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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.

To engage residents 'on the sidelines,' western Mass. employment office wants major federal grant

 Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey speaks at the Biden-Harris administration's “Making Care Work” event on April 17, 2024.
The White House
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Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey speaks at the Biden-Harris administration's “Making Care Work” event on April 17, 2024.

Last month, in voicing support for President Joe Biden and his administration's policies, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey called out a growth opportunity in Holyoke and Springfield.

"We have an area out in western Massachusetts that suffers from among the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in our state. It's also an area we know there's a great opportunity for growth," Healey said. "We need to support a workforce. And so, we've got a plan that we've just built out — working with our regional workforce board — that takes a new approach to addressing some of these deep inequalities of race and geography."

That's where the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board comes in. The nonprofit is spearheading a $20 million federal grant proposal. Officials there want to create a workforce training system targeting people in Holyoke and Springfield.

CEO Peter Farkas talks to NEPM's Carrie Healy about what his organization does.

Peter Farkas, MHHCWB: MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board is one of 16 workforce boards in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. And what we do is kind of oversee state [and] federal workforce development dollars. We operate two career centers, MassHire Springfield and MassHire Holyoke, which are more the public-facing entities in the region, both on job seekers and industry and employers.

A chart showing the unemployment rate in Hampden County, Massachusetts, from January 2020 through March 2024.
A chart, showing the unemployment rate in Hampden County, Mass from January, 2020 through March, 2024.
screen capture / Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
A chart showing the unemployment rate in Hampden County, Massachusetts, from January 2020 through March 2024.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: So, you have your finger on the pulse of what's going on. Are employers in Hampden County struggling to find qualified employees and are those unemployed finding work? How are things looking now?

Great question. So, no different than I would say the rest of the state. There is a labor shortage kind of across all industries, with health care being one of the main industries that's having issues finding talent. I would say one area people see is the unemployment rate, which in Massachusetts is low. It's at 2.9%. Here in Hampden County, it's at 4.4%, which is still not considered high. But, to me, that doesn't tell the whole story in terms of the labor market.

And why is that?

So, there's a statistic called the labor force participation rate, which is how many people in the region are either working or are looking for work. And that's about 60%, which if you look at the state percentages, that's about 65%, which historically Hampden County’s always lagged a little below.

But I bring that up because with the unemployment rate being low, people see that, and I don’t think fully understand the whole picture regarding the labor force. So yeah, we do hear from industry in terms of having issues finding talent, and it's an issue we're constantly grappling with.

A recent Mass Benchmarks report showed that as a whole, the Massachusetts labor market did look strong with an unemployment rate of, as you said, 2.9%. That's compared to 3.8% nationally. Economists did note that there was a factor they're watching relevant to the Massachusetts unemployment number that suggests there could be some potential softening. What are the factors they're likely looking at in terms of projecting the future there?

I’m not an economist. But coming out of COVID, you saw people retire early or early retirements. You saw people just disengaged from the labor force. So, one of the roles of the workforce board is — how do we find those disengaged populations. So, whether that's individuals that are returning citizens, leaving correctional institutions, disconnected older youth. So, they potentially graduated high school but aren't really working, aren't on a career path. And then also the migrants. So there's been an influx of migrants into the commonwealth and here in Hampden County. So yeah, it's complex. But where the individuals have disassociated, disengaged from the labor force, how can we bring them back into the labor force with good-paying jobs?

Could you talk about the federal grant that your organization submitted last month called the Distressed Area Recompete pilot program? Could that be the catalyst needed to connect the historically marginalized communities in Springfield and Holyoke to good jobs?

Absolutely. We submitted the application a couple of weeks ago through the Economic Development Administration (EDA). So, it's EDA funding through United States Department of Commerce. This funding targets specific census tracts in Holyoke and Springfield. Specifically because, if you look at the data behind those neighborhoods in Springfield and Holyoke, there are about 16,200 prime-age unemployed individuals in those specific census tracts.

So, when I say prime-age individuals, those are individuals that are between the ages of 25 to 54. Within this proposal, we have about 30 to 40 partners. And it's a very comprehensive proposal that includes not just dollars for workforce training, but also understanding, that's one part of the issue why people are sometimes disengaged from the workforce. So, there's wraparound services through childcare. There's housing support. Each individual would have intensive case management. We have one major component of it that’s a employer inclusive hiring initiative that's going to be overseen by Baystate Health and the Economic Development Council of Western Mass.

So, also, employers are looking at their hiring practices to see — is there a way they can adjust their job descriptions, relook at their processes in terms of how they go about hiring. So, yes, it's definitely one area specifically for Hampden County that we're looking to engage those individuals that are on the sidelines and address their challenges to entering the workforce.

So, you're competing with applicants from around the country for that grant and are among a pool of 22 finalists. When are you expecting to find out if you are awarded the funding?

At the end of summer. So, end of August, early September is the timeline.

You know, there's a lot of talk about the workforce shortage. That means to me that many businesses are in search of employees. But, at the same time, there are also long-term unemployed. And we've heard from a few listeners who are having a really hard time finding a job. What does MassHire do for them?

So, I would recommend they visit their local career center, because there's various funding streams, grants, whether it's federal or state grants, to address long-term unemployed individuals.

[Such as] assistance with their resume. Sometimes individuals don't know where to start with their job search. You know, if they've been out of the labor force, like you said, for — as long-term unemployed, which, depending on how you look at it, sometimes is 27 weeks or more, depending on the metric.

There’re a variety of services at the local career centers. So, that would be my recommendation. And I should say, the state workforce system is set up that, there’re 16 regions within the commonwealth. And here in the Pioneer Valley, there's two workforce regions. So again, we oversee Hampden County, then there's a workforce board and career center in Franklin and Hampshire counties. They provide a lot of valuable free services to job seekers.

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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