© 2024 New England Public Media

FCC public inspection files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact hello@nepm.org or call 413-781-2801.
PBS, NPR and local perspective for western Mass.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
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.

'It's really pretty dehumanizing': Jobseekers discuss search process, online portals, discrimination

A sign at the entrance to Cornucopia Foods in Northampton, Massachusetts, advertises available part-time work at the natural foods market.
Sam Hudzik
A sign at the entrance to Cornucopia Foods in Northampton, Massachusetts, advertises available part-time work at the natural foods market.

All week we've brought you stories of industries in Massachusetts — and western Mass, in particular — struggling to find qualified workers to fill open positions. We've also heard about demographic reasons for this, including an aging workforce.

But there are still plenty of people looking for work who haven't been able to land a job.

In preparing for our reporting series, Short-Staffed: How western Mass. is tackling workforce shortages, we asked on the radio and social media for people to share their own stories of looking for work or trying to hire people.

Adam Frenier, NEPM: What did you hear in response?

Sam Hudzik, NEPM: It was really interesting, Adam, and not in the way we expected. When we put the call out, we heard mostly from people who said, essentially, “What do you mean, ‘workforce shortage’? What are you talking about?” They said, “I'm here, I'm looking, and I can't find a good job.”

And you were able to catch up with some of these folks. What kinds of jobs are they looking for?

Well, let me introduce you to Pam Kinsmith. She lives in Northampton. She's 55, has a master's degree and has worked all sorts of jobs through the years — graphic designer, ran a medical office, worked in mental health, was a DJ. She was also a COVID contact tracer. She really liked it and was proud of the help the program was offering people. But the funding dried up and she lost that job.

For a few months last year, she taught at Greenfield Public Schools, but left that position. And she's been applying on and off to all sorts of jobs, and it takes a lot of time in front of the computer.

"I have something that's percolating right now that was just through somebody I know. As far as using the portals, [from] most of them, I heard nothing. Not that they received it, not that we're processing it, nothing. I did get one, ‘Thank you for your application. We'll be in touch,’ but then nothing,” Kinsmith said.

And Kinsmith also has a small business. She's an artist. She has a pottery studio in Easthampton, but she's still looking for work.

We hear a lot about the workforce shortage in certain industries, and it's definitely big in the service industry right now. Is that something Pam is considering?

She is, but not just yet. I asked how she was paying the bills in the meantime, and she said she sold her house at really the height of the market, so that's given her a financial cushion, but that only lasts so long, she says.

"Now I'm starting to get to that panicky place. Like, OK, this can't keep dragging on. And so I've been putting more and more energy into working in my studio when jobs aren't happening, so that I'll have more product to sell in case this doesn't materialize. That said, I'm reaching the point where there are so many jobs in retail, for example. So if I needed to work at a CVS or a market or whatever, I'll do it,” Kinsmith said.

And it sounds like that time may be coming.

Yeah. She says if she can't find something more in line with her interests and her skills, she'd look for a retail job within probably the next year.

And I asked her, when she hears about the workforce shortage in western Massachusetts, what goes through her mind? And what comes across is frustration — frustration with employers just not giving her a chance.

"My first thought is, are they looking for the goose with the golden egg? You know. 'You're not perfect, you're not perfect, you're not perfect.' I have heard a lot in the different things I've attended that the portals are really a problem. Like, for example, if I have a degree in education and I'm applying for something in business and I don't have a business degree, [it] kicks you out right away. And you can't do anything about it if you can't talk to a person,” Kinsmith said.

I heard that from a few different people about these online application portals, including from another western Mass. resident, Sean Donovan.

And Donovan is a Belchertown resident and Air Force veteran who also contacted our station when he heard about our coverage of workforce issues. How's his job search going?

It's not going well. He's applied for dozens of jobs — security jobs, carpentry, construction. He's done a lot of that work in the past, and he said he got really close on one job. He had an interview and it was sounding good.

"The supervisor that interviewed me, he said, 'Probably going to hire you.' Never heard back from him. You don't get rejection letters. You don't get a phone call [saying], 'Hey, we chose somebody else. Sorry, buddy.' We don't get that anymore. In the online world, you're just a resume. And now, with [artificial intelligence] coming in, we're going to have AI algorithms pre-selecting people like me out, because I don't have the qualifications that they like. It's really pretty dehumanizing,” Donovan said.

Donovan is 49 years old, and he also runs a small business — a bike shop. But the seasonal nature of that work is tough on him, and he was looking for something more stable. He says he's not willing to work in fast food because he's opposed to what they do to the general health of people. And also he wants to be paid for what his skills are worth. He's finding some construction jobs that pay far too little, especially with inflation. And he thinks there are a lot of potential job applicants who feel the same way.

"It's not really a workforce shortage. It is a horrible dynamic of employers expecting too much for too little outlay, and workers finally saying, 'Enough is enough. I don't want just enough to pay my rent and nothing more, and spend my entire life working hard and and injuring myself,'” he said.

And Donovan says while he isn't making much at his bike shop, he can control his own workday and he doesn't feel exploited.

You also talked to someone from Westfield who believes he's not getting work because of discrimination.

Paul Ortega is 54 years old. He has a background with video production, graphic design — lots of computer stuff. Originally from Ecuador, he owned his own company there. He's a permanent legal resident in the U.S., worked at a computer company in Georgia, and then came to Massachusetts two years ago. And he says he's had a much harder time getting work in Massachusetts. And he thinks it's in part because of his accent.

“For example, I applied for Apple Computer. I was in four interviews ... but they never called me again to say, 'yes, you are right' or 'we reject your application,’” Ortega said.

Ortega says he's applied to between 50 and 80 jobs — technical jobs and retail jobs. And he had this encounter during a job interview with a printing shop:

"In an interview by phone, the person on the line [asked] me if I am from the United States. I say, 'I have my papers to work.' And he say, 'OK,' and never call me again,” Ortega said.

And Ortega felt like, from that question, the interviewer was being skeptical of his legal status.

So what's next for Ortega?

Well, he's taking classes at Holyoke Community College to work on his English skills, and — at this point — he's thinking he may need to try to start his own company.

I actually heard about Ortega's situation from his girlfriend, Nathalie Vicencio. And amazingly, she works at Wayfinders as a housing case manager, helping people in the shelter system get the services they need, including employment training. So this whole issue really hits home for her.

"Part of my training and part of my work involves understanding systemic discrimination and how it affects people. And it's just a constant battle for survival in capitalism. It affects different people in different ways. I have clients that are white, but they have disabilities, so they have other challenges. I have clients that are newly arrived and don't speak any English whatsoever. They don't even have a work permit. So their challenges are very different. But when you see it happening at home, it's ... really frustrating because I wish I could do more, you know. But I'm at work every day, 9 to 5, sometimes 9 to 7. And then when I come home, I'm exhausted,” Vicencio said.

So helping Ortega apply for jobs, that gets pushed to the weekends, and then they have less time as a family.

And the unemployment rate in Massachusetts right now is 2.9%. It's about a percentage point higher in the Springfield and Pittsfield metro areas in western Mass. These are historically quite low percentages. But are folks like Ortega and Donovan and Kinsmith represented in this unemployment rate?

That's the remarkable thing, Adam. So I checked in with an economist at the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics about this and walked her through the situations for each of these jobseekers. And it's likely that for Pam Kinsmith and Sean Donovan, because they have small businesses, they would not count as unemployed.

But for Paul Ortega, he doesn't have a job, is open to working and is actively applying. So he would count among the unemployed. None of them, though, are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.
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.
Related Content