about the prospective initiatives so they can answer any and all questions that may arise.

The company should support its initiatives by marketing them internally and externally to the general population, which could lead to potential exposure to overall business growth and development.

 

Implement It

At the core of implementing a successful DE&I program is implementing it in a manner consistent with the company mission, vision, and strategy. Including DE&I initiatives in your business model provides business growth opportunities and positive employee relations.

Implementation can start with recruitment, attracting different people from different backgrounds in order to bring new ideas to the table. Infuse DE&I in the employee-relations program by creating policies that are developed with the input of a cross-section of stakeholders and are consistently applied in an equitable manner.

Infusing all company mechanisms with DE&I approaches will be justified by the quantifiable growth and development it produces, as well as the prevention of discrimination and harassment lawsuits — and by the sense of belonging the company’s workforce maintains.

 

Kylie Brown is an associate attorney at the Royal Law Firm who specializes in labor and employment-law, and Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle is the firm’s chief administrative and litigation officer, who specializes in business and labor and employment law with certifications in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Workplace Investigations. The Royal Law Firm is a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

Women in Businesss

Beyond the Numbers

 

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat says the factors holding women back in the workforce must be fully understood in order to shift the tide.

The numbers speak for themselves. But more importantly, they demand a response.

According to a global study published in the Lancet, between March 2020 and September 2021, women were more likely to report employment loss than men during the pandemic (26.0% to 20.4%), as well as more likely to drop out of school or forgo work to care for others.

“The most significant gender gaps identified in our study show intensified levels of pre-existing, widespread inequalities between women and men during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report reads. “Political and social leaders should prioritize policies that enable and encourage women to participate in the labor force and continue their education, thereby equipping and enabling them with greater ability to overcome the barriers they face.”

That’s exactly what the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts — and a broad network of like-minded partners — have in mind through an effort they’re calling the Greater Springfield Women’s Economic Security Hub.

“We felt as though the many ways society was looking at women’s economic security was too narrow of a lens,” said Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund. “So we created our own framework, where we considered the factors that affect some women’s economic security as more expansive than what other people might think.”

That includes a lack of unpaid caregiving. During the pandemic, that issue was the dominant factor in women dropping out of the workforce at an uprecendeted rate. The numbers have recovered somewhat, but not all the way, and the factors causing the workforce exodus remain problematic.

“We felt as though the many ways society was looking at women’s economic security was too narrow of a lens. So we created our own framework.”

“Women weren’t dropping out of the workforce because they wanted to stay at home and eat bon-bons, but because schools were closed or childcare centers were closed, and someone needs to be home with the children,” Haghighat said. “Oftentimes, because of pay differentials and so forth, it made more sense for women to drop out of the workforce.”

Then there are issues around transportation and internet access. “Prior to the pandemic, people didn’t realize how critical that was,” she went on, whether the problem was lack of online access altogether or having difficulty sharing devices or WiFi with other family members.

To create the research and action project it called the Women’s Economic Security Hub, the Women’s Fund began collaborating with key area partners, including Arise for Social Justice, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Springfield WORKS, and the Western New England University School of Law Social Justice Center.

This work will focus on women, mostly of color and living at or below the poverty line, to understand the myriad factors that make or break an individual woman’s ‘economic engine,’ thereby affecting family prosperity.

The UMass Donahue Institute developed a survey instrument that will be refined, implemented, and analyzed by the UMass Amherst Center for Research on Families, and the survey will delve into 12 interconnected determinants, to form a framework which will be used to survey women in communities that have historically faced disproportionate challenges to economic growth.

“We’ve portrayed a women’s economic engine as a bunch of interlocking gears,” Haghighat said. “Each of these things can have an effect on the other things.”

 

Obstacles to Success

Luisa Sorio Flor, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington and lead author of the Lancet study, noted that “the pandemic has exacerbated gender disparities across several indicators related to health and other areas of well-being. Women were, for example, more likely than men to report loss of employment, an increase in uncompensated care work, and an increase in perceived gender-based violence during the pandemic, even in high-income countries.”

By partnering with the UMass Donahue Institute and surveying 200 area women, Haghighat hopes to localize those global trends to determine where the economic engine is jamming.

“Is it child and dependent care or job preparation or lack of a supportive network?” she asked. “We added ‘supportive network’ as one of the determinants we use, understanding that, when something goes wrong in a woman’s life, she might have a supportive network she can reach out to when things are going wrong, like a grandmother who can watch a child. But we realize that, oftentimes, women will lack that supportive network, which will obviously deter them from achieving economic security.”

“We’ve portrayed a women’s economic engine as a bunch of interlocking gears. Each of these things can have an effect on the other things.”

Another determinant is identification, which can be a serious barrier not only for undocumented women, but women emerging from incarceration.

“When you come out of incarceration, you don’t just get handed your ID. You have to re-establish your identification, which is mindblowing to me,” Haghighat said. “So many things these days require identification, so that’s a huge barrier to getting housing, getting paid to work, all those things.”

A report from UMass Amherst School of Public Policy (SPP), released last month, revealed some of the impacts that the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic had on Massachusetts households. Led by UMass Amherst economist Marta Vicarelli, the team from SPP’s Sustainable Policy Lab surveyed more than 2,600 Massachusetts residents from October 2020 to February 2021 to gather information about the challenges households faced due to the public-health crisis and its socioeconomic fallout, and the strategies adopted to address these challenges.

The survey covered a wide range of topics, including employment and financial strains, childcare and education, physical and mental health, substance use, and food security. Vicarelli said the team’s analysis devoted particular attention to women, children, and minority populations.

“Our results shed light on the socioeconomic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts households across different socioeconomic groups,” she wrote. “Many of these impacts have been persisting throughout the pandemic. Special focus is devoted to delays in children’s academic and emotional development, negative mental-health outcomes, and negative effects on women’s employment. If not addressed quickly, these socioeconomic impacts will have lasting, and possibly irreversible, implications for the United States. We hope that our results will inform the design of policies that address these impacts and support vulnerable groups.”

Notably, the survey found that 31% of respondents saw a decrease in overall income and savings, and women were more likely than men to report having become financially dependent on their partner due to pandemic disruptions. Echoing the global Lancet study, female respondents were also more likely to indicate substantial changes in their professional life to support the needs of their households, such as keeping their jobs but working fewer hours, taking unpaid leave, leaving their job, or changing jobs.

“There’s a real concern about lost stability for retirement purposes,” Haghighat told BusinessWest. “And who knows what’s going on with the Great Resignation? Hopefully, women who have more flexibility are taking advantage of a better labor market to make up ground in terms of their jobs and so forth. Over time, we’ll see how that plays out.”

 

An Ongoing Conversation

A 2019 Women’s Fund report called “Key Findings on the Status of Women and Girls in Western Massachusetts” highlighted the fact that women in Hampden County were underemployed and experiencing high rates of poverty. Since then, COVID-19 has complicated the issue, and the impact on women in Greater Springfield has disproportionately affected black and Hispanic women — often women concentrated in low-wage employment who were shut down for extended periods or were laid off entirely.

The 2019 report also emphasized barriers for formerly incarcerated women, positing that resources like affordable housing, debt relief, financial assistance, access to sober housing — especially for women — quick reunification with children and other family members, and continuity of therapy and recovery are greatly needed.

The next report will be a tale of how COVID impacted everything. That and the Women’s Economic Security Hub survey are necessary next steps in closing troubling gaps for women when it comes to economic security, Haghighat said.

“Who knows what’s going on with the Great Resignation? Hopefully, women who have more flexibility are taking advantage of a better labor market to make up ground in terms of their jobs and so forth.”

“And not just for us, but for area policy makers,” she added. “It’s important for them to take this lens to things — people quitting or not taking positions, not just because of pay, but because of hours, transportation, getting there. We want this framework for thinking about all the things affecting women. Then, employers can be more visionary about making sure the workplace or compensation package they’re creating really responds to the realities women are facing.”

She noted that federal lawmakers can get behind supporting physical infrastructure, like roads and bridges, but often balk at other forms of support, like a national early-childcare program that has come up for discussion in Congress before, but never went anywhere.

“I look at that as a huge missed opportunity,” Haghighat said — one of many that may one day be remedied as decision makers get a grip on the hard data that’s forcing too many women into hard decisions they shouldn’t have to make.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

The Great Return

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Over the past year or so, most companies have set — and then pushed back — the date when workers would return to the offices they left when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020. Now, such a return seems more real. But what’s also real is a commitment to flexibility among area employers, who recognize not only that employees can work effectively from home, but that hybrid, or fully remote, work schedules are becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining a workforce.

There was the Great Depression. And 75 years later, there was the Great Recession. We’re still struggling with what’s being called the Great Resignation, and now … we have what some are referring to as the Great Return.

This would be the return to the office of all those workers — tens of millions of them — who went home to work right around this time two years ago. Some have already returned, but many haven’t. There have been several scheduled returns over the past two years — indeed, most major corporations have moved back their return dates several times due to surges and new variants — but this time, by most all accounts, it seems real. Very real.

And it also seems complicated, or at least far different than most would have thought a return would look like two years ago.

That’s because the world of work has changed in a profound way, with the matter put in its proper perspective by Kristin Morales-Lemieux, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at Baystate Health.

“When we first sent everyone home, no one wanted to be there,” she said, adding that roughly 4,000 of the system’s employees were told to work remotely, if they could. “And for the first six months, we spent all of our time trying to hold back the tide of employees and managers who wanted to come back into the building, and, quite frankly, walking around and finding people who should not be there and shooing them back home again.

“As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

“But somewhere around that six-month mark …. there was a shift, and people starting saying, ‘I don’t want to go back,’ or ‘I certainly don’t want to go back full-time,’” she went on. “And in a few areas where we started to transition departments back, we started to notice that, not in large numbers, but here and there, we began losing people who were taking jobs with other organizations that allowed them to work remotely full-time.”

Kristin Morales-Lemieux

When they first went home, Kristin Morales-Lemieux says, employees were clamoring to come back to the office; six months later, most no longer wanted to.

This phenomenon explains why ‘flexibility’ is the watchword as the Great Return commences, and why the hybrid schedule — whereby people work in the office at least a few days of the week and remotely for the remainder — is becoming the norm among employers, and, increasingly, expected when it comes to employees.

At Monson Savings Bank, employees now have a number of options when it comes to working schedules, including a hybrid model that has them in the office at least two days a week, and a four-day work week. MSB President Dan Moriarty said such flexibility, at a time when most have proven they can work effectively from home, is a practical response to the changing work climate.

“We wanted to create some culture for retention for existing employees,” he said, echoing the thoughts of many we spoke with. “And as we compete against other companies in this region, but also well outside, that offer flexibility and remote working, we thought it was a good balance — for the organization and the employee.”

Meanwhile, MassMutual has put in place what it calls a “flexible workplace approach” that is comprised of three work arrangements — full-time in the office, full-time remote, and a hybrid of the two, with the majority of the financial-services giant’s employees working a hybrid arrangement.

“Flexibility is at the heart of our approach,” said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience for the company. “As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

Elaborating, she said the flexible-workplace approach has been in place since last summer with employees “testing” it over the past several months. They are now being asked to be at “a more regular cadence” by the beginning of April.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Chris Viale, president and CEO of the company, plans to bring employees back to work a hybrid schedule starting later this month. But the longer-term plan is to bring most employees back five days a week, he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s expecting some pushback, will listen to those giving it, and may ultimately change his mind.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID, we haven’t seen anything yet.”

But for now, that’s the plan, and for reasons that would resonate with many employers across the region.

“We’ve been grappling with this for quite some time,” Viale explained. “Right before the pandemic, we secured a much larger office space with a state-of-the-art call-center environment, and we committed to a seven-year lease, so we have that financial expense baked in to trying to do what’s right for everyone, trying to make sure the company is functioning as we need it to, trying to make sure we’re serving the consumers we’re serving, and meeting the needs of our staff. We’re trying to balance all that — somehow.”

Overall, there are many forces driving the flexibility being exhibited at most workplaces, but perhaps the most significant is common sense when it comes to the matter of attracting and retaining talent, especially at a time when businesses in virtually sector are struggling to do so.

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility with its return-to-the-workplace strategies, including hybrid schedules and the option of a four-day work week.

Morales-Lemieux noted that Baystate Health, which regularly employs roughly 13,000 employees, currently has about 1,900 vacancies, three times what might be considered normal and a powerful motivating force when it comes to establishing return-to-the-workplace strategies.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID,” she said, “we haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

Work in Progress

It’s called ‘Corporate Tuesday.’

That’s the name Monson Savings Bank has attached to the second day of the work week, a day when most, if not all, employees will be in the office, said Moriarty, adding that this is the day, considered better than Monday, or any other day, for that matter, when people would schedule in-person meetings, department meetings, and collaborations.

“The parking lot is pretty full,” he explained, adding that Corporate Tuesday has been in effect since Jan. 1, and has thus far been greeted with a generally positive response.

Beyond Corporate Tuesday and some similar initiatives, there is now unprecedented amounts of flexibility when it comes to work and work schedules, at companies both large and small, a new landscape that has been years (and not just the past two years) in the making.

