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Forward Thinking: Area Business and Civic Leaders Are Calling It 'Workforce in Progress'

By George O'Brien, Editor, BusinessWest

Area civic and economic development leaders have launched what would be considered the first phase of a broad initiative known as Building a Better Workforce — Closing the Skills Gap on the Road to Economic Resurgence. The initial steps are designed to address the plan's major goals — from establishing universal pre-kindergarten to increasing technical training in high-demand sectors — while also engaging a host of players in the process and generating much-needed momentum for what will be a lengthy, ambitious, and costly undertaking.

Bill Ward says that when area business and civic leaders set about crafting the plan eventually to be titled Building a Better Workforce — Closing the Skills Gap on the Road to Economic Resurgence, they did so with the mindset that Springfield and its education system were at what he called the "tipping point."

Life on this precipice is evidenced by a host of statistics that are eye-opening if not alarming, said Ward, director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, who cited just a few. These include a high-school graduation rate of 54%, compared to 70% for Worcester (a community of similar size chosen specifically for comparative analysis) and 80% for the state; a 36% 10th-grade English MCAS proficiency level, compared to 52% for Worcester and 71% for the state; and an overall poverty rate of 28%, compared to 18% for Worcester and a mere 10% for the state.

"Those numbers tell the story," said Ward, who told BusinessWest that the basic mission behind creation of Building a Better Workforce is to develop a strategic initiative that ultimately will tip Springfield in the right direction. And as the plan's first specific initiatives were announced late last month, Ward said they were carefully designed to generate what he termed "forward motion" in what will be an ambitious, long-term undertaking with a price tag north of $13 million.

Elaborating, he said the first programs, outlined at an elaborate press conference that included local business leaders, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, and state Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Suzanne Bump, were crafted to achieve some form of momentum with regard to the workforce's plan's four main strategic goals: 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.

All four are addressed through a $1.25 million package of state grants, city funding, and contributions from area businesses that will be put toward several initiatives, all aimed, said Ward, at "unplugging the pipeline of qualified workers."

These initiatives include:

  • A project within the health care sector to increase pathways for lower-skilled incumbent workers by providing certified nursing assistant (CNA) and acute-care training;

  • Another career-pathways project, this one involving education and training in early childhood education, with a focus on helping female, minority, non-English speaking, and economically disadvantaged candidates;

  • Contributions totaling $150,000 from three area businesses — MassMutual, Big Y, and Western Mass. Electric Co. — to be put toward paid interships, year-round career education, and mentoring to 50 disadvantaged students; and

  • Efforts to improve adult basic education, to be funded by $100,000 in federal Community Development Block Grants.

But beyond achieving progress with primary goals and specific initiatives, this first round of programs was designed to get key players — from major employers to area colleges; from one-stop career centers to civic groups like the Urban League — actively involved in this workforce initiative and thus begin the process of creating the critical mass of support and imagination that it will take to ensure that Springfield doesn't tip the wrong way, Ward explained.

"We knew we needed to do something immediate and universal," he said of the plan's first phase, adding that, by doing so, he hopes to achieve needed momentum and a collective buy-in from participants. "We have to show that we're doing more than worrying about the problem, that we're making an impact," he said. "If we can do that, we can build some synergy, we can get people saying, 'yes, we're working together, and we're creating progress.'"

The collective players in the workforce-building program will address what amounts to a supply-and-demand issue, said Jean Jackson, vice president of Workforce Planning for Baystate Health, who told BusinessWest that the system will be faced with filling some 18,000 positions over the next decade or so due to expansion, retirements, and attrition, and is concerned about whether there will be adequate supply.

But this concern is region-wide, and this explains a highly collaborative effort, one that brings competitors such as Baystate and the Sisters of Providence Health System together in an effort to identify and shape solutions.

"The bottom line is, we need to be thinking about the entire Pioneer Valley," she said. "We're all in this together, and we need to make sure we're going to have enough workers for all of us.

"To take an approach collectively makes a lot of sense," she continued. "Bringing together the health care organizations, the colleges, the public education system, and the community organizations so we can understand those supply-and-demand issues and align our strategies will be critical, because we all rely on the local labor market, and there is a skills gap."

In this issue, BusinessWest looks at the first steps in the process of building a better workforce, and how they will hopefully set a positive tone for this broad initiative.

The Jobs at Hand
As he talked about research conducted by the REB and the comparative analysis with Worcester and the state as a whole, Ward started by focusing on what he called an aberration.

