Skills grants are necessary fuel for Western Mass workforce

In the 2019 Blueprint for the next Century 3.0, a publication by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the opinions of more than 1,000 employers were polled and just about all of them expressed concern related to finding people with the skills to fuel growth as the global economy becomes increasingly competitive.

In an opinion column last year by the organization’s president and CEO, Robert C. Lord outlined recommendations on what was needed to fill positions in an increasingly complex labor market. Lord wrote that solutions include, “ensuring that the public schools provide the basic skills that allow students to compete for jobs that were not even envisioned 20 years ago. Just 37% of Massachusetts students who finished ninth-grade in 2009 went on to complete the post-secondary credential required for most new jobs. Evaluate Massachusetts public schools based not only upon college attendance rates but also on the ability of students to achieve gainful employment upon graduation.” Of great importance stressed Lord would be “supporting and expanding vocational education.”

For about a decade, Western Massachusetts and the entire Bay State have experienced problems finding workers with the skills necessary for precision manufacturing. The so-called “skills gap” has decreased in recent years, but consistent advancements in technology and business practices mean companies must continuously update operations. Education advancements and business-academic partnerships have flourished in recent years, opening doors for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Both students and businesses have benefited from these arrangements.

Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced $11.7 million in vocational grants for educational institutions statewide, including around $1.6 million for programs in Western Massachusetts. The grants included: $200,000 for the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield for its robotics and automation program; $250,000 for the Roger L. Putnam Vocational Academy in Springfield for its health assisting and machine tooling programs; and $350,000 to the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department to train inmates for its sheet metalworking for advanced manufacturing program. Said the governor, “At a critical time in our commonwealth, these skills capital grants will increase flexibility and support for schools and educational institutions to launch new programs and help more students develop important technical skills and prepare them for high-demand industries.”

As we look to the future of work in the commonwealth in 2021 and beyond, most opportunities are presented within STEM fields, with an increasing number of jobs being created in robotics, artificial intelligence and automation. Grant funding like this can help deliver educational opportunities that will be critical element in the economic success of Western Massachusetts and the entire state.