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Regional Workforce Development Plan Rolling Out
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
03:57AM / Friday, September 28, 2018
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Heather Boulger updated the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission on the plan Thursday evening.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Workforce development professionals are taking a deeper dive into building the region's health care, hospitality, and manufacturing industries.
 
It isn't that other sectors aren't important but that the Baker administration has tasked local officials to develop a blueprint for workforce development with specific industries to focus a greater amount of attention. 
 
Headed by the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board — which will soon have a much easier name to remember — county officials completed a plan are now looking to implement it.
 
"We needed to prioritize two to three industries and two to three occupations to focus on as a region," BCREB Executive Director Heather Boulger said.
 
In developing the Regional Workforce Skills Initiative, a group consisting of representatives from education, economic development, and workforce development has spent the last 18 or so months taking a deep dive into the employment data in the Berkshires. The effort was pushed by the Baker administration to bring the three sectors together on a focused plan. There are seven of such groups throughout the state.
 
"We fought really hard to make sure we were on our own," Boulger said, becauswe early on there was concern that the Berkshires would be wrapped into a Western Massachusetts group.
 
The county's employment rate is at a low 4.1 percent but there are still challenges, Boulger said. She said the cost of business and limited broadband services are a hindrance to the county's employers and that businesses struggle to find and keep workers.
 
"They are having a hard time finding and retaining a skilled workforce. I hear that every day," Bougler said.
 
The Berkshires also has a lower educational attainment rate than elsewhere. 
 
"We have a lot of people graduating high school and are continuing their education but not completing their education," Boulger said. 
 
And she said there is a "perception" that there aren't any jobs. She disagrees with that notion saying there are some 2,000 jobs, but sometimes the right one can be tricky to find. 
 
What the Berkshires does have going for it is a variety of sectors for people to find opportunities. She said there are strong partnerships with educational institutions in providing the needed training programs. And the Berkshires does have a good quality of life. 
 
Looking at the emerging trends in employment in emerging sectors, opportunities for growth, and wages, the group decided to particularly focus on education, engineering and health care. All three have been noted as strongholds in the local economy and the plan looks to build on those strengths. 
 
In engineering, there are more than 125 job opportunities and the ability to attract millennials. In education, there are some 55 job opportunities and 45 percent of the current workforce is approaching retirement. In health care, some percent of the workforce is nearing retirement. Boulger added that cybersecurity and technology jobs are increasing.
 
"All of the regions mentioned health care and social services," Bougler said, hoping that there are opportunities for statewide programs to be rolled out.
 
The action plan approved by the state outlines 14 goals and 27 different strategies. But first, the group is developing criteria to measure its success.
 
"This is our first opportunity to gather this information to set a baseline," Boulger said.
 
Some of the goals include increasing engagement between employers and elementary and high schools by 5 percent each year through college and career readiness programs, piloting new internship programs, and creating college-training programs further. It looks to attract and retain more people in the 22- to 40-year-old age bracket and increase labor participation among that demographic. 
 
And BCREB wants to expand its reach beyond what it has traditionally been.
 
Bougler said the group typically has worked with individuals who are filing for unemployment, have low incomes, or have employment barriers. It looks to dive deeper into the world of those currently working and who are looking for better jobs or career changes.
 
The group is looking to push for improved transportation through such things as high-speed rail, having better relationships with neighboring states, and working on public transportation needs. 
 
The goals also call for the creation of career pathways for each sector, providing workers with a clear and concise way to get into their chosen job or industry. There is a goal to increase the number of trained and certified workers for those types of jobs by 10 percent by 2022 and the group wants to reduce the supply gap ratio among those sectors by 10 percent.
 
"We also want to decrease the average age of those working in the manufacturing sector," Bougler said, adding that the stigma about the manufacturing sector of old is still prevalent when today's manufacturing is much more sophisticated and clean.
 
There is also strong innovation economies in neighboring areas of New York and Vermont that the group looks to work more closely with through the creation of a cross-border task force.
 
Boulger added that currently it is taking companies 62 days to fill a position and the group will also be focusing on bringing that overall number down. It also hopes to grow the total number of jobs.
 
By June of next year, the group will have to report its progress. The state is providing $30,000 for implementation, which Boulger said is being spent on having 1Berkshire staff the effort.
 
While many of the issues aren't new, what is new is the approach. Typically those in economic development, education, and workforce development all played a part in addressing these issues but hadn't been specifically bound together. 
 
The Regional Workforce Skills Initiative statewide involves the secretaries of housing and economic development, education, and labor and workforce development and the local group reflect just that -- breaking down what some have called silos separating the work.
 
BCREB may be heading the work for now, but the alphabet soup of a name will soon be changed. In part of a statewide branding effort, BCREB is being changed to Masshire Berkshire Workforce Board. Masshire is the term for workforce agencies across the state and the hope is when people see that name anywhere, they'll know to go there for employment needs.
 
"The whole point of rebranding is to streamline services," Bougler said.
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