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Massachusetts business group: State's workforce shortage not going away anytime soon

MassHire Franklin Hampshire Career Center hosts a job fair at Greenfield Community College on Feb. 15, 2023. The event included 29 employers offering 120 jobs. About 100 job seekers attended.
Nancy Eve Cohen
MassHire Franklin Hampshire Career Center hosts a job fair at Greenfield Community College on Feb. 15, 2023. The event included 29 employers offering 120 jobs. About 100 job seekers attended.

Massachusetts business leaders have been ramping up their warnings that a workforce shortage poses a long-term threat to the state's competitiveness.

This includes western Mass, where companies say they need employees.

"We are hiring for a whole bunch of nurses, nurse resident and apprenticeship roles. We also have patient care technician positions, security officer roles, plumbers, electricians, transportation type roles. So a whole gamut of positions," Cole Courtemanche, a recruiter with Baystate Health, said at a recent job fair in Greenfield.

Baystate is not alone. There are jobs open at nearly any company you can name.

AIM, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, is Massachusetts' largest business association, serving more than 3,500 businesses across 150 different industries. Chris Geehern is the group's executive vice president.

Chris Geehern, AIM: Health care is one of those specific cases where the the shortage of employees is really acute. A lot of complex reasons, but we're seeing that across the state. So Baystate's experience is not unusual.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Now, how was the labor situation in Massachusetts before COVID?

The labor situation before COVID still involved a shortage of skilled workers. So this is not a new issue among employers. This has been something that's been taking place over the past decade. And it really reflects the fact that we're looking at some real structural issues that are likely to persist for a long time.

So did COVID lockdown measures, where only essential workers were allowed to work outside the home, take a toll on the business industry? Was that effect evenly felt from west to east?

I think it was. As you pointed out, it's affecting every type of industry. What the lockdown did really was a couple of things. It drove a lot of people out of the workforce. So a lot of people who were parents and caregivers stepped out of the workforce, which kind of exacerbated the existing shortage of workers.

And in the long term, it prompted people to kind of rethink the nature of work itself. So what we now have is the opportunity for people who want to work in Massachusetts and live in, say, South Carolina or Tennessee or Park City, Utah, for that matter, in fact, can do so. So that's changed the whole calculus, really.

So is this a business problem or is it an elected political leadership issue?

Like all complex issues, it's both. So from the point of view of policymakers, we not only have to make sure that businesses can grow here, we have to make sure that the state is attractive to the workers who are going to fuel that growth.

From a business perspective, this shortage of qualified workers is really putting the onus on employers to be what we call "employers of choice," which means that you have to be creative. You have to work with your benefits structure. You have to do the things that as you're competing for workers in a competitive market, that those workers are going to look to your company as opposed to another company.

In the Berkshires, Melanie Gelaznik is the executive director of Mass Hire Berkshire One-Stop Career Center. She said they are seeing shortages in commercial truck drivers, hotel and restaurant workers and many other things.

"The restaurants, hotels, those types of career paths seem to be not able to to hold on to their help," Gelaznik said. "The reason for that is it's just so competitive right now that people are job jumping like crazy, you know, because if they can get 50 more cents an hour or some other sort of flexibility, they're doing it."

Is it really over $0.50 an hour? Is that what you're hearing from business leaders?

Sure. And ultimately, here's the problem: Between now and the year 2030, the state is projecting that the number of jobs in Massachusetts is going to grow by 21%. In that same period between now and 2030, the workforce is projected to grow by just 1.5%. So that's a big problem.

So our message really is for employers who think that somehow the economic cycle is going to wash all this out and things are going to go back to the way they were, that ain't going to happen. In fact, what we're seeing now is just a harbinger of an issue that's only going to become more acute as time goes along.

Some say Massachusetts needs to become more attractive for workers. During the pandemic, 2020 to 2021 Census data shows that the state's population declined. That follows a pattern across the Northeast. Your organization has attributed that decline to residents moving out of state, going to warmer places and where the cost of living is lower.

I'm not sure we can do anything about the weather in Massachusetts, but state leaders could address the cost of living. Do you have a target there? A number to match, in order for Massachusetts to retain residents?

I think traditionally Massachusetts has has never been a, quote-unquote, "low cost state." And I don't think it has to be. But at the same time, it does have to not be an outlier on the expensive side. So, for example, when you look at the cost of housing here, both in the Boston area and in western Massachusetts, in certain areas, the cost of housing is a real burden on employees.

During the pandemic, we saw a real exodus of parents and caregivers. And part of the issue is we have the most expensive child care costs in the country. Obviously, addressing those would help families as well. So, all of these things, cost of energy obviously is higher in New England — we're kind of at the end of all kinds of pipelines.

So all of these issues have to be addressed if we're going to make sure that workers see Massachusetts as a place where they can live, buy a house, put down roots and raise families.

Does this highly competitive job market exacerbate preexisting biases and stereotypes, and kind of widen the disparities between Black and white workers?

I don't know the answer to that question. All I know is that if you talk to an employer, if a prospective employee comes in the door and has the skills needed for a job, that employer is not going to worry about that person's color or nationality or gender. They want to put that person to work and the future of their company is going to depend on the ability to hire that person and to retain that person. So, I think ultimately, the employee shortage should help everyone.

Obviously, one of the things that forces us to do is to look at discrepancies in education and skill training. So obviously, for communities that have historically been underrepresented either on the education side or the training side, it kind of puts a bright light on that and really prompts us to make sure that everyone in Massachusetts has access to the skills training, whether that's in manufacturing or computer software or biotech research, that's going to allow them to contribute to the economy.

Nancy Eve Cohen contributed to this report.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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