Berkshire Business Outlook

Five millennials give their take on navigating the Berkshire economy.

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FIND YOUR MISSION: It's all about having a purpose

By Arsema Abegaz

LEE — I first came to the Berkshires from Ethiopia in the fall of 2010 to pursue a high-quality education. After spending four years as an international student at Williams College in picturesque Williamstown, I graduated with a liberal arts degree in economics in 2014.

After graduation, while many of my classmates sought more traditional careers in finance and consulting in the bright city lights of New York City or Boston, I decided that I wanted something different.

A small town girl at heart, I fell in love with the charm of the Berkshires, the plethora of cultural events and attractions, and of course, the mountains! Having found the right place for me, all that was left was to find a fulfilling career.

Despite being a 22-year-old with little work experience, I had a sharp vision of what I was looking for in my career: to control my destiny, to have a voice, to be driven by purpose.

Like many millennials my age, I was looking for something that would fulfil me beyond the typical “9 to 5” job. That’s when I discovered Zogics — a modern eCommerce business right here in the Berkshires that serves the fitness and wellness industry.

Tucked away between the Housatonic River and October Mountain State Forest, Zogics is a start-up company driven by modern technology, constant innovation, and a work culture that embraces creativity, individuality and a thirst for learning.

At Zogics, our diverse and worldly workforce of many ages, backgrounds and experiences, is encouraged by our CEO, Paul LeBlanc, to always “Think Bigger.” It’s a call to constantly push ourselves to reach for bigger and better goals, to “wow” our customers, to deliver more than is expected, and to lead by example.

In between brainstorming sessions, epic games of ping-pong, and workout breaks in our company gym, I am excited to participate in growing a world-class wellness company like Zogics.

For many millennials like myself, job satisfaction goes beyond just the paycheck. For me personally, it’s having individual autonomy with clearly defined goals to guide me; it’s being given a say and actually being heard, and it’s also having the opportunity to learn and grow as a professional. Most important, however, is having purpose — the overarching mission that drives all that I do. In my role at work, it’s not about just having a positive influence on the business but being able to track, analyze, and improve based on those results. Out in the Berkshires, I engage with nonprofit organizations as a way of having an impact on our community and to see this county become a place that grows to host more innovative companies, to conquer issues of poverty and development, and to become a place where all can thrive. Finding fulfilment through work, friends and networks, and volunteering has been a crucial factor that has kept me in the Berkshires for almost seven years now.

At 24 years old, I have everything I could ask for at this moment: I live in a beautiful part of this country, I have a job that I wake up excited to go to every day and I have found motivational forces in my life. That being said, it is not always easy to be young in the Berkshires. The reality is that there are not that many of us and at times, and for many reasons, it can feel like this area isn’t well suited for younger demographics. We often make new friends only to see them leave for another city soon after; despite good work on the behalf of institutions, we may still feel underrepresented and underserved; and with high competition for existing opportunities, we can experience limited access to skill development and career advancement.

 

While there are obstacles, pursuing what I am passionate about has formed my time here. I truly believe that each of us holds the power to shape our experiences in the Berkshires. Do what you love, find meaning in life, and seek purpose. The Berkshires can be for everyone.

Arsema Abegaz, 24, is a data scientist at Zogics in Lee, who volunteers for community organizations and is an avid reader of BuzzFeed.

 

Finding the proper work/life balance crucial to success

By Jonah J. Sykes

PITTSFIELD — When I set out to write a piece about being a young person in the workplace, the only thing that came to mind was a pet peeve of mine — when you’re on the receiving end of a reply-all group email and everyone keeps replying all to one another over and over again. The content of those replies literally has nothing to do with you (but your inbox just got wicked full). We should all decide, collectively, to stop doing this.

I also thought, “What’s the value of a piece related specifically to a generation of young people in the workplace?” Quite simply, 800 young people are leaving Berkshire County every year, according to local data, while the professional workforce in the county gets nearer to retirement with fewer replacements. Understanding how to retain and recruit young professionals to the area and into the workforce is crucial to the well-being of the county overall.

Letting kids go off to college and leave the area is fine — but we want to make sure they come home, settle down, and raise a family here. After all, it was singer/songwriter Andy M. Stewart who said, “and should some young man ask of me, ‘Is it brave or wise to roam?’ I’d bid him range the wide world over; the better to know his own home.”

