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Experts suggest finding employers who invest in training



Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Where do you turn when the direction you want to go is up? When it comes to employment and jobs, “up” usually means more money.

The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $8 an hour, but living wage activists say that is well below what a single earner needs to meet basic needs in the Pioneer Valley. Kitty Callaghan, a founder of Living Wage Western Mass, said that in 2013 an hourly pay of $12.78 and hour was a useful baseline for thinking about what it costs to live in western Massachusetts.

Given these discrepancies, what are the strategies for moving into better paying work?

Pamela White, who directs career services at Springfield Technical Community College, tells people to look for employers who are willing to “invest in talent.” Do they offer opportunities for training, such as tuition remission? Do they have a track record of recruiting from within? Getting encouragement and support to seek education and training as a fringe benefit “is like money in the bank,” White said.

The flip side of this calculation is that no matter where you work, the skills and proficiencies you accumulate become yours and will travel with you. Young people now can expect to have 11 to 13 jobs in their lifetimes, according to Jess Dods, a career counselor in Southampton who advises clients around the world through the Internet.

“People these days consider themselves contractors to whatever company they are working for,” Dods said. “That is going to have a huge effect on the workforce.”

Many people will at times work for themselves. Val Nelson, also a career counselor, helps clients “broaden their lens to self-employment options.” Many companies are outsourcing key services and at the same time the Internet is leveling the playing field, allowing a much wider variety of tasks and services to be performed remotely.

“Times have changed and we might have to deal with the fact that it might not be a job in the traditional sense that we are looking for,” Nelson said.

Employment experts say one of the few givens in today’s employment landscape is that almost all fields are undergoing profound changes. Underlying factors might be connected to demographic shifts as baby boomers head into retirement and often physical decline. Technological advances drive change, as do shifting demands and priorities of the marketplace, especially in fields related to energy and information.

Young people trying to anticipate the most prized jobs of the future or older workers retooling their skills to improve their pay grade can all expect to keep learning as the workplace evolves.

Following the money

Massachusetts has identified six growth areas for employment, according to Andrew Baker, who is managing a federally funded three-year Workforce Development Transformation grant at Greenfield Community College. Those are: health care, clean energy, information technology, biotechnology, entrepreneurship/finance and advanced manufacturing.

Each of those comes with change factors that influence the question of what is a good-paying job in the Pioneer Valley.

Health fields are heavily influenced by the increasing numbers of older people in need of care as well as a drive to reduce costs. Baker foresees growth across the spectrum of both lower- and higher-paid jobs in the field. “Because there is tremendous pressure to bring the cost of health care down,” he said, the trend in how chronic illnesses are treated is toward home care. This will create “a tremendous demand for generally lower-paying home care and nursing assistant type jobs,” he said.

There will also be demand for skilled nurses and, in the management of patient records, people with computer skills. These will be well-paid jobs, but Baker said employers are holding off on staffing. “There is a lot of change coming about through the Affordable Care Act and many employers are looking to see how it will shake out before they make big hiring decisions,” he said, “so you see a lot of pausing going on in professions like that.”

Clean energy is a field poised for takeoff but still emerging in terms of generating well-paid jobs. There are only a few companies offering these services in the Pioneer Valley and they are small, according to Baker. What is clear, though, is that the types of skills that will be increasingly prized as oil gets more expensive and conservation kicks into higher gear are things people already in the construction and engineering fields will want to add to their capabilities. Learning about renewable energy and efficiency as well as sustainable practices in construction can help people “enhance skills they already have,” said Baker.

To meet this demand, GCC is offering programs that teach students how to assess and improve the energy efficiency of buildings. It is also integrating liberal arts offerings into a hybrid program that includes training in photovoltaic installation, heating and air conditioning and sustainable management. It is also launching a solar technical sales program designed to help people with technical skills to become sales representatives or to expand their own businesses.

Precision or advanced manufacturing is another growth area for people looking to earn more money by acquiring skills that are going to be in increasing demand in the Pioneer Valley.

Richard Powers, who directs Holyoke Community College’s Center for Career Development, said employers are working with area schools to fulfill an anticipated shortfall. “A whole generation of long-term career machinists is coming to the end of its tenure,” Powers said. “We are going to have a lot of retirements in the machine trades.”

Baker said a program at GCC aimed at teaching manufacturing skills just graduated 15 students, five of whom were hired for jobs before they even finished the program. Entry level pay for skilled workers in shops that create high-end products for the biomedical, aerospace and defense fields — often in small runs — can be $15 to $16 an hour and can grow to an annual $60,000 salary, Baker said. “That’s really a niche that American manufacturing can compete in,” he said.

Stackable credentials

A way that training and educational institutions are helping people earn more money while they are either preparing to join the workforce or adding to their skills is through an approach called “stackable credentials.” Kathleen Vranos, an assistant professor of business and marketing at GCC, said the college identified several areas in the Pioneer Valley where there are more jobs than there are well-qualified applicants. To meet this demand, GCC developed a number of certificate programs, which train people for a specific job while at the same time giving them college credits they can apply to a degree.

“We want to increase the ability of people pursuing higher education to get good jobs along the way while they work toward their degrees,” she said. All of these certificates are under 30 credits and can be completed in less than a year.

The subjects include network administration, retail management, computer assisted bookkeeping and Web design and development.

Vranos said the average wage in the Pioneer Valley for an individual earner is about $35,000. Most of these fields can pay more than that, she said, but that is not to say that all the jobs tied to these credentials can offer high pay right away, because there are a lot of variables in terms of size of the employer and the sector it operates in.

Baker said the push generally in terms of federal assistance for education is to require students to finish their programs more quickly and to also recognize the speed with which technology is changing. “We are trying to align education with the jobs that are actually out there,” he said, adding that the concept of stackable credentials is to “create stepping stone programs that will provide off-ramps to employment as well as to more advanced training.”

Self-employment options

According to Nelson, the Northampton career coach, more people are looking in the mirror in the search for their next employer. She believes there are a lot of misconceptions about working for oneself, such as the belief that you have to be a pushy extrovert and that you are either going to be poor or you will work crazy hours.

She said she finds many people have skills that are marketable in the current economy in ways that lend themselves to life in the Pioneer Valley, including a community of people who use their computers and the Internet to serve clients near and far in fields like graphic design, business and technical consulting, and a range of coaching activities.

“If you have the right training, a good track record and are willing to do some networking,” Nelson said, being self-employed can be a wise choice for people looking to boost their earnings.

Barbara Reinhold, also a career coach with an office in Northampton and the author of “Free to Succeed: Designing the Life You Want in Today’s Free Agent Economy,” agrees.

“People are figuring out how to make small businesses by providing services that used to be provided by government entities,” she said.

Something to keep in mind if you want to break away from an employer/employee relationship is the idea of building what Reinhold calls “multiple income streams,” which could include working at a part-time job while also offering services on your own.