Indeed, Morales-Lemieux echoed others when she said there was some movement in this direction before the pandemic, especially as the unemployment rate dropped and it became steadily more challenging to attract and retain talent.

Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan says employees at Health New England have shown they can be effective working remotely.

“Even pre-COVID, we were really starting to feel the pressure to move into a variety of more flexible work arrangements, even as it relates to our frontline workers,” she told BusinessWest. “As the unemployment rate had dropped over the past decade, coupled with our own unique challenges in Western Massachusetts, such as our aging population and the number of healthcare-related — and non-healthcare-related — companies that we compete with for workers, we had, in the year prior to the pandemic, been talking in earnest about how we needed to change in order to make sure that we could keep a workforce.”

Elaborating, she said this talk involved, among other things, remote-work scenarios not only for attractive job candidates from other states who do not wish to relocate to Massachusetts, but also candidates and existing employees already in the 413.

Suffice it to say the pandemic has served to open more eyes to this need to change and add several layers of urgency to the matter, despite the delayed nature of the return to work.

But change comes hard to many companies, said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, noting that, in this case, most employers she’s talked with have seen the wisdom of embracing flexibility and not trying to put in place a one-size — or one-schedule, to be more precise — fits-all policy or strategy.

Indeed, even most old-school managers who would certainly prefer to have everyone back in the office eight hours a day, five days a week, are recognizing the need to embrace the changing landscape and not fight it — for a number of very practical reasons, especially those workforce issues, she said.

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them. And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now.”

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them,” she explained. “And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now; there are enough employers that are offering hybrid arrangements that you could easily lose people if you put your foot down and say, ‘I need you here five days a week.’ Those workers can easily find someone who will be flexible and more accommodating.”

 

Balance Sheet

Those we spoke with said there have been a number of fits and starts when it comes to returning employees to the workplace. Most were ready to start the process last spring or last fall, but Delta and then Omicron ultimately pushed back those timetables.

Now, most are looking at later this month or early next month as a return date, although it appears the vast majority of workers will still be working remotely at least a few days a week.

At Health New England, Sarah Morgan, director of Human Resources and Organizational Development, said all but a handful of the company’s 385 employees are currently working remotely, and there is no set date for a return. As for a plan, it involves being flexible, giving employees an opportunity to “volunteer” to return if they should desire to do so and if the conditions with regard to the pandemic warrant such a return.

For many reasons, she said, returning everyone to the office full-time — essentially turning back the clock to early March 2020 — is not practical. For starters, even with COVID subsiding in many respects, the company is no rush for a return to pre-pandemic density levels in its office space in Monarch Place. But over the past two years, employees have shown they can effectively work remotely, she went on, which more than justifies flexible or hybrid work schedules.

“Our associates have proven that they’re capable of working remotely for quite some time; they’re meeting the standards and expectations and doing very, very well,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re meeting all the needs of our members, and so we’ve said that people like to work at home, we understand that, and we’re going to enable a certain amount of flexibility within teams and a hybrid approach.”

Like others, she said such flexibility is becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining employees, but also widening the pool of talent to include those from other regions of the country.

“We recognize that flexibility around remote work and hybrid work schedules is a way to honor the needs of people,” she said, using that word ‘needs’ in reference to everything from family matters to physical disabilities. “We’re seeing more people ask for that flexibility when they apply.”

And at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which employs roughly 150 people, 100 at the Agawam Corporate Center, there will be similar amounts of flexibility, said Jennifer Murphy, director of Human Resources, adding that the employees now working remotely, and that’s most of them, are slated to return in a hybrid format on April 4.

“Part of our new flexible-work policy involves a hybrid work model; when we return, people will be required to work 60% of the time in the office,” Murphy said, adding that this plan of action has been generally well-received by employees. Overall, it represents acknowledgement of both the emergence of remote work as being popular and effective and the importance of face-to-face interaction when it comes to office culture.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely,” she explained. “But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions. Overall, we’re trying to balance the value and importance of in-person work and collaboration with employees’ desire to also have that flexibility to work remotely.”

Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy says the 100 employees working at the offices of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation will be returning on April 4 and working hybrid schedules.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Viale said his plan to bring employees back to a hybrid schedule was greeted with a generally positive response. Overall, he’s not expecting the same when it comes to his plans to bring all or most employees (there will be exceptions for health considerations and other factors) back full-time.

Elaborating, and echoing Morales-Lemieux’s comments, he said that, as the months went by, employees became increasingly comfortable with working remotely, and increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of returning to the office.

But after weighing all the factors, including that seven-year lease on a significantly larger footprint and other considerations, he decided that bringing everyone back is the best course. But, as noted earlier, he will listen, and he may be open to changing his plans.

And what may be a deciding factor in his ultimate decision is his ability to maintain his workforce.

“What’s really challenging is just finding people to work,” he said. “I just heard an ad coming in to work this morning that Target is hiring people for $24 an hour; our starting wage is between $16 and $18 an hour.”

At Ware-based Country Bank, most all employees have been back to the office since last fall, said Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer for the institution, adding that she believes that the bank is among the first, if not the first, business of its kind to put a flexible work policy in place.

The employees who have returned are working three days in the office and two remotely, she said, adding that the new policy, or strategy, is not the result of COVID, necessarily, but rather recognition that times and needs are changing, and flexible schedules are the logical, responsible response to the current landscape.

“One of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore,” she said. “That has become our mantra in many ways.”

Elaborating, she said the pandemic helped drive home the need to communicate with employees, have them articulate their challenges and needs, and then work with them to the extent possible to accommodate those needs.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely. But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions.”

This is the right thing to do, Siegel said, but it’s also what many companies are willing to do, which is critical during what could only be called an ongoing workforce crisis.

“When you couple this remote-work situation with the Great Resignation, shifting priorities, and our challenge to retain people … we need to be listening to our employees and accommodate them when we can,” she said. “Because they’ll very quickly go somewhere else right now.”

At Baystate, as Morales-Lemieux noted, efforts to bring back — to the extent they are coming back — those 4,000 employees who left for home two years ago have been underway for some time.

There is now an organization-wide communication plan and strategy that will be launched in early April, she said, adding that there are still 3,000 people working “completely or largely” remotely.

 

Bottom Line

At all the workplaces we talked with, the new policies and strategies are in place for what would be called the time being.

Indeed, each company said it reserved to right to re-evaluate and change what is in place, depending on how things work out.

“The program we put in place — we keep the option open to revise or revoke if we don’t see good results,” Moriarty said. “But so far, so good.”

Murphy concurred. “When we initiated this policy and rolled it out, we said we would try it for one year and see how it works, and that we reserve the right to revisit it,” she said, adding that, while there is general confidence that this strategy will succeed given what’s happened over the past two years, it is still, on some levels, an experiment.

But overall, she’s not expecting many changes to the new policies — or to the current landscape in the workplace, for that matter.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see the trend turning back to fully in-person work for most people, especially those who work at a computer all day,” she said. “We’ve shown that that the remote model works; I think it’s here to stay.”

Morgan agreed. “We’re trending in that direction; HR professionals are talking about the trends, and the ‘new normal,’ and what will be the future of work,” she explained. “For so many reasons, we’re engaging in work in a different way; we’re fitting it into our lives in a different way than we could if we had a 30-minute commute to the office — and we’re finding that we can be even more productive.”

Those sentiments are among the many that make it clear that work has changed over the past two years — and probably changed forever.

And this will make the much-anticipated Great Return something to watch.

 

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

Manufacturing Special Coverage

Making Changes

 

Steve Graham

Steve Graham stands in front of spools of 3D filament at Toner Plastics.

In manufacturing, as in many industries, the story of the past year has been one of shortages and high costs — shortages of both materials and workers, and rising costs of supplies and wages as a direct result of those trends. As this story and the one on page 39 make clear, the problem isn’t demand for manufactured products, but meeting that demand at a time of global disruption. Yet, for many companies, this may turn out to be a time of innovation, too.

 

By Mark Morris

 

Steven Graham called it a “double whammy.”

Specifically, throughout 2021, manufacturers faced a year full of supply-chain issues and the constant challenge of having enough workers. And when Graham, president and CEO of Toner Plastics in East Longmeadow, could find raw materials, they cost more — lots more.

“You operate at a smaller profit margin because you can’t necessarily pass along the price increases,” he said.

In Graham’s company, raw materials are mostly plastic pellets that are fabricated into diverse types of products ranging from craft items to medical devices. Because plastic is derived from oil, price swings are nothing new to him, but he described the last couple of years as brutal.

On top of normal supply-chain issues, Graham said last winter’s sudden freeze in Texas exacerbated an already-tough situation. There are usually plenty of warnings before hurricanes hit the Gulf of Mexico, which allows oil refineries to shut down days before to ride out the storm. The freeze arrived with no warning, leaving the refineries unprepared.

“The damage was more extensive, which shut them down much longer than we’ve seen after other weather events they’ve endured.”

As a result, Graham has seen persistent cost increases for the last 12 to 18 months. “I’ve been in this business 40 years, and I’ve never seen the size of the increases and the length of time they’ve stuck around.”

OMG Inc. in Agawam uses steel wire and flat stock for its line of screws and fasteners, as well as chemicals for the adhesives it makes for its roofing division. Since the pandemic, purchasing raw materials has been challenging and increasingly expensive.

“We often saw a doubling if not tripling of prices for our raw materials,” said Hubert McGovern, president and CEO of OMG.

While the supply situation has improved in the last couple of months, McGovern said, when materials do arrive, the next challenge is having enough workers to make the products and get them out the door. Between increased competition for workers and COVID-19, it’s difficult to stay fully staffed.

“At the height of the most recent COVID spike, 10% to 15% of our workforce was affected at some level of COVID quarantine,” McGovern said.

The jump in COVID cases also made the last weeks of 2021 difficult for Mestek, the Westfield manufacturer of HVAC equipment. Even though employees will often pitch in when there are staff shortages, delays still occur, said Peter Letendre, plant manager. “Lead times for certain products have been extended because we were lacking raw materials or we didn’t have the right people in place.”

One positive test can affect many employees. As an example, Graham said if one worker in the shipping area tests positive for COVID, the three other workers in that department also need to be tested. Each one who tests positive cannot return to work for five days, even if they have no symptoms.

“It causes the kind of staffing problems where we can’t run a line or drive the forklift trucks if those folks aren’t here,” he explained.

While COVID contributes to labor issues, the larger problem every industry faces involves getting and keeping employees. Kate Keiderling, Human Resources director at OMG, called it a continuous struggle to find the right people.

“We are always looking at pay rates, and we’ve added a sign-on bonus followed by a retention bonus if the person stays six months,” she said. “We’ve also increased the bonus we pay employees who refer others to work with us.”

Back in the fall, Mestek began offering attendance bonuses for workers who put in a full 40-hour week.

“It certainly improved attendance and retention,” Letendre said. “Perhaps more importantly, it has helped us in attracting new employees into manufacturing.”

Kate Keiderling

“We are always looking at pay rates, and we’ve added a sign-on bonus followed by a retention bonus if the person stays six months.”

For many years, Toner Plastics ran three full shifts primarily because plastic fabricating machines are most efficient when they continuously run. Long before concerns about labor shortages, Graham said the third shift was the most difficult to staff and was always the shift with the fewest workers. With the pressures of COVID concerns and worker shortages, he reconfigured the work week at Toner.

“We decided to eliminate the third shift and move to two shifts of 10-hour days, four days a week,” he told BusinessWest. With this schedule, everyone reaches 40 hours by Thursday, and if someone wants to work overtime or make up a day because of an absence, they can do so on Friday.

“This way, there’s no loss of income for missing a day, our production lines continue to run, and we are able to keep orders going out the door.”

 

Challenges to Expansion

In a different labor market, Letendre would have a ‘good’ problem. Last year, Mestek acquired Slant/Fin, a Long Island manufacturer of baseboard heaters and one of Mestek’s main competitors. This year, Slant/Fin’s equipment is being relocated to Westfield, where Mestek will manufacture the company’s radiant heating baseboard products sold at Home Depot stores across the U.S. This opportunity means Letendre needs to hire at least 50 more employees.

“In addition to trying to keep a healthy workforce here, we also have to expand, and that’s a real challenge,” Letendre said.

On top of attendance and retention bonuses, Mestek has expanded a program that encourages employees to increase their wages by developing additional skills.

“Orders for our fasteners continue to stay strong at home centers and retail lumberyards. In the last year, demand has also picked up in our flat-roofing business, so instead of slowing down, both divisions grew in sales.”

“We want to have people with a variety of skills so they can fill in for each other in a pinch,” he said. “Of course, that versatility has become even more important during the pandemic.”

Of course, the pandemic has also generated increased demand for Mestek HVAC products that circulate large amounts of air. Whether it’s for new construction or replacing an existing system, Letendre said this area of the business is booming. “We’re seeing an onslaught of orders for these products, which has been great.”