My father once told me that there is little difference between generations except age. I think he’s right overall — circumstances and choices change everyone’s outlook on their reality. Overall, all people, regardless of age, can probably be lumped into one singular category: we all want to provide for our families, have a nice work-life balance, and believe that we can achieve what we aspire to.

It’s that work-life balance piece that brings up some interesting opportunities for discussion between various age groups. Some people inaccurately assume that all young folk want to have is beer at work and ping-pong. I can tell you that I’m terrible at ping-pong and beer at work is great. But No. 1, some workplaces should not indulge in this (e.g. mechanics, surgeons, machinists, and teachers, to name a few); and No. 2, it isn’t a solution to creating a workplace culture that will retain young people. It’s just a novel idea.

A millennial is defined as a person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century. As a 30-year-old, I meet this criterion. I think people in my generation try to embody that whole “think globally, act locally” mantra — as we’re very connected to global events, ideas, and understanding. It’s one reason why climate change ranks as the No. 1 concern of millennials, according to the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Shapers survey.

So what are the implications of this on the workplace you ask? Working for a nonprofit in Berkshire County, it means taking those global issues and bringing them down to the local level — especially if you want to engage a younger demographic in civic engagement or philanthropy. Remember as well that we’re extremely mobile. I don’t even have a computer in my home anymore — just my Galaxy S7 (it’s not one of the exploding ones) so make sure you’re finding ways to communicate with us through that channel. Similarly, we were raised on social media. Hire us to use digital platforms, it’ll save you training someone else to do them. As new digital platforms are picked up and used by this younger generation, there are even greater opportunities to find more workplace efficiencies, like Google Docs, Slack, Trello and more. See your resident young person in the office for more information.

To be fair, people younger than me had to introduce me to some of these things, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that workplace culture is important to a younger generation. We want open spaces, color, sharing of ideas, music, chances to collaborate, innovative ideas, and the chance to contribute to the strategies that an organization undertakes.

Similarly, this generation of young folks needs guidance, mentoring, and support to thrive in this area. We need chances to experience the value of the Berkshires — culturally, physically and civilly. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together and I think the ways we achieve retaining young people starts in the workplace. Survey your employees on this. Start a conversation. If nothing else, we’ll all grow from the chance to have our voices heard.

A generation has disappeared from our local population and it’s up to us to bring them back and keep them here. Honestly, the workplace culture is the easy part of that. So let’s get started.

Jonah J. Sykes, 30, is the development manager at Berkshire United Way in Pittsfield, and chair of Berkshire Young Professionals.

THE DEMORALIZED GENERATION

This millennial has found it difficult finding a to hold in the job market

By Nicholas Tardive

NORTH ADAMS — I’m not from North Adams, Berkshire County, or even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I am a transient, having wandered my way here from Phillipsburg, N.J., for the sake of a higher education at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. There is a captivating charm to the bustling summer here, sweaty and raucous, filled with art, music and life. The dreary despondence of silent winters lies under blankets of thick Berkshire snow.

North Adams plays out a modern, American tragedy every day of its existence, one that can be shared by all sectors of American living — urban, suburban and rural — across the map. Sprague Electric, once the city’s major employer, closed down here. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is a museum dropped into the skeleton of Sprague like a movie theater that had found its way into the heart of one of Pennsylvania’s old steel stacks.

In the popular American television crime drama, “The Wire,” which is set on the gritty streets of Baltimore, two characters discuss the changes in the American economy in a way that could apply to what happened at Sprague when the plant closed many years ago.

“They used to make steel there, no?” an organized crime boss named Spiros 'Vondas” Vondopoulos asks union official Frank Sobotka in an episode during the series’ second season.

Yes. They used to.

 

It is often hard to defend my generation. We seem opportunistic and greedy, self-absorbed and more stubborn than ever. We complain about everything. To be fair, there’s a lot to complain about. I spent four months in North Adams looking for a job, trying to find any reason not to return to New Jersey. I applied to Mass MoCA twice, Public, Xtramart, BFair, and two different Cumberland Farms stores. There were times I contemplated walking down to Klipper Kingz, a local hair salon, and pretending 1 knew how to cut hair. I was running to Bennington and Pittsfield for job interviews. I didn’t get a job.

Granted, my resume is a bit bare bones, but these were entry-level positions. Millennial don’t have Sprague, or General Electric, or the Pennsylvania steel stacks to turn to for jobs that could either be temporary or long-term. Those days are long gone in America. The people who had those jobs have been pumped back into the workforce time and again to re-train for a new career.

