Berkshire Business Outlook

Millennials parlay love for the region into meaningful work that keeps them here.

How do you make living and working in the Berkshires viable and sustainable? Be creative.

The demographics and economy of the county are changing. As the traditional models of manufacturing and 9-to-5 work days fade away, businesses have adopted different work schedules as company leaders rethink why and what they're trying to accomplish. To help make these changes, Berkshire firms are bringing newer workers and younger adults into the workforce and creating pathways to get them here.

"The main thing about millennials is that this generation, as a presence in the workforce, is happening, and the growth of their presence is continuing to happen in all fields," said Helena Fruscio Altsman. A North Adams native, she holds the roles of state deputy assistant secretary of innovation, entrepreneurship and technology and director of the creative economy for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

One sector of the Berkshire economy that has been successful in attracting and retaining young doers and thinkers is its creative economy industries, which includes positions at museums and theaters, and jobs with creative purposes like the social media managers and graphic designers that are popping up at local businesses like banks and health care companies.

Fruscio Altsman, 31, took advantage of the creative economy in the Berkshires to jump start her successful career.

While she lives and works in the Boston area now, she was hired almost a decade ago to be the director of the then-developing Berkshire Creative Economy Council, which was tasked with spurring economic development and growth in Berkshire County through its creative industries. She secured her seat at Berkshire Creative after taking part in the Berkshire Hills Internship Program (B-HIP), an intensive arts management initiative where participants tour, network and contribute extensively across area cultural sites and work with individual artists and smaller arts collectives.

"These interns got a chance in these places in the Berkshires," Fruscio Altsman said.

"The internship as a pathway is really, really important and is something we cannot discount," she said. "That's how I started my career. So we're trying to create as many opportunities for this as we can."

"If I never came to intern at Mass MoCA, I probably never would have been in Western Mass. to begin with," said Nooshig Varjabedian.

Varjabedian, 24, was studying communications, media, film and video at Fitchburg State University when she found herself with an internship requirement. An online search led her to the museum gig. She applied, and was accepted in January 2016 as an archival and photography intern. Varjabedian and her fellow interns were provded with housing and a stipend to live off of, "which was great," she said.

Varjabedjian was able to obtain skills in an exciting setting by shooting concert photos and learning to work in a digital image library. She also fell in love with the area's scenery.

"When I began doing photography, I fell in love with nature photography," Varjabedian said.

After her internship, she began looking online for jobs in the Berkshires, which led to her being hired as a digital imaging specialist at The Annie Selke Companies in Pittsfield last July. By November, she was in training for her current role as a junior photographer for merchandising.

She is one of the youngest employees in the office, but said that her colleagues have been supportive of her growth. "They teach me new ways to get things done which I never learned in school," she said.

At the Berkshire Museum, several millennials have been hired in recent years. Three Berkshire Museum staffers — Kristina Alexander, 23, of Long Island, N.Y.; Harry Park, 22, of Los Angeles, and Kimberly Donoughe, 27, from the Boston area, all relocated to the Berkshires for work.

"I feel like senior staff are open to new thoughts and ideas," said Donoughe, the museum's marketing and brand manager. "In my experience, if I want to do something, I bring it up and the response is usually, "Great, let's go for it.""

"I think a lot of people tend to think millennials are lazy, so you have to work hard to show you can bring something to the table," said Alexander, the museum's assistant manager for guest services.

"To my surprise [my age has] never been an issue or barrier here," said Park, the museum's public program specialist. "Everyone treats me equally and are open to my ideas. It's really nice to not have to be sensitive about that."

Tom and Susanna Sharpe originally moved to the Berkshires from San Diego in 2009, less than a year after their first daughter was born because they had friends who had grown up in South County. They moved back to California in 2014 when Tom, who has a background in sales, received a job offer. But they were drawn back to the Berkshires last November.

Entering their mid-30s, the couple is building a creative design business, Mungy Studios, while simultaneously raising three children (ages 4, 6 and 8) within their woodsy Stockbridge home.

"We know there's a lot of challenges for small businesses in the Berkshires and that young families are leaving the area more than they are coming here. But we also had a gut feeling when we were new to the Berkshires, that this is a natural incubator for start-ups and small businesses and creative people who genuinely want to help and support local people and local businesses," said Tom Sharpe. "You're not just another business in New York City. In this area, not only do they need young entrepreneurial people to help the Berkshires grow and thrive, but it's wanted."

Staff writer Jenn Smith can be reached at 413 496-6239.


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