Berkshire Business Outlook: Task force targets appeals to prospective Berkshires residents

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PITTSFIELD — If you tried to ski a descent as steep as the line charting Berkshire County's population, you'd better be an expert.

It's double black diamond terrain after age 18. That's when county population by age distribution takes a nosedive, not regaining the same percentage until ages are in the late 40s. It's like someone took a bite out of the region, swallowing people in their most productive and potentially child-bearing years.

When a 43-member task force concerned with population declines got to work, those missing Berkshirites loomed large. Not surprisingly, ways to attract young adults and families fill the report the Berkshire Initiative for Growth delivered last fall.

"The conversations that need to be happening are well underway," said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, which helped lead the communitywide research effort.

This fall, Butler hopes to bring stakeholders back together to see whether the report's recommendations are getting traction.

"Just to make sure we feel good about the progress of this," he said.

What follows is an edited summary of the 34-page report's 18 specific recommendations. The proposals fall under five themes: workforce, workforce culture, housing, positive narrative and immigration. The report's lead author was Julia Dixon.

The full report is available at 1berkshire.com.





WORKFORCE

- Support entrepreneurial, business development, and business recruitment programs. As the creative and hospitality industries ... become strong economic sectors producing thousands of jobs, Berkshire County's emerging industries now must support programs and collaborations that encourage entrepreneurship and business development in these fields.

- Improve workplace readiness with hard and soft skill training. The alignment of Berkshire County high school, vocational school, and college curricula to meet employers' human resource needs is vital to building a sustainable, localized workforce. ... (Needed are) intensive internships, apprenticeship programs, management trainings, tuition reimbursement, mentorships, and other learning opportunities. ...

- Recruit smarter. Employers need to recruit for fit as well as ability. Young adults are looking to work in teams, companies and communities that share their values.

- Make it easier for job seekers to find positions. According to BCREB, hundreds of positions in Berkshire County are open today. BCREB, BerkshireWorks, and Berkshirejobs.com provide support for job seekers, but job listings are difficult to navigate. Some Berkshire employers utilize national websites such as LinkedIn and Indeed to post individual job openings, but these platforms do not highlight the opportunities in growing industry sectors or showcase high-quality job clusters in the region. A comprehensive and well-designed online jobs board or mobile-friendly tool can direct young adults' attention to jobs at Berkshire-based companies.

- Offset wages with student debt support programs. Student loan debt is the highest non-mortgage debt in the United States .... In addition, workers with bachelor's degrees in Berkshire County make 28 percent less than their statewide counterparts. If this wage gap remains, young workers will continue to choose to work in areas of the country that pay higher salaries, regardless of cost of living, in order to pay their student loans.

WORKPLACE CULTURE

- Provide opportunities for young adults to have a voice in decision-making. While some executives may not find young candidates suitable for managerial positions, there are a number of ways to provide leadership opportunities to less experienced employees who have a vested interest in a company.

- Create a friendlier, more efficient work environment. Young employees prefer their physical work environment to be flexible and supportive of their lifestyle. Incorporating up-to-date technologies, open floor plans, and modernized dress codes in the workplace as well as offering opportunities to telecommute while outside the office can help employees feel more comfortable and, thus, more productive.

- Provide opportunities for young adults to volunteer. Berkshire County's nonprofit organizations provide plentiful opportunities for individuals to volunteer. However, company-coordinated volunteer programs create stronger, more collaborative organizational cultures.

- Encourage executives and managers to engage in routine professional development. Founders, owners, and executive leaders can set high standards for their employees when they engage in leadership development themselves.

HOUSING

- Provide opportunities for young adults to learn about home ownership. Although this current young generation is thought to be saddled with so much student loan debt that the majority of them still live with their parents, Millennials are finally outpacing other generations in home buying nationally. Despite this, many young first-time homebuyers still struggle with misconceptions about home ownership as well as building good credit or saving for a down payment.

- Continue focused investment in downtown neighborhoods. Housing availability and affordability in Berkshire County varies from municipality to municipality. However, a common issue across the region is the lack of downtown market-rate housing to rent or buy.

- Increase awareness of incentive programs that spur housing development. For many developers, the cost of building or renovating housing exceeds the price young adults can afford to pay to live in these spaces. State and federal incentive programs can offset some of the costs of developing market-rate housing and attract young professionals to these residential options.

A POSITIVE NARRATIVE

- Make a point to share positive community stories and opinions. Those who have lived in Berkshire County for more than 30 years experienced a period of economic depression that resulted from a significant shift in industry. Although the region is rebounding, many economic issues persist and a negative, post-industrial narrative continues to be reinforced by some community members. This negativity, which is often passed down unknowingly by parents, teachers, and civic leaders, has an adverse effect on young adult retention. Choose to share positive, hopeful stories about Berkshire County ....

- Pose solutions before sounding alarms. Young adults are action-oriented and purpose-focused. They want opportunities to get involved and test ideas without being bogged down in criticism of the process, and they will not take action in a community that resists it.

IMMIGRATION

- Continue efforts to understand and welcome growing multicultural populations. Berkshire County is seeing a significant rise in populations from other countries, including many international families and students who are relocating to the area. .... The immigrant population is not only deepening but widening, with individuals from over 70 countries residing in Berkshire County according to the Berkshire Immigrant Center. Better understanding of these rapidly changing demographics will not only support the allocation of appropriate resources to groups with the most need, but encourage engagement with these populations in schools, the workforce, and the community.

- Help immigrant workers navigate cultural and language barriers. There are many benefits to fostering a diverse workforce, but employers often struggle to communicate with immigrant workers both before and after hiring. Listening and expressing look different from culture to culture, and a lack of awareness of various methods of communication, can lead to an uncomfortable or inefficient work environment.

- Connect immigrants to community resources. One of the most difficult hurdles for relocated immigrants is cultivating a sense of community. In addition to employment, language and cultural barriers prevent many immigrants from accessing the services they need to live, learn, and participate in the community. Access to healthcare, childcare, education, housing, and transportation is critical.

- Support entrepreneurial programs for immigrants. From 1992 to 2011, approximately 24 percent of all U.S. entrepreneurs were immigrants and the rate of immigrant entrepreneurship continues to grow today. According to the Berkshire Immigrant Center, the number of immigrants in Massachusetts with a college degree increased by 57.5 percent between 2000 and 2011. These students are well-positioned to take advantage of the entrepreneurial resources available in Berkshire County.




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