According to a Gallup survey, 60 percent of millennials are open to a new job opportunity, compared to 45 percent of non-millennials. Over one-third of the millennials who responded to this survey said they would be looking for a new job within the next year. The survey found that 29 percent of millennials are disengaged at work.

Millennials are at a weird point in our lives. We don’t think of our situations as permanent. The traditional American Dream — the white picket fence, two kids and a dog — is dead and buried for us. Since we’ve been alive, we’ve seen overblown wars on drugs waged in our inner cities, the further decay of industry, stagnating wages and an increase in the cost of living.

People are living longer than ever. That means working people have to grind even harder and for longer periods of time to be able to retire comfortably. Employers seem to have the pick of the crop. We’re hired guns who come cheap and get the job done until Halloween season is over or one of our grandfathers agrees to work for even less.

To drive home the point even further, as an aspiring journalist, I consider myself a fairly skilled writer, friendly enough to cultivate sources and balanced enough to report accurately. However, I still have long strides to take.

Again to reference “The Wire,” that road never felt more detrimental to me than during the episode when Twigg, the police reporter for the fictional Baltimore Sun, is laid off.

“We’re simply going to have to do more with less,’’ multiple characters tell the Sun’s editor, Gus Haynes. As a group of reporters, including 20-somethings Scott Templeton and Mike Fletcher, watch Twigg get laid off, one of their older colleagues mentions how it’s cheaper for the paper to hire a new reporter or two others straight out of college than it is to retain Twigg’s salary. Twigg, however, has been working 20 years reporting on the Baltimore Police and knows aU the ins and outs. His loss deals a heavy blow to the Sun’s coverage of the police beat. Millennials have grown up watching their parents get laid off for decades now. We compete with displaced laborers seeking to re-enter the workforce at the bottom of the pile. Millennials don’t know whether they will ever be able to pay off our loans or find a steady job.

All that we can hope to do is keep getting hired by whoever will have us for a while.

Nick Tardive, 21, is a senior at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, and the senior news editor for MCLA’s student newspaper, The Beacon.

 

SELF AWARENESS AND CAREER CHOICES

Understanding yourself creates a unique and fulfilling path

By Julia Dixon

NORTH ADAMS — During my visit as a guest speaker to an arts management class at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts recently, a student asked me what was the most valuable professional skill I had learned. I recounted the story of my decision to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts for my graduate degree. I had applied and been accepted to the New York Academy of Art, a figurative school in Manhattan that’s as reputable as it is traditional, as well as VCFA, a low-residency MFA program based in Montpelier that emphasizes concept and theory over media and technique. The two schools couldn’t be any more different.

I chose VCFA because I wanted to be pushed as a person and not as a painter. The mission of the visual art program is for students to “emerge from the program with a dynamic new vision of themselves, their art. and the world around them.”

This vision can also be called self-awareness, or the ability to understand one’s behavior, impulses, fears, and physical and emotional context. My proficiency in self-awareness, I told the MCLA student, has not prevented me from making mistakes. It has, however, helped me to establish a unique and fulfilling career.

I am an “old” millennial. Born in 1983, I grew up with TGIF (before Netflix), cassette tapes (before Spotify), America Online (before smartphones), and Doogie Howser (before Barney Stinson). Although I came of age at the dawn of digital media, I was raised by frugal parents who were self-taught artists, so imagination was valued more than information.

In 2001, I graduated from high school and began the undergraduate visual art program at Purchase College in New York. Painting was what I loved, so it made sense to me to continue to do it in college. I never thought too much about what I would do with it and I assumed that many creatives before me had been driven by the same impulse.

When I entered the working world I continued to take and leave jobs on the basis of creative and personal satisfaction as opposed to security and financial gain. However, irresponsible these motivations seemed, I built a catalogue of knowledge and skills by saying yes and working hard.

An internship brought me to the Berkshires and I immediately fell in love with the beauty and authenticity of the region — particularly North Adams. I discovered that this is a place where young people are not only welcome but encouraged to get involved and have an impact. Never one to shy away from challenges, I pushed myself professionally but constantly reflected my experiences inward. Then, after four and a half years working as a creative economy specialist, I left it behind to freelance and build my own business — another risky move motivated by the desire to grow in new ways.

Here’s why this is a good thing.

