BOSTON — Dozens of people walked around a recent Somerville job fair handing out resumes. There was Jim Lundy, 53, an English teacher with a Ph.D. and 30 years of experience. When he could not find a teaching job, he started a business that sells used blue jeans, but has been unsuccessful. There was Isabel Sendao, 38, who lost her job in marketing and sales a year and a half ago and is keeping current on the latest technology while interviewing for jobs. There was Sandy Carr, 51, who worked at non-profit and social service jobs for three decades. She was laid off when a medical billing firm went under and has been doing temporary and contract work until she can find something full-time.
“Job searching’s a constant thing to be doing these days,” Carr said.
At the same time, there are businesses in Massachusetts looking for workers. Denise Petersen, who works in human resources for B&E Precision Aircraft Components in Southwick, said her company is looking for computer numerically controlled machinists and burr hands, a type of skilled laborer. The company is competing with other local tool companies and having a hard time finding workers with the necessary skills. “As experienced or skilled workers leave, it’s getting more difficult to find people in those areas that have experience,” Petersen said.
The “skills gap” is a fact of life in the recovering economy. Jobs are opening up and workers are seeking them. But the unemployed workers do not always have the same skills that employers are looking for. In some cases, industries have shifted during the recession, some recovering faster than others. In other cases, the recession actually delayed the skills gap, as older workers pushed off retirement. With the recovery, some of those workers are preparing to leave.
Because those fields with job openings often require specialized education, the state, non-profit organizations and businesses have started numerous initiatives to train workers to meet the needs of specific companies and industries.
“In general, we’re facing a significant challenge in the next couple of years with the retirement of baby boomers,” said Eric Nakajima, assistant secretary for innovation policy at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. “In industries across the state, there are a lot of workers 55 and older who will be exiting the labor market.” According to a report by Commonwealth Corporation and New England Public Policy Center of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, 20.5 percent of the workforce in Massachusetts in 2008 to 2010, and 22.4 percent in the Pioneer Valley, was over 55.
Nakajima said the recession temporarily halted baby boomers’ exodus from the workforce. “We anticipate as the economy improves, that’s going to get significantly worse over the next couple of years,” he said.
Nancy Snyder, president of the Commonwealth Corporation, a quasi public workforce development agency that studies the skills gap, said precision manufacturing and health care are the major areas in the Pioneer Valley where employers are struggling to find workers. According to the Commonwealth Corporation report, manufacturing accounted for 9.5 percent of the employment in the Pioneer Valley last year. Education and health services accounted for 33.2 percent.
Elsewhere in Massachusetts, technology, software and life sciences companies need more skilled employees. “One of the things we’ve found across the state is this issue of an aging workforce, and really not enough young workers to fill their jobs when they leave,” Snyder said.
Manufacturing in particular has undergone a change. The industry lost huge numbers of jobs during the recession but has remained fairly stable since 2009, according to a 2012 report by Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone and others. However, the industry has shifted away from low-tech manufacturing such as textiles and toward high-tech areas like medical equipment and electronics. The manufacturing workforce is aging, which, combined with high turnover, led the study’s authors to conclude that there could be 100,000 job openings in manufacturing in the next decade.
One way the state is addressing the issue is through the Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative, a new group dedicated to expanding manufacturing in Massachusetts. Edward Leyden, president and CEO of Ben Franklin Design and Manufacturing in Agawam and a co-chair of the collaborative, said the skills gap is the biggest issue facing manufacturing. Leyden said there is still a perception that manufacturing is a “dirty, dying, smokestack trade,” when in reality it is a computer-oriented business requiring math and science skills. Additionally, he said the average age for a manufacturing worker is 53 – nearing retirement age. “Most of the shops are having a real hard time finding qualified workers,” Leyden said.
In mid-December, the collaborative will announce the first grant recipients for “AMP it Up!” a program that aims to engage parents, career counselors and teachers to inform students about manufacturing careers. Nakajima said the program has received 15 applications. The collaborative will also soon announce new statewide programs focused on workforce training in manufacturing for existing and new workers. Leyden said company CEOs are already working with local vocational schools on improving training.
In his 2013 budget, Gov. Deval Patrick gave $750,000 to the Precision Manufacturing Regional Alliance Project, a collaboration between industry and state government in the Pioneer Valley that hopes to train 137 workers this year for local manufacturing jobs, according to Nakajima.
On Thursday, a precision manufacturing work force training program at Roger L. Putnam Technical Academy in Springfield drew the attention of Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, who called it an “unbelievable program that invests in people and expands jobs.”
The program at Putnam is a partnership between Smith & Wesson and the school designed to quickly train people for precision manufacturing jobs. Currently there are 15 adults, either unemployed or under-employed, being taught by both Putnam and Smith & Wesson instructors.
Murray said the state is looking to replicate the program on the North Shore. “Every vocational technical school in the commonwealth should have a program like this,” he said.
Putnam Principal Gilbert Traverso said a similar program has been created with Lennox Saw to train workers in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, and the school is working to add programs in other vocational fields in the future.
Manufacturing is not the only area where employers face a skills gap. In health care, Western Massachusetts employers had expected major nursing shortages by 2012, also due to an aging work force, said Patricia Samra, director of clinical work force planning at Baystate Medical Center, which is part of a regional nursing collaborative that includes schools and employers. The recession stopped some nurses from leaving, but as the economy improves, she anticipates that experienced workers will retire.
Samra said the hospital already does on-the-job training for medical assistants, and is working on developing a training program for pharmacy technicians. Last week, Baystate Medical Center kicked off a new residency program to train novice nurses to move into specialty areas such as critical care. The hospital has worked with the regional employment board and other area employers. “We’re trying to take advantage of more grant opportunities that help address those needs where we need to invest more in on-the-job training than we’re accustomed to,” Samra said.
The state also has been involved in a separate initiative involving information technology, partnering with 10 of Massachusetts’ community colleges to create and redesign IT programs that meet the needs of industry. Springfield Technical Community College, for example, is offering classes to train microcomputer specialists and PC/network technicians.
Michael Goodman, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, said there are still many people unemployed in sectors that were hit hardest by the economy – such as construction and real estate development. Fields with openings tend to be white collar sectors such as innovation and high technology.
“Some employers can’t find people with skills they need. At the same time, we have people looking for work,” Goodman said. “There are opportunities in certain areas of the economy that are better than in others. Those areas disproportionately hire those with higher levels of skills and education.”
The Republican reporter Ted Laborde contributed reporting to this story.
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