Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014
Local economic development and planning leaders say cross-border collaboration, increasing the region’s skilled labor force and effective marketing are key to moving the Pioneer Valley economy forward.

While the region for years has been attractive to businesses, more strategic work needs to be done, they say.

Joining forces with neighboring Connecticut is one way to accomplish that, said Timothy Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

Collaborating with the greater Hartford area — a whole region dubbed the “knowledge corridor” — rather than competing actually strengthens the Valley’s attractiveness to businesses, he said.

Brennan serves as one of many representatives from western Massachusetts organizations on the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partnership, which brings together planning, business, educational institutions and tourism groups to collaborate on improving the region’s economy.

“When we collaborate our critical mass gets much larger and so we become comparable to places to like Kansas City or Charlotte or Silicon Valley in terms of population size, labor force, number of businesses, etc.,” Brennan said. “One of the first things that site selectors look at is not a tax break, not land, but the talent pool, its size and skill level. It’s all about forging connections.”

To attract businesses from outside the region, the Economic Development Council (EDC) of western Massachusetts for years has promoted the region for economic development purposes, said Allan Blair, the EDC’s executive director.

“We market to site selectors, corporate real estate people and companies directly to attract them here for relocation purposes,” he said. “We attend conferences and trade shows or visit them individually at their offices to talk about the value proposition of western Mass. and why we should be on their radar when one of their clients is doing a search.”

In those meetings the EDC conveys that the region is logistically well located in the western part of New England with easy access to Boston and New York, but with a cost structure in labor and housing, for example, that’s much lower than those other areas, Blair said.

One strategy the EDC has been pressing for almost a year is encouraging elements of the financial services industry in Boston and New York to consider moving parts of their services, such as human resources, call centers and accounting, to this area, as a more affordable option, he said.

In order to attract businesses to the Pioneer Valley, there needs to be a pool of skilled workers to choose from, especially in industries such as precision manufacturing, Brennan said. A project co-sponsored by business and higher education leaders in western Massachusetts and the greater Hartford area links employers from this region and Connecticut with college students via a dedicated website so that they consider staying in the area to work rather than relocate, Brennan said.

Students can find out about internship opportunities on Internhere.com in their chosen career path with the idea that participating employers would offer them jobs after they’ve graduated, he said.

“This initiative is going to be more important as we roll forward because we can actually see in the demographics shortages of the kind of skilled workers to fill the jobs that folks will be leaving as they retire,” he said.

Like Brennan, Jeffrey Ciuffreda, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, said one of the big challenges for the Valley in retaining current businesses is making sure their workforce needs are being met by the local high school and college educational systems.

That is critical because the region faces an aging workforce — baby boomers will be retiring in the next 15 to 20 years — and there may not be enough workers with the right tools to meet the demands of higher skilled jobs, he said.

“The challenge, for example, on the manufacturing and precision machining sides, is that we have to do a little bit better job in explaining what those jobs are to students to get them interested,” he said. “They need to know that these are good-paying jobs and that they can live and raise a family here.”

Over the last couple of years, organizations like the PVPC and EDC have been involved in efforts to identify where economic development efforts can be most effective.

The Pioneer Valley Growth Business Study, which was prepared by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute on behalf of seven local economic development-related organizations, came out last year.

Today, those local economic development groups are following up on the information garnered from the report, which aimed to improve the understanding of what businesses in the region need in order to grow and be successful, Brennan said.

“We were looking to see what businesses would tell us about problems they faced. At the top of the list were business costs for things like real estate, taxes, energy, labor itself and shortages of skilled labor,” he said.

The report also shared some positive developments that bode well for growth, including that the Valley is a strong region in which to innovate new products and services, Brennan said.

“The businesses also felt that there was strong management capability inside the region in terms of running firms and access to new infrastructure, such as high speed broadband, which has become an essential of the business proposition,” he said.

“One of the first things that site selectors look at is not a tax break, not land, but the talent pool, its size and skill level. It’s all about forging connections.”

Tim Brennan, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission

In the next several months, data collection and qualitative research will be assembled for use. It will be translated into projects municipalities, nonprofit organizations and for-profit groups can collaborate on. The goal is to represent Hampshire County’s interests more effectively