When the recession hit in 2007, companies were forced to free themselves from the financial burdens of in-house specialty staffers including designers, writers, assistants, bookkeepers, sales representatives, even human resource professionals. “A heavy investment in long-term employment isn’t a cost all companies want to bear any more,” the Associated Press reported in 2013. “The number of temps has jumped more than 50 percent since the recession ended [in 2009] to nearly 2.7 million.”

Three years later, freelance workers have skyrocketed to 55 million — which represents a whopping 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to a recent study by Upwork and Freelancers Union. Many analysts expect that number to reach 40 percent by 2020.The recession displaced millions of workers but left in its wake a rise in entrepreneurship, freelancing, co-work space development, and generalist hiring that has not let up. These trends, coupled with the rising cost of higher education and increasing opportunities to work and sell via the internet, have left millennials seeking out alternative career options. It is also why full-time millennial workers are pushing back on their employers and asking for personal benefits such as flexible schedules, leadership training, and tuition reimbursement.

The professional skill set that millennials need most is not specific to certain industries. Creativity, which I had in spades, and self-awareness, which I continue to cultivate, positioned me to thrive in this new economy. Employers are seeking workers who are introspective, resourceful, and adaptable. Entrepreneurship carries the same demands.

Millennials are getting a pretty bad rap. We are frequently described as lazy, impatient, entitled, and detached. But under the surface of these overgeneralized characteristics are conditions that we responded to, like all young generations. Millennials are also driven, generous, passionate, accepting, and informed.

We take risks, and we are open minded about our future.

From what I have seen from other millennials in the Berkshires, we are doing just fine. If anything, with a little more creativity and self-awareness, we just might lead this generation to greatness.

The co-founder of Berkshire Flirt, Julia Dixon, 33, is a creative economy consultant, entrepreneur and visual artist who lives in North Adams.

 

DEFAMILIARIZE THE FAMILIAR

An architect strives to see her world more deeply

By Tessa Kelly

PITTSFIELD — Looking at the world through the lens of an architect is a process of abstraction, trying to uncover relationships between spaces and urban forms.

Pittsfield, when viewed in plan, is a Roman city, with a north-south and east-west axis crossing at its center, Park Square, which is ringed with civic functions. The overall envelope of the city is a shifted square.

The Housatonic River cuts through the city on its own agenda, drawing along with it a series of mill buildings, following the river’s route and providing a counter-narrative to the orderly grid of the orthogonal streets.

To uncover design opportunities in a place one has known their whole life begins with finding ways to defamiliarize the familiar. This is one power that architectural drawings have — a map or a plan represent things we know but through a different language. They allow us to see patterns that we would not have otherwise perceived.

My husband, Chris Parkinson, and I are Berkshire County natives, and our work at ARCADE is about trying to see deeper and think differently about things that we have seen and known all our lives. We frame our work first at the urban scale, the public experience of place, to understand how people’s behavior is shaped and directed before arriving at the site of the building.

Being an architect is both a very outward and very inward process. Defining a spatial problem and setting up a solution depends on understanding how a place works, empathizing with a community at large, then imagining how it could work better. Simultaneously, it is a personal process of collecting and compiling details and visual memories, like the abstract form on the horizon of the glorious Building 100 with its peeling paint; the diagonal font on the Hubby’s Cabins sign or the 1940’s lettering on GE’s No Trespassing signs; the majestic power station in Housatonic; the stone school in Lanesborough; the tight rhythm of houses on Third Street in Pittsfield passing the Samuel L. Harrison house and pushing up against the railroad tracks.

This exercise of thinking abstractly about one’s hometown proved fruitful for starting a business here.

In 2014, we received an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the project that has become known as The Mastheads, believing that new, meaningful architecture could come to be in our city, and could allow residents and visitors to understand place and experience local history in a new way.

Starting a business through a community project was a happy accident. It has shown us that physical and intellectual proximity to others is essential to growing a business, sharing one’s ideas, and enacting creative change in the urban-sphere. Our project became a means to find common ground with other thinkers in the Berkshires, many of whom share an interest in exploring ways that the Berkshires’ past can develop, be explored in new ways, and be part of our future.

We see Pittsfield as a laboratory. A place that is seeking vision, welcoming to new ideas, open to experimentation, and encouraging of action. We are happy to be here.

Berkshire County native Tessa Kelly, 31, is an architect and partner in the Pittsfield architectural firm, ARCADE, and co-founder of The Mastheads writers’ studios project.

 

 




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