When the pandemic first hit, McGovern anticipated a slowdown in business for his company, but the exact opposite happened. OMG’s fastener division makes several types of screws used primarily in residential housing and on backyard decks. The first year of the pandemic saw a huge increase in backyard projects and home renovations, which drove demand for all those fasteners.

Peter Letendre

Peter Letendre says lead times for some products have been extended because of a lack of raw materials or people.

“Orders for our fasteners continue to stay strong at home centers and retail lumberyards,” he explained. “In the last year, demand has also picked up in our flat-roofing business, so instead of slowing down, both divisions grew in sales.”

Toner has manufactured the elastic used for N95 masks for years, long before anyone had heard of COVID. Graham explained that his company’s production was for a vendor who supplied the masks to U.S. Navy hospitals around the world. At the beginning of the pandemic, when demand for N95 masks exploded, he ramped up production from one line to three.

“We had already mastered the process and we knew where to get the raw materials to make them,” he said. “As long as we could get enough workers, we would run 24 hours a day to help fill the supply chain.”

By the first quarter of 2021, Graham said the supply chain caught up, and suddenly there was a glut of N95 masks. Toner still makes the elastics, but orders have gone back down to pre-COVID levels.

Looking ahead to this year and beyond, Graham pointed to 3D printing as a promising area for his company. Toner makes the plastic filament commonly used in desktop 3D printers.

“We entered the market when it first started back in 2012, and now we supply a number of the machine manufacturers with filament,” he said. “It’s been a good growth area for us.”

Part of Graham’s job is to look ahead to see who will be in the workforce to make the 3D filament and other Toner products in the future. For years, the industry knew about Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, but the pandemic caused many to leave the workforce sooner and in higher numbers than anyone anticipated — so the pool of available candidates seems to have shrunk.

“I think this labor situation will stay severe and be with us for a while,” he added.

With many long-term employees approaching retirement age, OMG is also paying close attention to who might be leaving and who can be trained to take over in key positions.

“So far, we have been able to fill some of the key roles we have wanted to,” Keiderling said. “However, we’re also expanding, so our need for labor will continue to increase.”

Is more automation the answer to filling the jobs left vacant by the tight labor market? Graham acknowledged the importance of continued automation at his company while also noting its benefits are limited. Right now, when a particular task is automated at Toner, the person who was on that machine will move to another line.

“This allows us to do get a little more done with the same number of people without any layoffs,” he said. “We have good people, and we want to keep them employed for as long as they want to work here; that’s important to us.”

Thus, while automation certainly helps, Graham does not see it replacing large numbers of jobs. McGovern concurred on the limits of automation, saying, “when you’re in a conference room, automation sounds like a great way to replace labor, but it’s not that simple.”

 

Thinking Differently

While the last two years have brought many changes, they have also pushed manufacturers to think differently about ways to run their businesses. While employee safety has always been a priority at Mestek, Letendre said the pandemic spurred a shift in focus to keeping workers healthy and safe in new ways. On-the-job workers are kept at a safe distance from each other, and everyone wears a mask, a requirement in Westfield.

Looking back on this new emphasis, he admitted, “we’ve gotten pretty good at keeping our employees healthy and safe.”

These times have also disrupted the normally rigid nature of the manufacturing environment. For instance, by eliminating the third shift and going to a four-day work week, Graham said, workers now have much more flexibility than in the past.

“It’s actually a good idea, and it makes sense for everyone,” he added. “We’ll probably make that move permanent.”

It’s just one more example of how the pandemic continues to alter the way manufacturers — and so many other industries — get the job done.

Construction Special Coverage

More Demand Than Supply

Keiter recently completed a 14,000-square-foot addition to VCA Inc. in Northampton.

Keiter recently completed a 14,000-square-foot addition to VCA Inc. in Northampton. (Photo by Leigh Chodos)

By now, the phrase ‘supply chain’ has become one of the economic buzzwords of our time, as global shortages and slowdowns of goods, not to mention staffing crunches, have impacted industries ranging from food service and retail to manufacturing and auto sales. The construction industry has been particularly vulnerable to those trends, which is especially unfortunate considering that most builders say the work is there — they just can’t tackle it all until these broader issues begin to stabilize. When they will is anyone’s guess.

 

Most people have heard about the challenges facing the construction industry these days, Scott Keiter said — workforce shortages and supply-chain issues foremost among them — but it’s helpful, he noted, to understand how they’re really part of one large issue.

“Part of the supply-chain issue is the workforce,” said the president of Keiter, the new name for his company, which now encompasses four divisions: commercial and industrial, residential, site work, and real estate. “But the pandemic affects people, and people are the ones who produce products. I think the demand is out there, but those other things out there are causing a little bit of a bog on the system. This is something I hear from others in construction as well.”

It’s what BusinessWest is hearing, too — that there’s plenty of demand for work, but no one is in a place to take on all they could were the workforce and supply outlooks more stable.

“Demand is a great thing,” Keiter added, “but if the supply chain is already compromised, those things can really put a strain on the system … and we have to work harder to achieve the same results.”

Carol Campbell agreed. “It’s been a year like no other,” the president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC) said. “I think I’ve said that before, but this time is very different.”

“Demand is a great thing. but if the supply chain is already compromised, those things can really put a strain on the system … and we have to work harder to achieve the same results.”

Indeed, “we are certainly affected by the labor force, or the lack thereof,” she went on. “So when you evaluate your sales or how busy you are, well, if we were at full complement, it would be a different story. We’re at reduced labor teams, so we are busy, but it’s hard to serve all our customers at the level we’re at right now.”

From a supply-chain perspective, CIC is a contractor based in the manufacturing world. “Where we have issues with the supply chain is, if we have a team scheduled to do a project, the installation may take a week or two, then, with 48-hours notice or less, we get a phone call saying the machine hasn’t even hit the dock.

Scott Keiter says the industry is busy

Scott Keiter says the industry is busy, but new challenges make it a different kind of busy than before.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare,” she went on. “I tip my hat to our schedulers, how they keep all the balls in the air and keep all the employees working and customers happy, with all the changes that happen on very quick notice.”

The supply crunch affects both availability and cost, said Craig Sweitzer, co-owner of Sweitzer Construction. “I just got off the phone with someone who needs 12 weeks lead for replacement windows. I’ve never heard of that before. And a lot of materials are unavailable, so we have to search for substitutes.”

Co-owner Pat Sweitzer said she was bidding a project, and a plumber advised her to order a certain piece of equipment needed for the job immediately. “So you ask yourself the question, ‘do we take a chance and order it and expect to get the job?’ These kinds of questions are coming up as well.”

These challenges tend to put contractors in a tough spot, stuck in the middle between customer demands and supply realities.

“Those are real concerns,” Craig said. “At first it sounded like a lot of people complaining, but it truly is an issue. Availability, the cost of materials and shipping, getting stuff shipped to sites … it’s all tricky.”

 

Links in the Chain

One aspect of the supply-chain issue is trucking, Campbell said, which has impacted her firm on two levels.

“It’s been a nightmare to hire drivers to join our team, then trying to get machines delivered to our facility or to our customer’s facility. They’ll say they’ll be there at noon and may show up at 4 o’clock. So it’s hard because you have to pass some of the cost off, but who’s at fault in all this? It’s a scheduling nightmare, a financial nightmare for customers and vendors. It’s been … quite an interesting year.”

She gave an example of a hard deadline of Dec. 31 to get a machine up and running on a customer’s plant floor. “We’re at the bottom of that chain. It has to come through customs — most are made outside the U.S. — then it has to be piped by the piper, the electrician does his work, then you bring the rigger in, all those dovetail together.”

Keiter said supply shortages and delays are causing some price escalation with materials.

“It’s really causing us to have to look ahead and think about how the disruption and supply chain will affect schedules, and then, of course, the ever-moving pricing with materials is a challenge for not only us as contractors, but for clients and their budgeting. It’s very difficult — the days of just showing up and going at it are gone. We’re having to really get ahead of procurement and also securing tradesman and subcontractors. The industry is busy, but it’s a lot different than it was before.”

Windows and kitchen cabinetry have been especially problematic when it comes to significant timeline increases, Keiter noted. “That said, anything special-order, anything that’s not run-of-the-mill, anything made to order, anything not on a shelf, those seem to be taking longer on average.”

The Construction Products Assoc. (CPA) recently downgraded its forecast for construction growth in 2022 from 6.3% to 4.8% amid what it called a “perfect storm” in the supply chain, Construction Manager magazine reported.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare. I tip my hat to our schedulers, how they keep all the balls in the air and keep all the employees working and customers happy, with all the changes that happen on very quick notice.”

The association warned that supply-chain constraints are now expected to hinder growth well into next year, citing a combination of talent shortages, product availability and cost inflation, driver shortages, the impact of energy-cost increases, and delays at ports as factors in that storm.

“The biggest impacts of the supply constraints are on the small construction firms,” CPA Economics Director Noble Francis said. “Large contractors and major house builders have a greater certainty of demand over the 12- to 18-month horizon and are better able to plan and purchase in advance as well as adjust to changing economic situations. Small firms, however, are more focused on flexibility and have less visibility over demand going forward. Plus, they have less ability and resource to plan and purchase in advance.”

But the workforce issues remain problematic as well.

Pat and Craig Sweitzer

Pat and Craig Sweitzer say supply-chain issues affect both availability and cost of materials, and, therefore, both project scheduling and budgeting.

“We were fortunate in that regard,” Keiter said. “We have a very strong, committed team of employees. However, you can see in the workforce in general, whether it’s vendors, subcontractors, or others, I think the pandemic has really shaken things up.”

It’s an issue that worries Campbell moving forward.

“I feel optimistic in our conversations with customers, and we’re booking into 2022, but I have great concerns about the labor force,” she told BusinessWest. “We pay well, and our benefits compare with a state or municipality. And we can’t attract a skilled workforce.

“We’ve always had issues hiring skilled labor just because, coming out of high school, it requires quite a few years of apprenticing. But nothing like we have right now. Over COVID, we had a few people age out, who said, ‘that’s what it took for me to hang it up’ — some people, quite honestly, I just didn’t expect. I understand why they retired, but I think COVID gave them that push.”

Craig Sweitzer said his firm has been navigating workforce issues well, although that did necessitate a lot of personal time to deal with COVID-related issues. “All in all, we survived intact.”

However, the industry’s worker crunch has made clearer the importance of keeping workers happy. “We’ve rolled quite a bit of our profits out of our pockets and put them to use to help our employees and subs. We stress that above and beyond profitability,” he said. “It’s easier to run a business when everybody’s on the same team, pushing in the same direction. So we’re happy to forgo a little profit to have that.”

Pat Sweitzer said she understands the strain workers in all industries have felt over the past two years.

“We have been really fortunate to have our employees and our subcontracting team with us for many, many years. In terms of our employees, they have had family obligations they had to meet during COVID, such as homeschooling and schools being closed down, kids at home. So we have accommodated their needs, and they have stayed with us through the whole year and a half, and we are really fortunate and glad that they have stayed with us all this time; they bring a level of knowledge and skill to our projects that really serve our company and our customers well.”

 

Optimism Ahead

As noted earlier, despite the industry-wide, often global challenges, area firms have stayed busy.

“For us, this year has been a really good year,” Pat said. “Part of that is thanks to Adaptas Solutions in Palmer, which is a manufacturer in the Palmer Industrial Park that had renovations of five high-tech buildings.

“We were building a clean room and upgrading their facilities,” she added. “It really sustained us and positioned them well as a company. It was a good, steady year for us.”

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell

“It’s been a nightmare to hire drivers to join our team, then trying to get machines delivered to our facility or to our customer’s facility. They’ll say they’ll be there at noon and may show up at 4 o’clock. So it’s hard because you have to pass some of the cost off, but who’s at fault in all this?”

The firm’s niches in medical and dental facilities continue top be strong as well, she added, and it’s starting to edge into an area with significant growth potential: cannabis.

“One thing I’m grateful about is that we have our bread and butter, our dental and medical work, and now that technical capability and knowledge we’ve developed in those industries is transferring over to the cannabis industry,” she told BusinessWest. “So we have a lot of work coming up, including projects that we hope will be coming through in the cannabis industry.”

Keiter is similarly pleased with his firm’s pipeline.

“We work with a lot of the institutions of higher learning, and those projects continue. We’re also working with a number of nonprofit organizations. We had a pretty good run in 2021. We built a number of new homes, got a lot of residential construction. All the various parts of our business are moving in the right direction.”

In other words, business is booming. That’s the big, positive takeaway amid all the industry concerns about workforce and supply — and how they are, in many ways, the same issue.

“It’s busy, and things are moving. Demand is there,” Keiter said. “We’re here and working hard, and we’re going to get through it. Everyone in construction is hopeful that we’ll start to work our way out of the pandemic and maybe stabilize a little bit.”

Craig Sweitzer agreed. “We’re bidding like mad, and I’m assuming there’s still a lot of optimism out there, so we can only hope to stay as busy as we’ve been. In spite of all the craziness, there does seem to be a lot of optimism out there.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Cover Story Health Care

Critical Condition

Workforce challenges are common to virtually every industry these days — in fact, it’s the dominant economic story of our time, affecting everything from wages to employee relations to damaged supply chains. In healthcare, the pandemic has only exacerbated workforce issues that were already present. Hospitals, nursing homes, and other providers have to keep providing their services, of course, but the stress, burnout, and soaring costs resulting from the talent crunch have many saying the current environment is simply unsustainable.

