Workforce Plan Is Ambitious — but Achievable

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.

The most significant economic development initiative taking place in the City of Homes — and this region, for that matter — isn’t riverfront development in Springfield. It’s not the former York Street Jail site or the Court Square project. It’s not South End revitalization or the so-called State Street Corridor project. It’s not the new industrial park at Smith & Wesson, nor is it Union Station. It’s not the ongoing marketing of the Knowledge Corridor, and it’s not the work to create so-called ‘green-collar’ jobs — although all those efforts are important.

No, the most critical economic development work happening at the moment is a multi-faceted undertaking called Building a Better Workforce — Closing the Skills Gap on the Road to Economic Resurgence, and if it doesn’t make the headway its planners anticipate, then none of those other projects really matter.

That’s because workforce quality and quantity are the most pressing issues facing Greater Springfield today. Improvement in both is absolutely necessary if existing companies are going to be able to grow and prosper, if new businesses can be attracted to this region, and if new industry clusters, such as sustainable energy and the biosciences, can be developed here.

Knowing this, area civic and economic development leaders came together late last year with a mission to craft a strategic plan to stabilize and improve the workforce for today and, especially, tomorrow. The first steps in this ambitious initiative were announced late last month, and by all accounts they appear destined to do what the plan’s authors want — create some quasi-immediate results while also generating much-needed momentum for what will be a massive undertaking.

Building a Better Workforce has four main strategic initiatives: establishing universal pre-kindergarten; improving youth education proficiency and career awareness; increasing adult literacy education services; and increasing technical training in high-growth/high-demand industry sectors. The initial steps announced last month address all four, and include a project within the health care sector to increase career pathways for both incumbent workers and external candidates; an endeavor to create opportunities for education and training for those involved with early-childhood education or looking to enter that field; internships, mentoring, and year-round learning opportunities for disadvantaged students (a project funded by several area companies), and efforts to improve adult basic education.

These first steps are being taken out of an awareness that most of Springfield’s workforce-related problems stem directly from high poverty rates and equally high drop-out rates at the city’s high schools. Breaking the cycle of poverty and keeping people in school are the primary directives.

Building a Better Workforce organizers have identified projects that will help bolster early-childhood-education programs — a recognized ingredient in the broader effort to develop learning skills that will enable individuals to compete in a global economy — and also help clear some of those ‘career pathways’ mentioned by all those involved.

The health care initiative, for example, is designed to enroll some lower-skilled workers, such as housekeepers and food-service employees, in a training program to become certified nursing assistants in an acute-care setting. This step up the career ladder is intended to give those individuals involved some confidence, as well as exposure to higher-paying health care positions they will hopefully aspire to.

It all looks good on paper — as do the other first steps in this three-year, $13 million program. As they talked about this plan and its components, those gathered at a recent City Hall press conference used words like ‘ambitious,’ ‘aggressive,’ and ‘critical’ to describe it. But they also used the terms ‘realistic’ and ‘achievable.’

Let’s hope they’re right, because, as Bill Ward, director of the Regional Employ-ment Board of Hampden County, told BusinessWest, Springfield is at a “tipping point” in terms of economic health and vitality. Steps must be taken to ensure that it tips the right way, and Building a Better Workforce appears to be off to a solid start toward accomplishing that mission.

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