It regards MCAS 2007 proficiency levels and specifically third-grade reading; Springfield recorded 40%, and Worcester 33%. "We looked at it, we corroborated it, it's accurate, but it's an aberration," said Ward, noting that in all other categories listed — from the percentage of people age 25 without a high school diploma to the percentage of the population with a bachelor's degree or higher — Springfield lags well behind its neighbor to the east, and even further behind the state (see chart, page 24).

The numbers wouldn't be quite so alarming if Springfield was an island, surrounded mostly, if not completely, by communities with much better numbers, said Ward, but the fact remains that it is only a few miles from Holyoke, which is, statistically at least, the poorest community in the Commonwealth.

What the numbers clearly show is a skills gap, said Ward, adding this is evidenced by the fact that, in 2007, 21,000 Hampden County residents, roughly half from Springfield, looked for a job through the county's two one-stop career centers — FutureWorks and Career Point — and fewer than half were able to find employment, this at a time when many employers were struggling to fill positions.

The process of closing the gap focuses on education, obviously, but also awareness of career opportunities and providing access, or pathways, to such opportunities, said Ward. These were some of the guiding principles behind Building a Better Workforce, a 28-page report that was completed several weeks ago, but only released when there was a commitment of at least $1 million to get started with programs toward addressing those four major goals and three specific objectives for each one.

Creating momentum with several of these objectives was a key part of the thought process in choosing projects with which to launch Building a Better Workforce, said Ward, noting that he and others wanted to engage the business community in the initiative and show that there would be some more-immediate gains as well as progress for the longer term.

The program involving Baystate and Mercy fits both categories, said John McGlew, director of Employment and Employee Relations for the Sisters of Providence Health System. He noted that health care providers are currently challenged to fill positions in many categories, and the situation will only worsen as the Baby Boom generation ages, thus taking individuals out of the workforce while also increasing the need for services across the board.

The situation is so dire that it is bringing long-time competitors together, in this case as business partners in the application submitted in the quest for a Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund (WCTF) grant, said McGlew. "This collaborative spirit is necessary, not just among Mercy and Baystate, but health care providers across the region, because we share a common problem: an inadequate applicant flow of qualified people to put at the bedside."

The initiative to expand the health care workforce in the region has a number of moving parts, said Jackson, noting that the initiative, announced last month and funded by a $475,000 state-supported WCTF grant, will involve a diverse roster of players, including several colleges, the career centers, the Mass. Career Development Institute (MCDI), and groups like the Urban League.

It will start with 10 current workers — seven at Baystate and three at Mercy — currently in what would be described as entry-level or lower-level (unskilled) positions. These individuals, chosen on the basis of applications and a thorough interview process, would be paid their current salaries while they complete an intensive, eight-week training program to become certified nursing assistants, or CNAs. These are semi-skilled positions involving work that, as the name suggests, supports registered nurses in their daily regimens.

But the training program, involving Holyoke Community College, MCDI, and Springfield Technical Community College and its elaborate Patient Simulation Center, is designed to make participants ready to work in an acute care setting, said McGlew.

"The CNA program as its stands today prepares people to work in a nursing home — it doesn't properly prepare them for the acute-care setting," he explained. "And that's what we're trying to do with this program; we want to put people in the pipeline, but also augment standardized training so that they are prepared to go into the acute-care setting immediately."

In this capacity, individuals will be exposed to a number of health care specialties, from nursing to respiratory therapy; from diagnostic imaging to laboratory services, said McGlew, noting that health care providers across the region and across the state are struggling to fill vacancies in such areas.

"Obviously, getting into these areas requires additional schooling," he continued. "But this program would provide people with that critical first step in moving forward with that process."

The 10 current workers will be chosen within the next several weeks, and will probably begin CNA training early in 2009, said Jackson, adding that the program will also involve 45 "external" candidates, preferably representing minority communities, who will receive the same CNA training and the same exposure to other, more lucrative careers in health care.

"What we're doing is putting people on a pathway," she explained, adding that both internal and external candidates will gain confidence from the CNA training and work that results from it — a necessary commodity if they are then to consider and undertake a two-year college program needed to bring them further down the path and up the career ladder.

Degrees of Progress
As they mulled options for projects with which to launch Building a Better Workforce, Ward said organizers looked at the status of policies and trends in employment, education, and economic development, with an eye toward making the region better-prepared for what might come next.

Such thinking was a driving force behind a $450,000 initiative, also to be funded by a WCTF grant awarded to the REB, for implementation of programs to improve the skills of pre-kindergarten educators, said Ward, noting that the state has passed a universal pre-K bill, a measure still awaiting funding.