While workforce shortages in healthcare are not a new story, Spiros Hatiras said, COVID-19 certainly didn’t help the situation. Far from it.

“We had some challenges even before, but really, the pandemic has created a sort of crisis situation,” said Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center and Valley Health Systems, noting that industry estimates peg current healthcare vacancies around a half-million jobs nationally. “There’s a mixture of reasons why they left, and a lot of them had to do with the pandemic.”

Essentially, he explained, many nurses and specialists have re-evaluated what they want to do for a living, while others who were close to retirement anyway decided to make that transition earlier than they might have. Others who had been part of a double-income household stayed home with the kids during the pandemic and decided they wanted to continue to do so.

“You have people who got burned out dealing with acute illness and decided to stay in the profession, but looked for a setting where they weren’t dealing with acute illness,” he went on. “Then you had some people with an existential crisis, saying ‘healthcare is not for me.’ We certainly had some of those. Put it all together, and we had a lot of folks leave the profession on the clinical side.”

Entry-level, non-licensed jobs in healthcare, like housekeeping and dietary services, have been a struggle to fill as well, Hatiras said, but nowhere near as difficult as on the clinical side.

Adam Berman also recognizes that these issues predate COVID. Well before the pandemic — for several years before, actually — Berman, president and CEO of Legacy Lifecare, would attend trade-association panels and conferences and speak with state and national colleagues, and one topic would always be at the forefront.

“It was always workforce, workforce, workforce,” he said. “This was pre-COVID, and it’s what kept providers up at night.”

However, at Legacy’s two partner companies, JGS Lifecare and Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, Berman agrees with Hatiras that the pandemic took an already-worrisome problem and worsened it.

“We had some challenges even before, but really, the pandemic has created a sort of crisis situation.”

“When COVID came, many individuals who may have been considering careers in healthcare went for it, but for others, COVID gave them pause. And some people elected to retire earlier than they were otherwise going to. For many people, there was the calculus of determining whether they’d stay at home taking care of somebody versus re-entering the workforce.

“That’s not just in healthcare; that’s in general,” Berman added. “You see it across every industry. There are fewer people overall than were previously in the workforce.”

The growing labor shortage in healthcare is starting to have serious bottom-line effects, as organizations boost wages to compete for scarce talent and swallow skyrocketing rates being demanded by travel-nurse agencies.

A recent study conducted by Premier, a national healthcare-improvement company, found that U.S. hospitals and health systems are paying $24 billion more per year for qualified clinical labor than they did pre-pandemic, and approximately two-thirds of hospitals’ current costs are from wages and salary.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras says hospitals like Holyoke Medical Center are feeling the bottom-line impact of soaring workforce costs.

As reported by the Massachusetts Hospital Assoc., Premier found that “overtime hours are up 52% as of September of 2021 when compared to a pre-pandemic baseline. At the same time, use of agency and temporary labor is up 132% for full-time and 131% for part-time workers. Use of contingency labor (or positions created to complete a temporary project or work function) is up nearly 126%.”

The Premier study follows a September study from Kaufman Hall projecting that hospitals nationwide will lose an estimated $54 billion in net income over the course of 2021, even taking into account the funding they received from the federal CARES Act.

Meanwhile, Moody’s Investor Services also predicted hospital margins will continue to fall. “Over the next year, we expect margins to decline given wage inflation, use of expensive nursing agencies, increased recruitment and retention efforts, and expanded benefit packages that include more behavioral-health services and offerings such as childcare. Even after the pandemic, competition for labor is likely to continue as the population ages — a key social risk — and demand for services increases.”

All of this results in what healthcare leaders are increasingly calling an unsustainable situation — one that’s necessitating a great deal of flexibility, creativity, and, yes, anxiety.

 

Heightened Competition

In the world of home care, COVID posed some very specific issues, said Mary Flahive-Dickson, chief development officer and chief medical officer at Golden Years Homecare Services and Golden Years Staffing Agency.

“We already had an ongoing issue with a shortage of healthcare providers, but with COVID, people were moving loved ones out of facilities and into their homes — getting them out of skilled nursing and assisted living, keeping them out of hospitals. But now they needed home care, and a lot of it — not just an hour here and an hour there. These were people with 24-hour needs.”

The government’s generous unemployment policies didn’t help, she added.

“When the government pays you to stay home, why the hell would you go to work? If you’re getting paid $15 or $16 an hour to potentially expose yourself to COVID by entering someone’s home, why not stay home and get paid $25 an hour to stay home? We had the same issues every other industry had: the government simply made it way too easy to stay home.”

All that became what Flahive-Dickson called a “perfect storm” of increased home-care needs when the worker pool was dramatically shrinking — a simple matter of supply and demand, really. She understands the reluctance to work last year — not just because of the unemployment benefits, but because it was unclear, especially early on, how COVID spread and how serious the risk was. But almost two years after the pandemic began, the workforce disruption still resonates.

Adam Berman

Adam Berman

“When COVID came, many individuals who may have been considering careers in healthcare went for it, but for others, COVID gave them pause. And some people elected to retire earlier than they were otherwise going to.”

This past year did bring some relief, she noted, from the end of the extra-large unemployment checks to the expedited vaccine rollout to healthcare workers in February and March. However, the tight labor market has also created a competitive situation in which nurses, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), home health aides, and others are willing to jump from job to job for a pay bump — and companies are, indeed, offering those bumps.

“If I work for company A and company B offers me a quarter more an hour, I’m going to company B,” she said in explaining the mindset. “Then, if company C offers more than company B, I’m going to company C. Competition for home-care workers and other healthcare workers is through the roof.

“The reimbursements haven’t gone up, but payouts have gone up,” she went on. “A lot of companies are just not able to do that; if you don’t have a certain volume, you’re out of business.”

Wearing her staffing-agency hat for a moment, Flahive-Dickson noted that Massachusetts is the only state in the country that puts a cap on what a staffing agency can charge a facility; in fact, it’s illegal to go over the cap.

“If you’re getting paid $15 or $16 an hour to potentially expose yourself to COVID by entering someone’s home, why not stay home and get paid $25 an hour to stay home? We had the same issues every other industry had: the government simply made it way too easy to stay home.”

“Everyone is trying to outbid each other, and these employees find themselves jumping from opportunity to opportunity simply because the opportunity is there. You can’t blame them for doing that, but it’s completely unsustainable.”

Agency nurses are causing financial problems for hospitals because of the pay they command, Hatiras said. As a result, nurses are leaving their employers, signing on with agencies as ‘travelers,’ and then often returning to the same hospitals at two or three times the pay.

“The staff is making significantly more money, and it enriches those agencies, but the hospitals and consumers are footing the bill,” he said. “That’s an additional problem for us, but we’re not alone.”

HMC offers stability of schedule, without the travel, that agencies can’t, he noted, and has been offering incentives — like bonuses for signing up and for staying on for a certain amount of time, as well as tuition reimbursement and loan forgiveness. “But we can’t match the $100 an hour agencies are paying.”

What all this means, Berman said, is that “employees have far more power to be very discriminating about their future employment. I think that’s wonderful — it does require employers to think differently than in the past. You can’t take for granted that people will show up at your door. You need to do a better job of messaging: ‘this is a good place to work; everyone is treated fairly.’”

And not just say it, but back it up, he added.

“Competitive providers are raising wages, which is one of the positive impacts. It’s tough on employers, but those employers are becoming more competitive in terms of working conditions and wages, and that should not be minimized.”

 

Priming the Pump

Hatiras said the lack of interstate licensing reciprocity doesn’t help efforts to boost nursing staff, and state-level efforts to create reciprocity have run into union resistance. But he added that any effort to put more workers in the pipeline locally would be welcome.

“I don’t know if the pandemic has discouraged people who ordinarily would want to get into nursing but are staying away from it,” he told BusinessWest.

Mary Flahive-Dickson says many people want to remain in healthcare

Mary Flahive-Dickson says many people want to remain in healthcare, but not in acute-care settings because of stress and burnout.

One step Holyoke Medical Center has taken is to reduce the volume of non-clinical work that its nurses do, like personal hygiene, handling phone calls, and procuring supplies. In that way, the workforce crunch is lessened not by hiring more nurses — which the hospital would do if it could — but giving them more time to do the clinical work they’re uniquely trained to do.

“We decided to go to a model where we add more more staff that acts in a support role — certified nursing assistants, phlebotomists, secretarial help. At times when staffing is down, those support functions will take some of those duties and responsibilities off nurses and give nurses more time to be able to do medication management, care documentation, all that.”

The goal in the past has been one CNA for each two nurses on a shift, but HMC is now shooting for a one-to-one ratio. “The feedback from nurses has been tremendous,” Hatiras said. “Given everything going on, we think this is a good solution.”

It’s a way to reduce the burnout factor, which is real and significant, Flahive-Dickson said. When it’s not chasing healthcare workers toward early retirement, she noted, it’s making others more picky about their work setting. Her staffing agency hears from some clients who want to stay away from high-stress hospital and acute-care settings, and ask instead about shifts in schools, clinics, camps, and the like.

Berman said his industry has long had to stay on message simply because the role of a nurse in a skilled-nursing facility has never been the most glamorous-sounding job. While some people have a passion and calling for it, others need to be persuaded that this is fulfilling work, he noted.

“I don’t think this is going to be a short-lived situation. It’s going to take a long time to dig out from under … you can’t refresh the pipeline immediately.”

“Everyone is looking for staff, and everyone is being bombarded with different messages recruiting people. That becomes more challenging for us.”

Some organizations have become creative in building their own talent pipeline. Faced with a shortage of CNAs in the region, Legacy Lifecare created its own school, covering the cost of training for several dozen individuals so far and hiring many of them.

Likewise, Golden Years offers a 75-hour home health aide certification course, a $1,200 to $1,500 value, for free. “We’re giving them an education and certifying them and, in return, ask them to sign on for six months,” Flahive-Dickson said. “It’s one of the ways we try to offset the incredible need that COVID posed.”

Hatiras understands that other industries are facing similar headwinds when it comes to the availability and rising cost of talent. “You’ve seen everyone struggle. Look at the restaurant industry. When I see McDonald’s advertising high pay rates and tuition reimbursement, you know how bad things are.

“I don’t think this is going to be a short-lived situation,” he added. “It’s going to take a long time to dig out from under … you can’t refresh the pipeline immediately.”

Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Assoc., took a similar perspective during a recent meeting of the Health Policy Commission’s advisory council.

“I get that people fully want to go back to some semblance of normal,” he said, “but our healthcare organizations don’t have that option.” u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance Special Coverage

Give and Take

With five generations in today’s workforce, employee benefits are no one-size-fits-all proposition — yet, they remain a key issue for employers looking to attract and retain a skilled workforce. Striking a balance between what employees want and what the business can afford is certainly a challenge — but the flexibility and options available to employers these days makes the task a little easier to navigate.

By Mark Morris

Between demographic changes in the workforce and the impact of the pandemic, employers face multiple challenges these days in offering health insurance and other benefits to their workers.

In the U.S., 49% of people receive health-insurance coverage through their employer. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, that percentage represents approximately 156 million Americans. Many of those workers also receive coverage for dental care and disability, as well as access to a retirement plan as part of a complete benefits package.

And, despite the increasing costs of health insurance, employers are not cutting back on this essential coverage, said Peter Miller, partner with Millbrook Benefits and Insurance Services in Springfield.

“They are trying to strike a balance between offering a benefits package that is attractive to new hires, while also trying to control costs and keep the business running,” he noted.

Traditional benefits, such as healthcare coverage and retirement plans, have always been important to employees. According to Patrick Leary, vice president of Work Benefits Research at LIMRA in Windsor, Conn., traditional benefits make up the core of an employer’s value proposition to employees.

In putting together a benefits package, an employer decides whether a particular offering will be paid 100% by the employer, or use a cost-sharing approach in which employees contribute as well. A third option, known as a voluntary benefit, is completely paid for by the employee.

LIMRA provides research for the insurance and financial-services industry. One significant trend Leary has studied is the expanding demographics of the workplace.

“There are now five generations in the labor force,” he said. “The oldest workers are staying longer, while Gen Z is just beginning to enter the workforce.”

Each generation has different benefit needs, and they are all looking to their employer to address them. Voluntary benefits are one way for an employer to accommodate different needs among a diverse employee population.

Peter Miller

Peter Miller

“They are trying to strike a balance between offering a benefits package that is attractive to new hires, while also trying to control costs and keep the business running.”

“A company can offer a broad-based plan where some benefits appeal to younger workers and some to older,” Leary said. “Because they are voluntary benefits, the employer can address the various needs of their employees without increasing their costs.”

He emphasized the importance of employers working with a benefits consultant to find the right mix. “Part of the process involves the employer understanding their current employees and the types of workers they plan to recruit for the future.”

