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Not enough workers, too many jobs. That’s the story for many industries in western Massachusetts and around the country. Why is that and what can be done? How is the shortage of workers affecting our economy? The NEPM newsroom and The Fabulous 413 are looking for answers.

A shortage of hospitality workers — at MGM Springfield and all over western Massachusetts

Holyoke Community College student Kasey Davis (far right) speaks with executive chef Andre Fuehr about a recipe.
Nirvani Williams
Holyoke Community College student Kasey Davis (far right) speaks with executive chef Andre Fuehr about a recipe.

MGM Springfield is a key part of the hospitality industry in western Massachusetts. The casino, like many businesses in the industry, has struggled to attract workers for certain positions.

It's also worth noting that MGM is offering far fewer positions than it once promised to bring to Springfield.

NEPM's Nirvani Williams and Adam Frenier have been looking into this as part of our series, Short-Staffed: How western Mass. is tackling workforce shortages.

Kari Njiiri: Adam, let's start with you. How big of an employer in the region is MGM? And how does that stack up against the casino's original promise? 

Adam Frenier: MGM Springfield is a major employer with nearly 1,500 employees on the payroll as of the fourth quarter of last year. That's according to numbers submitted to state gambling regulators.

But prior to opening in 2018, the casino said its goal was to have 3,000 workers. It did come close to that when it first opened, but that number started trending downward. Then COVID hit and the facility was shuttered for several months before opening with limited operations.

The bottom-line is business hasn't met the projections that were laid out before MGM Springfield opened. So, with not as many patrons as hoped, it does figure that they would have fewer workers. Still, it's 1,500 jobs that the region did not have before the casino opened in 2018.

What's MGM saying about its current hiring efforts?

Adam Frenier: Well, overall, the MGM Springfield workforce has grown by a little more than 100 jobs, or by 8%, over the last year. So what's led to this increase? I asked Jason Randall, the casino's executive director of human resources, about that, and he told me there's a few factors.

“We continue to reopen our amenities coming out of COVID, including increasing hours of operation. So, as these outlets expanded, it required more employees to provide service to our guests,” Randall said.

Randall also told me that the opening of the sportsbook also contributed to additional hiring. and going forward. He estimated there's still about 150 openings, especially in the sectors involving culinary workers, which we're going to hear about from Nirvani in a moment, and table-game dealers.

MGM Springfield also has workforce diversity goals it set before it opened, when it tried to sell itself to the city and state regulators. How has that been going?

Well, the casino has stated goals for hiring people of color, women, veterans, as well as Springfield residents. Ad it regularly has been hitting or has been close to these goals, except in one area the hiring of women. The goal is 50%, but since it opened, MGM Springfield really hasn't been close to that number. As of the last quarter of last year, it stood at 41%.

In the past, they've mentioned struggles hiring women in the security sector, which has led, at least in part, they say, to that number. I should also note, though, that this isn't an issue, just unique to the casino in Springfield. The other two gambling facilities in Massachusetts, Encore Boston Harbor and Plainridge Park, also have been below that goal of 50% in recent years.

Indeed, as we said, the entire hospitality industry is facing workforce challenges. Line cooks are in high demand, and MGM is actually funding a free line-cook training program at Holyoke Community College. This intensive, six-week course teaches the basics of working in a professional kitchen.

Nirvani, you attended a class. What did the students say?

Nirvani Williams, NEPM: Yes, I attended a class during the first week of the current program. They were already getting thrown into the kitchen and had to work together to make a few meals the chef created for an event at the college. I saw students finely chopping parsley, sautéing onions with zucchini and squash.

It's a highly intense environment, but the students there were certainly up for the challenge. Most of them said they jumped at this opportunity, like Kasey Davis and Michael Bess — siblings that applied and got in.

"It's motivation. And then I've got 'big head' over here too so that kind of helps," Davis said.

"I'm her motivation, she said that too," Bess added.

"I can't call out. You can't call out. We've got to come every day," Davis said. "We've got to smash it."

"And it's six weeks," Bess said. "I mean, who can't do something for six weeks?"

They've both been in and out of professional kitchens and worked for catering businesses years ago, and are using this program to sharpen their skills again — no pun intended. They said they're hoping to work at MGM after.

“We’re both talking about maybe doing something for MGM for a year, maybe two, just to get our line experience back," Bess said. "We haven't decided yet — no solid plan yet, but we're going to figure it out."

So, Nirvani, are all of the students hoping to work at MGM after the program?

Actually, no. Most of the students said they want to be their own employers and are hoping to open their own small businesses. In addition to learning kitchen skills, the students would be trained in getting various Servsafe certificates, which is a certificate that allows someone to not only work in a restaurant, but also start a catering company.

Like one student, Moises Youseff. He wants to start his own food truck.

“That's why I'm going for it,” Youseff said. “It’s very important that any chef has those certifications, because it just means they know how to handle food safety and time, temperatures, all those things that are very important.”

And another student, Cristian Melgar, already has a catering company and just wants to expand it.

“I've done little events here and there, but that's another reason I'm doing this,” Melgar said. "So I could expand my knowledge in food, math and all that stuff. So I can calculate what my spending and my intake [is], my profits and all that stuff. The quantity to cook at [and] at what time to cook things and stuff like that for my catering company, so it can help boost it.”

So the program cultivates a variety of people, be it those who've made quite a bit of headway professionally and want to now venture into their own businesses, or a retraining of sorts for people looking to stay in the hospitality industry as a professional chef.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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