Roughly 30% of those who could be enrolled in early education programs are not, said Ward, adding that if and when universal pre-K becomes reality, there will be a need for more trained educators. Meanwhile, new studies show that the quality of early-childhood education is enhanced by the education and training of the teachers, said Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One, one of the largest early-education providers in the region.

"Knowing that, we were committed to finding opportunities for our current staff to improve their skills, while also drawing more people into this field," she said, adding that the WCTF grant funding will be used to help develop what she called "career pathways."

Elaborating, she said the grant will be used to hire a coordinator, who will work with various players, or stakeholders, involved in this initiative, including area community colleges, to facilitate the process of obtaining degrees and professional development training to advance in the field.

As an example, she said many individuals currently teaching at area facilities are one or a few courses away from a degree and could use some help getting to the finish line, in terms of direction, funding, or both.

Highly skilled educators are the key to not merely providing early childhood education, but making that experience productive for children, thus motivating and readying them for further education, Kagan explained.

"This is one of the key strategies for breaking the cycle of poverty and unemployment in this region," she said of the pre-K initiative. "Research clearly shows that people who have a quality preschool education experience are more likely to graduate from high school and either go on to college or graduate with a skill.

"The employment board knows that this is the future workforce," she continued, "and that if they don't get these kids through school, that will have a continuously negative effect on our community."

Jackson concurred, noting that the early-education piece is an important component of the overall workforce-building exercise, because, while health care providers need individuals in the pipeline now, they need a steady flow of qualified workers down the road as well.

"We need to fill the jobs of today, obviously, but we also need to be focused on a longer-term strategy," she explained. "You have to start early, position kids for success, and make them aware of opportunities in health care and other fields."

Overall, Building a Better Workforce outlines goals and objectives through 2010, with a projected price tag of $13.58 million, said Ward, noting that amassing such funding won't be easy, and will require a substantial, long-term commitment from the state and the Patrick administration.

With this in mind, he said Springfield, given its 'tipping-point' status, should be awarded what he likened to 'preferred developer' status with regard to state grants from programs like the WCTF. By that, he meant that the city should have a clear path to such funds and even preference over other communities.

"Why? Because the problem is so acute here," he said, noting that city, because of those statistics he quoted early and often, should be granted waivers and other help needed to meet requirements for grants and other forms of assistance. "And if Springfield doesn't get positioned in this way, it will be a long, hard journey."

Hire Expectations
Summing up the first phase of initiatives within the Building a Better Workforce project, Ward described them collectively as "a small first step that cannot be viewed in light of what isn't being done."

By that, he meant that this all-important endeavor has to start somewhere, and it is starting with efforts designed to get individuals and groups involved, generate some immediate results, and build momentum for subsequent stages.

"We hope these will serve as a catalyst to move our agendas forward," he explained, adding that such catalytic agents are needed when a city is at the tipping point — and could easily tip either way.

Building a Better Workforce — At a Glance
The draft workforce plan established four strategic goals and objectives through 2010. Here is a breakdown and the current estimated costs associated with each:

1. Establish Universal Pre-kindergarten — $2.77 million

Objective 1: Implement a high-quality, city-wide universal pre-kindergarten pilot program, with streamlined funding, in Springfield;

Objective 2: Implement programs to improve the skills for pre-K educators;

Objective 3: Implement family-centered literacy programs for parents and children in pre-K programs.

2. Improve Youth Education Proficiency and Career Awareness — $6.6 million

Objective 1: Implement extended learning time and other programs to increase high-school graduation and MCAS proficiency;

Objective 2: Expand opportunities that link students with internships and summer work experiences;

Objective 3: Increase post-secondary education and training enrollment and retention through strengthened transitional programs.

3. Increase Adult-literacy Education Services — $2.25 million

Objective 1: Secure new and flexible funds for adult-literacy programs tailored to targeted populations;

Objective 2: Increase program capacity of adult-literacy providers to reduce wait lists;

Objective 3: Increase the number of learners transitioning to one-stop career centers, post-secondary education, and other workforce programs.

4. Increase Technical Training in High-growth/High-demand Industry Sectors — $1.95 million

Objective 1: Align and expand current sectoral training initiatives to obtain greater efficiencies;

Objective 2: Increase training opportunities through new and creative funding mechanisms;

Objective 3: Initiate new employer-education-training alliances to implement programs that address critical job vacancies.

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