Employers typically add benefits to make their companies more attractive to the specific types of workers they seek. For example, Miller has been discussing benefit packages with a tech company looking to attract engineering graduates from prominent colleges. While traditional benefits are important, flexible work arrangements and college debt-repayment programs also have a strong appeal to this group.

“It’s important for employers to think outside the box to make themselves more attractive to the people they’re trying to hire,” he said.

College debt repayment offered as a formal benefit is relatively new, but it’s quickly becoming a popular benefit as more graduates enter the workforce saddled with large debt obligations.

Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, said employers are using different tactics to help new employees manage their student-loan debt. Some employers offer a hiring bonus so new employees can pay off a chunk of their student loan.

Another approach allows employees to pay down their debt and contribute to their retirement savings at the same time. Based on his conversations with employers, Leary said the 401(k)/student-loan payment approach strongly resonates with young employees.

“The amount the employee pays each month toward their debt is matched up to 5% by the employer in a 401(k) plan,” Wise said. “This is helpful to young workers who would not normally be thinking about their retirement savings because they are saddled with debt.”

 

What COVID Wrought

There’s nothing quite like a worldwide pandemic to remind everyone of the importance of having healthcare coverage. After 14 months of operating during the pandemic, the benefits professionals BusinessWest spoke with cited two notable trends: an increase in telehealth offerings and usage, as well as an increased demand for mental-health services.

“There’s definitely been an increase in utilization for traditional medicine and mental health,” Miller said.

Wise agreed. “Employers are looking at the mental-health benefits covered under their policies and, in many cases, are augmenting those benefits with employee-assistance programs,” she noted.

A survey released in March by America’s Health Insurance Plans reported that 56% of employees said their telehealth and mental-health services are more valuable now than they were a year ago, before COVID-19.”

Offering wellness programs as a benefit is another trend that has gained popularity in the last several years. “Employers are adding or increasing benefits around wellness, nutrition, stress management, and other areas,” Wise said.

In addition to health wellness, Leary said employers are increasingly offering financial wellness programs as a benefit.

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

“Some older employees might be sandwiched between taking care of their children and their parents at the same time, while others are looking at their planning needs for retirement.”

“If an employee is stressed out about their personal finances, it affects their productivity at work,” he said, pointing out that financial wellness is a benefit that can help employees at every stage of their careers by providing guidance tailored to their individual needs.

“It’s a chance to help younger employees get off to a good start and to check in with older Millennials, now approaching their 40s, about retirement planning and the telehealth benefit they can access,” Leary explained. “Some older employees might be sandwiched between taking care of their children and their parents at the same time, while others are looking at their planning needs for retirement.”

Because employees have so many different needs, communication around benefit offerings becomes essential. As COVID disrupted so many other norms, it also caused significant changes in benefit communications. But in this particular case, Miller said, the change was an improvement.

For years, the model for enrolling employees into a company’s benefit plan involved on-site meetings and speaking directly with as many employees as possible to make sure all their questions and concerns were addressed. Miller said the strong in-person presence continued even after the actual enrollments were done online.

“We’re doing many of our open-enrollment meetings now on Zoom,” he said. “One advantage is that you can gather employees no matter where they are for the live presentation, and they can ask questions, either by shouting them out or using the chat box.”

For employees who may be on vacation or traveling, the Zoom meeting is recorded and uploaded to a video-sharing platform like YouTube.

“Lots of people want to discuss their benefit options with their spouse,” Miller said. “Now they can, because everyone can access the presentation whenever they want.”

Miller said the video gives employers a tool they can use for the entire plan year. “When a new hire comes in, they can be directed to the link and listen in on the entire employee-benefit presentation. The video approach was one of the few positive developments that resulted from adjusting to COVID concerns.”

Sometimes, a new employee benefit can emerge from a catastrophe. At the onset of COVID, Leary said, employers were frantically setting people up at home just to keep their businesses in operation.

“Several months later, they began seeing the benefits of having people work from home,” Leary said. “While many are discussing a hybrid approach, where employees split their time between the office and home, working from home to some degree is now undeniable.”

Because his business lends itself to working remotely, Miller said his employees definitely perceive it as a benefit.

“If you asked me last February if working from home would be feasible, I would have said ‘no way,’” he noted. “But it not only works, it works very well.”

 

Help Wanted

These days, employers need every benefit they can offer when recruiting new employees. Despite businesses itching to expand, Miller said, employers face new challenges in doing so. “I’ve been doing this nearly 30 years, and I don’t ever remember so many different employers saying they can’t get good people.”

Local employers he’s speaking with are increasingly hiring workers from other states to meet their needs.

“My clients are looking for health plans that are more robust and have a national presence,” Miller said. “I’m hearing that from employers right here in Western Mass.”

For many, traditional benefits remain important, but they make up only a part of the employment experience. Leary said the move to remote work means employers and benefit consultants need to think in new ways to communicate benefits and enroll employees in a new hybrid environment.

“You can make the argument that flexible work schedules and the ability to work autonomously without having a manager look over your shoulder are also benefits that go beyond traditional health, dental, and disability plans,” Miller said.

It’s a trend to keep an eye on — one of many employers need to consider as they determine which benefits will attract and retain employees in a changing economy — while making sense for the company’s bottom line.

Law

Changing the Dynamic

By Jeremy M. Forgue

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the workplace forever.

According to a report titled “Women in the Workplace – 2020,” women have been hit especially hard. As the report explains, “the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted corporate America in ways we’ve never seen before. No one is experiencing business as usual, but women — especially mothers, senior-level women, and black women — have faced distinct challenges. One in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19.”

Gender and racial diversity are unquestionably beneficial to the workplace as it can lead to a wider talent pool with people who provide different perspectives and skill sets to utilize. With job rates slowly climbing back towards pre-pandemic levels, businesses need to put a conscious effort on recruiting and retaining female employees, and females of color in particular. Businesses small and large should re-evaluate their current practices and consider several ways to increase or maintain women in the workforce. Here are some suggestions from an employment-law attorney.

 

Flexible Schedules and Core Hours

This can be the easiest strategy, depending on your business. Allowing employees to establish their own schedules or flex the typical 9-5 business model can assist them in better balancing their home and work responsibilities. This option can allow parents to mold their schedule around daycare availability (e.g., 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) or split their shift around home responsibilities.

 

Forgiving Gaps in Workers’ Employment History

According to a study by ResumeGo, applicants with work gaps of greater than six months have a 45% lower chance of receiving job interviews. Millions have lost their jobs during the pandemic and remain unemployed. With so many individuals forced to exit the workforce over the past year, accepting gaps in employment is critical to eliminating these hiring barriers.

 

Offering Job Training or Cross-training

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that new job skills are critical in a more digitized working environment. Remote work and Zoom meetings are here to stay. Offering initial job training for skills and requirements that do not require certification or a degree will allow displaced workers a chance to gain useful skills in a new working environment. Similarly, cross-training employees to learn each other’s responsibilities (so long as their positions have enough overlap) can be effective when emergencies arise due to absences from work or other staffing challenges.

 

Create Mentorship Programs or Opportunities

A female-led or minority-led mentorship program can support and promote the advancement of under-represented groups within the workplace. Seasoned women employees can be great support structures for other women trying to begin their careers or advance within the company. Women who are currently excelling at their position or working in an executive-level position can assist other women dealing with similar daily challenges, such as work-life balance.

 

Re-evaluate the Businesses Culture

This one is more abstract and requires internal inquiries, but you should ask if your business provides a culture where women are valued or has a diverse demographic that is often desired by applicants. Ask yourself: is your workforce gender-diverse? What about the leadership positions? If the answer to these questions suggests unequal gender representation in the workplace, ask whether it is because of a culture that does not support women. Perhaps it’s more of a recruiting issue. In any event, you should dig deep for answers and insist on change.

 

 

Childcare Options

Providing on-site childcare is probably an option only for larger businesses. However, here are a few suggestions for all businesses to consider:

• Revisit your employee benefits. Do you already, or can you afford to, provide a childcare subsidy, childcare referral services for nearby locations, or extended paid leave?

• Partner with surrounding businesses. If your business space is too small to provide on-site childcare, reach out to nearby childcare locations and discuss rates and hours that could create a partnership between the businesses or, at the very least, a referral resource.

• Offer extended FFCRA benefits, which are available until Sept. 30, 2021, and can be used by employees to take time off for childcare or other COVID-19-related reasons.

 

Final Thoughts

After making positive strides in the workforce over the past decade, women’s participation in the workforce declined over the last year. To correct this trend, businesses will need to put a conscious effort toward recruiting women into their workforce.

 

Jeremy M. Forgue is an attorney with the law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [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.”

Opinion

Opinion

The numbers are stark no matter how they’re viewed. When 617,000 women leave the U.S. workforce in one month — about eight women for every man who dropped out — it’s reason for short-term worry.

But the long-term impact may be more concerning.

Viewed through the narrow lens of the present, it’s not hard to understand what happened (see story on page 30). Unlike most recessions, the one wrought by COVID-19 battered some of the most female-dominant economic sectors in the country, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, healthcare, and childcare. Unfortunately for many women who would rather be working than laid off, some of those jobs will be slow to come back — and some never will.

But the other factor in September’s mass exodus from the workforce is evident from the month itself — the month, specifically, when kids go back to school. Only, most schools never physically opened, leaving kids to grapple with remote learning at home. For most high-schoolers and even many middle-schoolers, that’s fine; it’s not the same as in-person instruction surrounded by their friends, but they can make it work without any supervision.

That’s not true for most elementary-school kids, who tend to need the presence and support, if not the actual help, of a parent to make it through six hours of navigating technology and absorbing information from a screen. And many of those parents have jobs.

It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families.

Now, fewer of them do, because someone has to stay home with the kids. And that someone, the vast majority of time, is the woman, who more often than not makes less income than her male partner.

There’s been plenty of handwringing about the gender pay gap in America. It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families. Why more men don’t choose to stay home so their partners are able to continue working is a discussion for another day, but the fact is, the pay gap, for myriad reasons, is real.

And hundreds of thousands of women leaving their careers at once, even temporarily, will absolutely increase that gap, because any pause in employment, especially one that leads to a company change or even career change, tends to have ripple effects on one’s earnings down the road and over a lifetime. With about half the women who stopped working last month in the prime working age of 35 to 44, the long-term ripples could be staggering.

What’s the answer? On the issue of the pay gap in general, many solutions have been proposed, from raising minimum wage (women make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workers) to promoting schedule flexibility and work-from-home options for mothers; from state- and federal-level actions to improve family-leave laws and invest in childcare to a commitment by employers to ensure their own pay practices are fair.

COVID-19 has laid bare some of those gaps in stark terms, as well as exposing not only how women are being impacted by this economy, but how women of color are being hit even harder. A reopening of schools at some point will no doubt ease these disparities. But it certainly won’t make them go away.

Features

Training Ground

In all of the region’s key economic sectors, such as healthcare, education, and manufacturing, organizations say, almost with one voice, that the number-one barrier to growth is finding and keeping talented workers — a task made even more difficult at a time of historically low unemployment. BusinessWest sat down with one of the Pioneer Valley’s leading workforce-development voices to discuss an evolving, long-term blueprint to meet those needs — and grow the economy even further.

Healthcare. Education. Advanced manufacturing.

In any conversation about the economic character of the Pioneer Valley — both its rich past and promising future — those three sectors would be high on the list of key factors.

Indeed, a late-2018 report produced by the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board and the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board calls them ‘priority industries,’ meaning the most important to the region’s economic success, and they form the basis of a comprehensive ‘labor-market blueprint’ which aims to narrow workforce talent gaps and help companies — and the overall economy — grow.

A new report, issued just a few weeks ago, follows up on that blueprint, outlining the many ways employers, economic-development agencies, vocational and technical schools, area colleges, and other entities have partnered to do just that.

Needless to say, it’s a daunting challenge, said David Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County.

“What we’re doing at the moment is actually going in and implementing the goals and strategies we laid out in the blueprint,” he explained. “One of the priority works we did was to identify, through looking at both supply and demand data, the three priority industries in Pioneer Valley region.”

Beyond healthcare, education, and manufacturing, however, the blueprint also identifies four other critical industries: business and finance; professional, scientific, and technical, including information technology (IT); food services and accommodation, which takes into account the impact of MGM Springfield; and sustainable food systems, a growing sector particularly in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

“We have been working pretty carefully within those seven industries, trying to collect data, trying to make certain the programs we run are consistent with that data,” Cruise said.

The priority industries have two things in common, he noted: long-term growth opportunities for individual companies and the sectors as a whole, and clear career pathways, where people cannot just land entry-level jobs, but steadily progress in their career from there.

“That’s why we’re spending a significant amount of time — and we’re very excited about the work we’re doing — with our regional education partners to make certain they’re developing programs and courses that align with those occupations, within those priority industries, that will allow someone to take courses and get into programs where there’s a pathway that will allow them to, yes, get a job, earn more money, and take care of their families, but also be able to see some pathway forward. That’s what we’re really focused on.”

It’s another way of looking at the value of retention, he added, which allows companies to avoid the time and cost of losing employees and training replacements, but also helps individuals gain career stability and establish deeper roots in the region.

“How do we put in place opportunities that will allow workers, both new and incumbent, to be able to move forward in these companies and in their occupation?” he asked. “That’s how you drive economic growth.”

Getting Resourceful

In the Pioneer Valley, Cruise noted, job growth isn’t generated by a few massive companies.

“We certainly have some publicly traded companies, some large companies, but the growth in the region is really being driven by small and medium-sized enterprises. And we want to support those companies because they don’t necessarily have all the resources they need. They struggle when they can’t retain folks; it becomes a tremendous cost factor for them, spending all that time recruiting and not being able to retain their recently hired folks. We have a significant commitment to try to work with those small to medium-sized companies throughout the Pioneer Valley.”

One way the MassHires do so is through partnerships with numerous vocational and technical high schools offering a wide variety of programs, most of them aligned with the priority initiatives outlined in the blueprint, he noted — not to mention the three community colleges in the Pioneer Valley.

The more recent report on blueprint progress examines programs at the voke-tech schools and community colleges — and Westfield State University — and how their programs connect with priority industries.

David Cruise says today’s successful small to medium-sized business understands the importance of community partners like colleges and economic-development entities.

“We did an analysis of the educational programs and pathways and courses that are really aligned with these occupations within these priority industries,” Cruise said. “We’re asking, ‘where are the gaps?’”

The blueprint creators took particular interest in specific ‘priority occupations’ currently in demand. In healthcare and social assistance, these include social- and human-service assistants; direct-care workers such as registered nurses, nursing and medical assistants, and personal-care aides; and clinical workers such as dental hygienists, pharmacy technicians, medical records and health IT; physician assistants; and physical and occupational therapists.

In education, priority occupations center on educators at all levels, including vocational-technical, STEM, and trades, as well as teachers’ assistants. In manufacturing, the key jobs include supervisors, production workers such as CNC operators and machinists, and inspectors, testers, and quality-control workers.

The report — which provides plenty of detailed evidence that training and degree programs are available in all these fields — will be updated every two years, with the hope that such programs will continue to expand and adapt to evolving workforce needs.

“We’re trying to fashion a regional workforce response as opposed to trying to fashion a workforce response in Hampden County or in Hampshire-Franklin. We want to look at a regional response,” Cruise said. “We think it makes more sense, and we have a better chance at mitigating the supply gap if we combat it that way.”

One important evolution concerns apprenticeships, he added. “We’ve been very aggressively involved in developing registered apprenticeships in healthcare and advanced manufacturing. We have about 74 apprentices involved in programming in the area right now, which is significant. A year and a half ago, we had 16. We’re being very careful about making certain the funding that we have and how we deploy the money is clearly aligned with where the employers are telling us the demand is.”

The two Pioneer Valley MassHires also connected with the MassHire Berkshire Workforce Board to produce yet another study, this one taking a five-year outlook on workforce needs in manufacturing — again, focusing in on key careers, including machinist, CNC operator, quality control, supervisor, and CNC programmer.

“We did an analysis of the educational programs and pathways and courses that are really aligned with these occupations within these priority industries. We’re asking, ‘where are the gaps?”

“We’re focusing our work — at least in this industry — around two things,” he explained. “One is trying to be certain the incumbent employees in our regional companies have the skills they need to be technologically relevant and be able to work in these spaces. But the ongoing concern is, where do we find entry-level CNC operators? In most of these companies, they’re resourceful enough and do enough internal training and continuous improvement where they can deal with some of these areas, like machinists and CNC programming. Where they really struggle is getting entry-level people, particularly operators, to come in.”

To address that need, MassHire is launching three training programs in February that should yield an additional 45 workers to join local companies.

“Even though we’re excited about it, that, in itself, is certainly not going to solve all the problems of supply and demand,” Cruise went on, noting, again, that manufacturing faces the same supply challenges as healthcare and education. “In all these industries, the demand is there. We’re trying to figure out ways we can increase the supply chain so we can minimize this supply gap in all three of these areas.”

Making Connections

One intriguing development involves making connections with comprehensive high schools in the region, Cruise told BusinessWest, recognizing that the state has been innovative in making career-development opportunities available to non-vocational high schools.

“We’re doing a lot of work with these school districts. They’ve made a decision that they want their students to have career-awareness and career-focus opportunities that will allow their students to look at different career pathways. Whether they’re going on to a two- or four-year college or directly to work, they want them to be more knowledgable about what those requirements are, what the pathways look like.”

To that end, the regional workforce boards have sent information to area superintendents about hiring needs and opportunities in the priority sectors and what students need to do to access them.

“In the next few weeks, we’ll send more information to the schools that will be very helpful to superintendents, counselors, and teachers, to help them provide guidance to their students — and also the parents — around career pathway opportunities. We’re really excited about that, and I’m convinced that, over time, students and parents will be making better career decisions.”

At the end of the day — any day — the main workforce challenge for businesses is simply finding the right talent and hanging onto it.

“The people who are able to work and want to work, in a lot of cases, have found employment, yet that supply gap is still there at our two career centers and the one in Greenfield as well,” Cruise said. “We continue to get customers coming in, but the customers that are approaching us need some additional supports and services before we feel they’re able to secure employment and particularly retain employment.”

Meanwhile, he noted, employers find they’re spending more resources than they’d like onboarding individuals they don’t retain over the long term.

“So we’re trying to find ways at our two one-stop centers to talk with our customers, look at the barriers that are the reasons they are not in the labor force, and try to use our community organizations and resources to do the best we can to mitigate some of those barriers.”

Sometimes it’s a simple lack of soft skills, or employability skills, that cause matches to fail — people not reporting to work, or people not having the ability to work in a team concept, he explained. “We can at least put the job seekers that approach us in a better position for companies to retain them. It’s hard work because many folks who are not in the labor market have more than one barrier that has to be mitigated, and that requires significant allocation of resources and time and staff to be able to do that. But we have to do that; that’s our job.”

Many employers say they can train for aptitude, but not attitude. “The employers we work with are saying to us, ‘send me someone who has the aptitude and willingness to learn, who’s going to be here every day, on time, and is going to be willing to accept the instruction we give them, be able to accept constructive criticism when it’s given,’” Cruise said. “Again, it’s something we’re pretty laser-focused on.”

MassHire is fortunate, he added, to work in a region full of companies, mostly small, that understand the value of partnerships and are willing invest time and resources in working with the workforce boards and colleges.

“The whole concept of going alone isn’t going to work anymore,” he said. “You have to figure out a way to be in some collaborative partnerships where you can leverage resources, look at your assets, identify your gaps, and put in place opportunities and programs that will respond to that. We do that well out here. I’m not suggesting it’s not done well in other places, but we think we have a little bit of a copyright on that.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

Education Anywhere

Marjorie Bessette says online nursing programs are opening doors to higher degrees at a time when the industry is demanding them.

Marjorie Bessette says online nursing programs are opening doors to higher degrees at a time when the industry is demanding them.

Back in 2010, the Institute of Medicine put out a call for 80% of all registered nurses to have a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) by 2020. National nurse organizations picked up the goal as well — 85% is the current goal — while hospitals with ‘magnet’ status, such as Baystate Medical Center, maintain even stricter staffing goals.

One problem, though: RNs work full-time jobs, and many go home to a full slate of family and parenting obligations. And that leaves little opportunity to go back to school to take classes toward a BSN.

Enter the online model.

“The reason for the increase in online RN-to-BSN programs is the need to increase the number of BSN-prepared nurses in the workplace,” said Marjorie Bessette, academic director of Health and Nursing at Bay Path University.

“There’s a national initiative to have 85% of RNs be minimally at the BSN level by 2020, which is right around the corner,” she went on. “Nurses have full-time jobs and full-time lives. With area hospitals and work sites demanding BSNs, we’re trying to help that workforce shortage by creating accelerated programs online that nurses can take on their own schedule. They don’t have to be in class at a certain time.”

Bay Path, through its American Women’s College, launched its online RN-to-BSN program in 2015 and graduated its first class in 2017. It also offers online tracks toward master of science in nursing (MSN) and doctor of nursing practice degrees.

“Many students come in with an RN already, and they’re usually able to transfer most of their associate-degree credits toward a bachelor’s degree,” Bessette noted.

American International College (AIC) offers online programs for an RN-to-BSN degree, as well as its MSN track, which offers three concentrations: nurse educator, nurse administrator, and family nurse practitioner.

“Ultimately, both RNs and graduate-program students are already working nurses, and it can be challenging to go back to school while working on their chosen career, but the online format gives them the opportunity to do that,” said Ellen Furman, interim director for Graduate Nursing and assistant professor of Nursing at AIC.

“The reason for the increase in online RN-to-BSN programs is the need to increase the number of BSN-prepared nurses in the workplace.”

“They have to be online weekly, but when, exactly, to be online is up to them,” she went on. “So, a nurse might be working nights, or might be on days, and this gives them the flexibility to arrange their schedule to get their work done at a time that’s convenient for them.”

And convenience is paramount for young medical professionals who don’t need much more added stress on their plates.

“Many have families, and trying to balance that can be really difficult,” Furman said. “With the online forum, they can work when they want to work, or when they have time to work, rather than being at a specific place at a specific time on a weekly basis.”

And that, industry leaders believe, will lead to many more nurses seeking the higher degrees so in demand.

“There is currently an RN shortage, which seems to be cyclical. Some years, graduates are looking for jobs, and some years, there are multiple jobs per graduate,” Furman said. “Right now, there seems to be a real shortage. If you look at any healthcare institution in the region, they’re all looking to recruit nurses, and at higher levels of education, especially if they’re a magnet institution like Baystate, which is looking to increase their number of nurses with higher degrees.”

Setting the Pace

Cindy Dakin, professor and director of Graduate Nursing Studies at Elms College School of Nursing, said Elms offers all three tracks of its MSN program — one in nursing education, one in nursing and health services management, and the third in school nursing — online.

“You don’t have to be sitting in front of the computer at a specific time. Classes are not live. You can access the materials through the system,” she noted. “The faculty will load the syllabus and load all the assignments for the entire semester, so students know when each deadline is. That allows them to plan ahead if they want to get ahead. If somebody moves quicker, or if a vacation is coming up, you can get it done ahead of time if you want to. It allows flexibility when you can access the whole course and know what the requirements and deadlines are.”

Elms launched its first MSN program — a totally in-person classroom model — in 2008, then moved to a hybrid format, recogizing that nurses have busy lives, and the requirements of the job — with often-unexpected overtime shifts arising — made it difficult to come to class at times.

School nurses in particular were having a tough time making it to class for 3 or 3:30 p.m., Dakin noted. “They always had to be late, and we always made allowances for them, but they were still missing something in the first half-hour of class.”

The best option, department leaders decided, was a totally online program.

“It has helped to broaden our market,” she said. “Normally, students — even in hybrid programs — have lived within close proximity to Elms, and come on campus for classes. Being online, I have students from the North Shore, on Nantucket, and these people definitely would not have enrolled in our program if we still required face-to-face classes. Our base is much wider now.”

Bessette added that students face the same academic rigors as they would in a physical classroom, but they can complete the program on an accelerated basis to meet the requirements.

“It’s more convenient because, whatever shift you’re working as a nurse, you’re able to fit that in. When I went back for my bachelor’s degree, I did it the traditional way; we didn’t have an online program at the time. I went in the evening after work, one course, three nights a week, for 15 weeks. But I did my master’s online, and that made a huge difference.”

Most online nursing courses do require a clinical component, depending on the track. Also, “we have a few on-campus days, but those are minimal,” Furman said. “In the RN-to-BSN program, there’s no on-campus requirement.”

Breaking Through

Dakin was quick to note that, if students need to talk to faculty, the professor will schedule a session, or perhaps arrange to meet several students at once through a videoconferencing session.

In fact, technology has made the online model feel less isolating in recent years, she added. “When they load the course information, they may use PowerPoint, or they might tape themselves lecturing. Most of us, at the very least, do voiceovers, which lends a more personal aspect to it.

“Some students aren’t sure if they’ll like it,” she added. “They like the extra time, not having to travel to a specific place. But they’re also afraid of losing contact. But that doesn’t happen, and at the same time, it really broadens our base to recruit students.”

Furman agreed.

“There will be people who say, ‘I don’t think I can learn online.’ I’ve been that student who has been both online and in the classroom, and I’ll say that online education is not like it used to be,” she told BusinessWest. “Today, with technology as it is, there are so many more options to deliver content and more effectively teach students in that online room. I believe if a student says they can’t learn online, they just haven’t been engaged in the right program in the right way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Closing the Gap

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says the grant awarded to Bay Path University will fund a collaborative effort to help improve the digital fluency of the workforce.

When people talk about an ‘IT gap,’ Amanda Gould says, the appropriate response might be, ‘which one?’

Indeed, there’s the gap that seems to getting most of the attention these days, the one that involves the huge gender disparity in the IT workforce, with the vast majority of those well-paying jobs going to men, said Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College at Bay Path University, one of the institutions working to do something about this through its expanding Cybersecurity and IT degree programs.

But there’s another gap, she said, and this one involves the workforce and its digital fluency — or lack thereof. In short, too many people lack the necessary skills to thrive in the modern workplace, especially in IT-related roles, and the need to devise solutions for changing this equation is becoming critical.

For this reason, the nonprofit Strada Education Network committed $8 million to what it calls the ‘innovative solutions in education-to-employment’ competition, a name that speaks volumes about its mission.

And Bay Path emerged as one of the winners in this competition, garnering $1.58 million for a three-year project appropriately called “Closing the Gaps: Building Pathways for Women in a Technology-driven Workforce” (note ‘gaps’ in the plural).

This will be a collaborative effort, said Gould, adding that work is already underway with a number of partners, including the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, Pas the Torch for Women, Springfield Technical Community College, the UMass Donohue Institute, and others.

“Thinking about IT being in and of itself a discipline is, in my view, becoming obsolete.”

This work, said Gould, “involves extensive employer research and engagement, and building capacity of the American Women’s College to scale enrollment of adult women and prepare them with core cybersecurity and information-technology competencies that meet the needs of employers, support them as they move to degree completion, and assist them to successfully transition to careers in cybersecurity and IT-related employment.”

The key word in that sentence is ‘core,’ she said, because such competencies are now needed to succeed in jobs across virtually all sectors, not just IT and cybersecurity, and, as noted, many individuals simply don’t have them, and thus doors to some opportunities remain closed.

Opening them is the purpose of the of the Strada Education Network program, said Gould, adding that it will address a large problem that is obvious, yet often overlooked.

“What we’re not doing well overall when we think about our workforce is recognizing that technology is becoming increasingly more important in any role in any industry,” she explained. “Thinking about IT being in and of itself a discipline is, in my view, becoming obsolete; technology is a part of any organization running, and we should be less focused on training people to live in a silo or column that prepares them to fulfill very specific functions, and instead be training our women across all our majors to be thoughtful about how technology may impact their future roles in the workforce and how to be more engaged with ways technology helps them perform the aspirations they have in a variety of careers.”

Patricia Crosby, executive director of the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board, agreed. She said her agency and other workforce-related partners will play a key role in this initiative — specifically bringing business leaders and those in the education sector together in the same room to discuss how curriculum can and should be structured to vastly improve the odds of student success and make what has been a fairly closed field much more open.

“The IT field has not been an open field to newcomers, diverse workers, and female workers,” said Crosby. “The Bay Path program is attempting to remedy some of that and make the pathways clearer.”

Overall, the nearly $1.6 million grant will be put toward a variety of uses, said Gould, who listed everything from career coaching to scholarships; from curriculum development to putting students in situations where they’re getting hands-on training in their chosen field. And all of them are pieces to the puzzle when comes to not only entering the workforce, but succeeding in a career.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the ‘closing the gaps’ initiative and why it is so critical when it comes to today’s workforce.

Keys to Success

Smashing Bay Path’s program down to a few key swing thoughts, Gould said it basically involves determining which IT skills are most needed in the workplace, which ones are missing in a large number of applicants and employees, and how to effectively provide those skills.

And while it’s easy to state the problem and this three-year project’s goals, devising solutions won’t be quite so easy because the problems are systemic and fairly deep-rooted.

Patricia Crosby

Patricia Crosby says the grant awarded to Bay Path University will help create clearer, better pathways into an IT field that historically has not been open to women, newcomers, and diverse workers.

“As higher-education institutions,” Gould explained, “we haven’t kept up with our education and our curriculum to make sure that, as students are leaving with a psychology degree or a communications degree or nursing degree, we are building in exposure to these tool sets and these skills. By being more theoretical in our education, we’ve almost created the gaps.

“I really think we’re at a moment in time when we need to be more thoughtful about integrating technology for all students,” she went on, adding that, if those in higher ed created the gaps, it’s now incumbent upon them to close them.

Elaborating, she noted that cybersecurity, while still a specific discipline and course of study, is also part of myriad job descriptions today — for those helping with social-media campaigns to those handling customer records — and thus cyber should be part of occupational training.

This is a relatively new mindset, she acknowledged, one that involves a close partnership between the business community and those in higher education.

To put it in perspective, she cited some research conducted by Strada and Gallup regarding the relevancy of educational programs.

“When they were interviewing higher-ed administrators about how prepared they thought their students were for the workforce, a majority of them said ‘they’re very prepared,’” she noted. “But when they interviewed employers, a very small percentage of them thought the students were truly prepared to enter the workforce. There’s an enormous disconnect.”

A commitment to closing it explains why the Strada network is giving $8 million to seven winners of its competition, and also explains why partners like the EDC and the MassHire facilities will play such a critical role in this endeavor.

They will help connect those with the project to industry groups and specific companies with the goal of not only determining the skill sets they need in their employees, but placing students in situations where they gain valuable hands-on experience.

These experiences can include job shadowing, interviewing someone in a particular role, project-based coursework, or actual internships, said Gould.

“There are a variety of ways we can get our students connected with employers,” she said, adding that such connections are vital to understanding the field, comprehending the role IT plays in it, and, ultimately, gaining employment within that sector.

“In an ideal scenario, our students are off and working,” she went on. “It would be better if they were working in a field they see as their career rather than in a job where they’re working to offset expenses. If there are ways to get students into the workplace before graduation, we want to nurture those entry points.”

Crosby agreed.

“In an ideal scenario, our students are off and working. It would be better if they were working in a field they see as their career rather than in a job where they’re working to offset expenses.”

“In this field [IT], more than any other, as much as any credentials or degrees, employers are looking for experience,” she said. “There’s a gap between the people who are learning it and the people who are getting the jobs because the people who get the jobs already have experience. There’s a bridge that has to be crossed between any education and training program and the workplace.

Sound Bytes

As she talked about the Bay Path program and how to measure its success, Gould said there will be a number of ways to do that.

These include everything from the level of dialogue between the business community and those in education — something that needs to be improved — to the actual placement rates of graduates in not only the IT and cyber fields, but others as well.

In short, the mission is to close the gaps, as in the plural. There are several of them, and they are large, but through a broad collaborative effort, those involved in this initiative believe they can begin to close those gaps and connect individuals to not only jobs but careers.

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

Manufacturing

Layer by Layer

ADDFab Director Dave Follette with samples of 3D-printed objects.

ADDFab Director Dave Follette with samples of 3D-printed objects.

The Advanced Digital Design & Fabrication Lab, or ADDFab for short — one of 31 ‘core facilities’ in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst — is creating something significant in the manufacturing world, and not just the products it forms from metal and polymer powders. No, it’s also building connections between young talent and companies that will increasingly need it as 3D printing becomes more mainstream. And it does so with a focus — no, an insistence — on hands-on learning.

It’s hard to learn about 3D printing, Dave Follette said, if you don’t have access to a 3D printer.

ADDFab has five. And it likes to share them. In fact, that’s its mission.

“We have all these high-end machines, and it’s hard to get access to these in the real world,” said Follette, director of ADDFab, which stands for Advanced Digital Design & Fabrication Lab, one of 31 ‘core facilities’ in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst. “Who’s going to let you touch their quarter-million-dollar machine and learn the ins and outs of it — how do you set it up? What happens if it fails? What do I do?”

ADDFab, like the other core facilities, seeks to eliminate skills gaps between students and the work world with hands-on opportunities to use some truly cutting-edge and, yes, expensive equipment.

“Here, the student interns aren’t just going on the computer and doing some research. They come to the lab, suit up, play with some parts, take them out of the printer, clean it — they get real experience actually touching the machines.”

ADDFab takes a similar tack with local businesses seeking to learn more about 3D printing, Follette added.

“The workshops we do are less sitting in a classroom talking about 3D printing and more, ‘let’s do some 3D printing.’”

“The workshops we do are less sitting in a classroom talking about 3D printing and more, ‘let’s do some 3D printing.’ You actually come in, design a part on the software, print the part, and go home with something you created. You see the process. That’s what’s valuable about being on site. You can go on the Internet and watch YouTube videos, but something about doing it yourself gives you an understanding of how it works and why it works, and what works and what doesn’t. That’s what we’re trying to teach.”

Sundar Krishnamurty, ADDFab’s co-director, explained that the facility has three distinct but interwoven goals.

“We’re a research university, so we want our researchers to develop new knowledge, and we hope this will be a medium for that,” he told BusinessWest. “Second, there’s a lot of experiential learning for our students. Third, we have good engagement with our industries, especially small and medium-sized companies in the area.”

The equipment itself is impressive — two metal printers and three polymer printers, each using different raw materials and different technologies to produce an endless array of products. The facility supports UMass itself in several ways, as students and faculty can be trained to use the equipment to conduct their own research on additive manufacturing, while ADDFab also provides printing services and engineering support for faculty in all academic departments.

But it’s the outreach to industry that may be most intriguing element, not just through those aforementioned workshops, which are intended to broaden understanding of how 3D printing will affect the manufacturing industry and to provide hands-on skills, but through a state-funded voucher program that gives businesses with fewer than 50 employees a 50% subsidy to access the core facilities, and 75% to businesses with fewer than 10.

“You can do $100,000 of work for $25,000,” Follette said. “For a new technology, it makes it easy to get your feet wet and test it out. A lot of companies we’re working with haven’t used 3D printing before and are figuring out how it fits into their business.”

Krishnamurty agreed. “We really want to be partnering with local industries in helping us identify the gaps and where we can provide leadership, expertise, and resources to help them achieve their goals.”

What happens when students are well-trained on cutting-edge 3D-printing technology, and when area manufacturers learn more about its potential, is clear, they both noted: Positive workforce development that helps businesses grow while keeping talent in Western Mass.

Student Stories

Jeremy Hall, now a senior at UMass, has been interning at ADDFab, and said the opportunities are positive on a number of levels, including setting students up for interesting careers in a fast-growing, but still largely undertapped, field.

“It’s an up-and-coming field, and a lot of jobs are opening up in it because a lot of companies see the benefit of it,” Hall told BusinessWest. “Look at rapid prototyping — instead of making a mistake and spending five figures on a mold only to discover that part’s not usable, you can do several iterations and save a lot of money doing so.”

Jack Ford (left) and Jeremy Hall are two of the current student interns at ADDFab.

Jack Ford (left) and Jeremy Hall are two of the current student interns at ADDFab.

He thinks he’s putting himself in good position for the workforce by learning the various processes by actually doing them. His initial career interests were in research and design and rapid prototyping, but the more he’s delved into additive manufacturing, the more interested he has become in material properties, and exploring what other raw materials can used to create stronger products. “The application is here; it’s just, how much can you improve it from here?”

“Look at rapid prototyping — instead of making a mistake and spending five figures on a mold only to discover that part’s not usable, you can do several iterations and save a lot of money doing so.”

Another intern, Jack Ford, is a sophomore whose interest in 3D printing began when he used similar — but not nearly as advanced — technology to create a tool in a high-school drafting class.

“It was interesting to see that whole process, and it grew my interest in the manufacturing aspects of it,” he noted. “And look at how 3D printing has grown over the years — it’s crazy to see where it is now. The laser technology is incredible, how it’s so precise and manages to get such a fine level of detail despite seeming like such a strange process. We put the powder down, bam, there’s a layer. It blows my mind.”

There’s an energy-absorbing lattice piece on a table at ADDFab inscribed with the name of its creator, Adam Rice, who recently became one of the facility’s success stories, and an example of how it seeks to connect talent with need.

“In my 10 weeks here, I’ve worked one-on-one with companies, toured facilities, and even given a presentation at FLIR Systems,” Rice explained last year, in an interview snippet used in an ADDFab promotional brochure. “It’s been building my confidence. I’ve had no real engineering experience before this, and this is my first time really applying it and seeing how people do this as a career.”

After graduating in December, he now has a career of his own, at Lytron, a designer and manufacturer of thermal-management and liquid-cooling products based in Woburn.

“They use a metal printer exactly the same as ours and needed someone with additive-manufacturing experience to help them run their printer,” Follette said. “The VP of Engineering contacted me and asked, ‘do you have any students who know additive?’ I said, ‘yes.’ He came by and met the students, and we had a good fit.”

The brochure Rice appears in promotes the UMass Summer Undergraduate Core Internship Program, which allows students from the STEM fields to access hands-on training and experience in the core facilities, including ADDFab, over the summer.

“We’ve been doing learning by trying,” he said. “It’s been really cool to get to do more hands-on engineering.”

And even cooler to spin it into a well-paying job.

Into the Future

Meanwhile, area companies — including, of late, Peerless Precision, Volo Aero, FTL Labs, Cofab Design, and MultiSensor Scientific — continue to take advantage of ADDFab’s resources, often through the voucher program, either to make 3D products or learn more about how to incorporate the technology. Responding to a commonly raised concern, Krishnamurty stressed that all intellectual property stays with the companies.

Sundar Krishnamurty says ADDFab wants to partner with local industries

Sundar Krishnamurty says ADDFab wants to partner with local industries to identify and fill workforce and training gaps.

“A lot of times, people see UMass and think, ‘how do I work with them? They’re big, and I’m not,’ Follette said. “But the message we want to put out is that we’re doing 3D printing, and we’re here to help industries. There are many ways to get involved, whether you just have an idea on a napkin or you have computer files and want to print them on our advanced printer.”

Indeed, he noted, ADDFab’s large-scale 3D printers are performing industrial-grade production of “real parts you can use for real things. A lot of engineering companies we’re working with are doing prototyping of parts, design iterations — they want to print something and feel it, then make another change and another change, and it’s great they can turn this around fast and get a part that’s usable also at a great price.”

Using ADDFab is ideal for small runs, he added. “If you need five today, that’s fine. If you need 20 tomorrow, fine. If you need five more the next day, that’s fine, too.”

“A lot of times, people see UMass and think, ‘how do I work with them? They’re big, and I’m not. But the message we want to put out is that we’re doing 3D printing, and we’re here to help industries.”

And if the facility can perform such services while training the next generation of engineers and boosting workforce development for the region’s manufacturing sector, Krishnamurty said, well, that’s a clear win-win-win.

“These are truly one-of-a-kind facilities,” he said, speaking not just of ADDFab, but all the core facilities at UMass Amherst. “I think the future is endless.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Exciting STUFF

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College, proudly displays the cribbage board given to him by students at Pathfinder Regional Technical High School in Palmer

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College, says he doesn’t play the card game cribbage.

But that doesn’t mean the cribbage board given to him recently gathers dust sitting in a drawer or closet unused. In fact, it now occupies a prominent place on a desk already crowded with items that speak to his personal life and career in higher education.

That’s because the elaborate board was crafted by students at Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School in Palmer. It’s fashioned from metal — Cook isn’t sure exactly what the material is, although he suspects it’s aluminum — and it’s truly a one-off, complete with his name and title printed on it.

As noted, Cook’s never used the gift for its intended purpose, but he’s found an even higher calling for it.

“I take this around, and I tell people that, if they can create one of these at one of those labs like the one at Pathfinder, there’s a $50,000-a-year job waiting for you,” he said as he started to explain, making it clear that his cribbage board has become yet another strategic initiative in a multi-faceted effort to educate people about careers in manufacturing and inspire them to get on the path needed to acquire one.

Other steps include everything from taking young people on tours of area plants — and their parking lots (more on that later) — to working with the parents of those people to convince them that today’s manufacturing jobs are certainly not like those of a generation, or two, or three, ago.

“I take this around, and I tell people that, if they can create one of these at one of those labs like the one at Pathfinder, there’s a $50,000-a-year job waiting for you.”

And there’s good reason for all the time and hard work put toward this cause. It’s all spelled out in the latest Workforce Development and Technology Report prepared as part of the Precision Manufacturing Regional Alliance Project, or PMRAP for short.

Indeed, the numbers on pages 7 and 8 practically jump off the page. The chart titled ‘Workforce Indicators’ reveals that the 41 companies surveyed for this report project that, between new production hires and replacement of retiring employees, they’ll need 512 new workers this year. Extrapolate those figures out over the entire precision-manufacturing sector, and the need is 1,400 to 1,500, said Dave Cruise, president and CEO of the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, formerly the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County. Meanwhile, the number of people graduating annually from programs at the region’s vocational high schools and STCC is closer to 300, he said, noting quickly, and with great emphasis, that not all of those graduates, especially at the high-school level, will go right into the workforce.

Those numbers translate into a huge gap and a formidable challenge for this region and its precision-manufacturing industry, said Cruise, Cook, and others we spoke with, adding that additional capacity, and a lot of it, in the form of trained machinists, must somehow be created to keep these plants humming. But before finding the capacity (the expensive manufacturing programs) required to train would-be machinists, the region must create demand for those programs. Right now, there certainly isn’t enough, hence strategic initiatives involving everything from plant tours to Cook’s traveling cribbage board.

BusinessWest has now become an active player in this initiative with an aptly named special publication called Cool STUFF Made in Western Mass. It’s called that to not only confirm that there are a lot of intriguing products made in this region — from parts for the latest fighter jets to industry-leading hand dryers to specialty papers — but to grab the attention of area young people; Cool STUFF will be distributed at middle schools and high schools with tech programs, regional workforce development offices, state college career counseling offices, non-manufacturing employers, top manufacturing firms, BusinessWest subscribers, guidance counselors, community colleges, and employment offices.

Sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and MassDevelopment, Cool STUFF will include a number of profiles of area companies. These profiles will list the products made, the customers served, and the markets these companies supply. But the most important details are the job opportunities, the benefits paid, and the thoughts of those working for these companies.

As BusinessWest continues work on Cool STUFF, to be distributed later this fall (companies interested in purchasing profiles can still do so), it will use this edition of the magazine to set the table, if you will, by detailing the size and scope of the challenge facing this region when it comes to its manufacturing sector, and also highlighting many of the initiatives to address it.

Making Some Progress

Kristen Carlson is working on the front lines of the manufacturing sector’s workforce challenge — in a number of capacities, first as president of the local NTMA chapter, which has about 60 members, but also as owner and president of Peerless Precision in Westfield, a maker of parts for the aerospace and defense industries.

Kristin Carlson, owner of president of Peerless Precision

Kristin Carlson, owner of president of Peerless Precision, says area precision shops are very busy; the only thing holding them back is finding enough good help.

She told BusinessWest that business is booming for Peerless and most other precision manufacturers in this region, and it’s likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future — a fact lost on many not familiar with the high quality of work carried out at area shops and this region’s reputation across the country and around the world as a precision hub.

“In the precision-machining side of the manufacturing sector, companies are not leaving this area,” she explained while debunking one myth about this industry. “There is a skilled workforce here that other states simply cannot compete with. So while it might cost a company less to do business in Tennessee or South Carolina, for example, they’re not going to see the same skill that we need in order to produce the parts our customers need.

“Right now, every industry is booming — aerospace, defense, oil and gas, even the commercial sectors,” she went on. “A lot of us are seeing really large growth percentages over the past 12 months; the only thing that’s holding us back is having the workforce to fill the jobs that we have.”

Peerless has seen 30% growth over the past year, and added six new people over the first six months, she continued, adding that, several years ago, the pace would have been closer to one new person a year.

“I could double in size if I had the workers,” she told BusinessWest, adding that there are many in this sector who could likely say the same thing.

The challenge of inspiring more individuals to become interested in manufacturing is not exactly a recent phenomenon in this region; it’s been ongoing for some time. However, the problem has become more acute as shops continue to add work and also as the Baby Boom generation moves into retirement.

The problem becomes one of supply and demand. There is considerable demand, but simply not enough supply. In most matters involving this equation, supply usually catches up with demand, but this situation is different in many respects.

Indeed, there are many impediments to creating supply, starting with perceptions (or misperceptions, as the case may be) about this sector and lingering fears that jobs that might be there today won’t be there tomorrow. These sentiments are fueled by memories of those with the Boomer generation, who saw large employers such as the Springfield Armory, American Bosch, Uniroyal, Diamond Match, Digital Equipment Corp., Westinghouse, and others disappear from the landscape.

Dave Cruise

Dave Cruise says surveys of area precision manufacturers reveal a huge gap between expected need for workers and the region’s ability to supply them.

Meanwhile, another challenge is creating capacity. Manufacturing programs are expensive, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass., adding that it’s also difficult to find faculty for such facilities because potential educators can make more money working in the field than they can in the classroom.

Regarding those perceptions, the obvious goal is to change the discussion, or the narrative, surrounding manufacturing, said Sullivan, by driving home the relative security of most jobs today and the fact that “these are not your grandfather’s manufacturing jobs.”

“Manufacturing today … is not, for the most part, standing at a machine doing some kind of manual labor,” he told BusinessWest. “The high-end precision manufacturers today are very technology-driven; there’s lot of computer science, lots of IT. It’s a clean environment, and the jobs in manufacturing, especially precision manufacturing, are very-good-paying jobs, and you can have a very good middle or upper-middle lifestyle, particularly in Western Massachusetts.”

Cook, whose school has several manufacturing programs and is the region’s clear leader in supplying workers for the industry, said that, despite the costs and challenges, additional capacity can and will be created — if (and this is a big if) demand for such programs grows and becomes steady.

That’s why Carlson and others say that manufacturers must sell this sector and its employment opportunities to not only the region’s young people, but also their parents.

“And their parents are often the harder sell,” said Carlson. “If I have a class of 20 kids come in and three or four or five of them show a real interest in manufacturing, I consider that a good day. But then, those kids go home, and selling it to their parents is the difficult part, because many of them still believe this is your grandfather’s machine shop — it’s a dark, dingy place, and only people who can’t go to college do that work, which is not the case.”

Meanwhile, young people are not the only targets. Indeed, other constituencies include those who are unemployed and underemployed, those looking for new careers, and the region’s large and still-growing African-American and Latino populations.

Across all those subgroups, women have become a focal point, in part because they — and, again, their parents — have not looked upon manufacturing as a viable career option when, in fact, it is just that.

“We know there are really well-paying jobs out there, but there’s a lot of work to be done to invite new individuals into this career path,” said Cook. “And I talk about two groups in particular — women and students of color — and there’s work to be done there. We have to engage families, and at much younger ages.”

Still Some Work to Do

It’s called the Twisters Café.

That’s the name given to a ’50s-style diner at Sanderson MacLeod in Palmer, a maker of twisted wire brushes for the cosmetic, healthcare, handgun, and other markets.

It was created a year or so ago, not long after the company also added an appropriately named ‘appreciation garden,’ an outdoor break area complete with picnic tables, chairs, umbrellas, and more.

The additions are part of ongoing efforts to make the workplace more, well, livable and attractive to employees and potential employees.

“They’re little things, but they make this a better environment,” said Mark Borsari, the company’s president. “People are here more than they’re at home, and we hope these steps make this a more enjoyable place to be.”

Those sentiments are yet another indication of how manufacturing has changed in recent years. And making people aware of not just perks like the Twisters Café, but also, and more importantly, the jobs and careers available in manufacturing today, is the broad, multi-faceted mission of a growing group of individuals, agencies, and companies.

This constituency includes the EDC, the various MassHire agencies, the vocational high schools and STCC, the NTMA, and individual manufacturers.

Shop owners will go into the schools themselves to talk about what they do and how, said Sullivan, and the shops will host tours of students, taking them onto the floor, and later into the parking lot.

“That’s a big part of these tours,” he said. “They show the students what they can do, what they can have, with the money they can earn from one of these jobs.”

And such initiatives are starting to generate results on some levels, said Sullivan, noting that many of the vocational schools now have waiting lists, especially for their manufacturing programs — something that didn’t exist a decade ago or even five years ago, when such schools were largely viewed as the best option for students not suited for a typical college-bound curriculum.

But those numbers on pages 7 and 8 of the PMRAP report show there is still a huge gap between demand and the current supply, and therefore there is still considerable work to be done, said Cruise, noting that the goal moving forward is to reach more people overall, more young people, and young people at an earlier age.

Cook agreed, and to get his point across, he brought out another item he’s collected — a fidget spinner made by a young student during a summer STEM program staged at the STCC campus.

“We have to do more of that,” he explained. “We have to do more work with younger students; we have to engage their families over the summer, and we have to let the young people get their hands on the equipment and build things like this. And we have to do things like this at scale — we have to start inviting far larger groups of students to our campus to see these programs.”

Cook does a lot of promotional work for the manufacturing sector — and STCC’s programs — himself, and his cribbage board is very often part of the presentation.

“I bring it to meetings every once in a while,” he explained. “It’s that teacher in me that still likes to use something physical for people to see, to touch, and to hold. They can realize that there’s still a very important place for this in our economy, and there’s nothing better than to put this into people’s hands and make them realize that that’s something significant about the ability to generate something like this.”

Cool STUFF will hopefully act like that cribbage board in that young people can see the products many area companies are making, and, in the snapshot profiles of these company’s employees, they can maybe see themselves in a few years.

“Manufacturing has a rich history in this region, but too many people think ‘history’ means ‘in the past,’” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti. “There’s still history being written in this sector, and the future looks exceedingly bright. Cool STUFF will hopefully drive this point home and encourage young people to include manufacturing in their list of career options.”

Parts of the Whole

Carlson was talking about the salaries and benefits offered by her company — most workers are paid $1,000 a week or more — when she paused for a moment.

“When you add up wages, overtime, and everything else, there are a few guys here making more money than I do,” she said, adding that this is not an exaggeration, but it is a fact lost on many young people, their parents, and other constituencies.

Bringing such facts, and numbers, to life is an ongoing priority for the region, and Cool STUFF will become part of the answer moving forward, as will John Cook’s cribbage board, plant parking-lot tours, and much more.

The stakes are high, but so is the number of opportunities — for potential job holders, the companies that will employ them, and the region as a whole.

People need to be made aware of these opportunities, said all those we spoke with, and, more importantly, inspired to reach for them.

(For more information on Cool STUFF Made in Western Mass., on how to have your company profiled, for advertising opportunities, and to receive copies, call (413) 781-8600.)

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

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