From State House News Service:
Chris Lisinski 4/6/22 1:21 PM
APRIL 6, 2022.....The state Department of Transportation plans to launch a hiring push in preparation for a slew of maintenance and modernization projects teed up by a new federal infrastructure law, but officials find themselves grappling with a tricky labor challenge.
Unlike many other industries where total employment dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of workers in scientific and construction fields -- which are most important to the projects MassDOT hopes to accomplish -- increased about 2.5 percent each over the past two years, according to data presented by MassDOT Chief Human Resources Officer Matthew Knosp.
"Those markets actually grew over the last couple of years. This means that overall, some of the candidate pools for many of our engineering and construction positions have become smaller compared to the pools we're seeing for other sectors," Knosp said at an audit and finance committee meeting Wednesday.
Massachusetts expects to receive about $9.5 billion in formula funding over the next five-plus years as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law, and state officials say they hope to capitalize on even more money that is available through competitive grant programs.
Gov. Charlie Baker last month filed a $9.7 billion bond bill (see ACEC/MA page) to help put those dollars to work and catalyze projects to repair highways and bridges, modernize MBTA infrastructure and vehicles, build out the T's electric bus infrastructure and more.
MassDOT had about 3,500 full-time equivalent employees at the end of fiscal year 2021. Since then, the department has added 122 workers and shed 72 due to attrition, according to a presentation Knosp delivered Wednesday.
The department hopes to hire 81 more workers over the final weeks of fiscal year 2022 and another 160 in fiscal year 2023 to help complete infrastructure law-backed projects, the presentation said. That would bump up MassDOT's headcount to nearly 300 more FTEs than at the end of FY21.
"We're looking at this as both a need for a short-term staff-up to deliver on those programs but also a long-term increase in hiring as we look at both the amount of attrition that would come from having a larger staff and one of the things we've talked about in the past: we are keenly aware that we have some retirement waves coming," Knosp said.
Knosp told transportation overseers that MassDOT employees have been heading for the exits at a higher rate over the past two years, though he stressed the department's attrition rate remains low compared to other employers.
Amid the hiring push, it will be "equally if not more important" for MassDOT to focus on retaining experienced staff, Knosp said.
"We have a lot of key staff who will need to be working closely with our hiring managers to ensure we're hiring to replace but also training and developing our current workforce to be able to grow into some of those positions as well," he said. "It's a big challenge, but I think it's one we feel we're well-positioned for."
While MassDOT's current hiring campaign responds to an influx of federal funding, the department is not alone grappling with staffing challenges.
The MBTA has been working in recent months to ramp up its bus driver workforce after a shortage prompted temporary service reductions in the winter. In December, officials approved a collective bargaining agreement allowing the agency to offer hiring bonuses in an attempt to attract new workers.
On Tuesday, the T hosted a hiring event advertising openings for more than 300 bus driver positions and offering signing bonuses of up to $4,500.
Private-sector businesses have also widely reported challenges attracting enough workers to fill open job positions. The Baker administration launched a new program (see article below) in March making grants of $4,000 per employee to defray training costs and encourage employers to look beyond traditional candidate pools.
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Chris Lisinski 3/23/22 4:01 PM
MARCH 23, 2022.....The latest batch of employment data estimated that Massachusetts had about 181,000 unemployed workers in January, a month when the statewide count of jobs stood 131,000 below where it was before COVID-19 hit.
Meanwhile, according to Gov. Charlie Baker, Massachusetts has about 200,000 open jobs that businesses and nonprofits are struggling to fill. And so the administration will take a new approach: offering cash injections to encourage employers to look beyond traditional candidate pools.
Baker on Wednesday unveiled a new $50 million grant program to incentivize hiring and help defray the costs of onboarding workers who do not yet have skills in a new field. Eligible employers can receive up to $4,000 per employee, capped at a total of $400,000 per organization, to cover training costs or signing bonuses.
The program is already accepting online applications from employers, and money will flow on a first-come, first-served basis.
Any non-government employer in good standing with the state, including nonprofit and for-profit entities, can participate. Hires must be made after March 23, retained for at least 60 days, given at least 30 hours of work per week, and paid between $14.25 per hour and $42.50 per hour for a company to qualify for a per-employee grant.
The program, dubbed "HireNow," will help "employers and prospective employees find one another and kick each other's tires and get back to work," Baker said.
"We've had lots of conversations with employers about the difficulty associated with filling many of their open positions," Baker said at an event in Cambridge's LabCentral, where he outlined the new initiative. "Many of them have said to us, 'It's not about the medium term. It's really about the short term. How can we figure out a way given how tight times are generally to bring people on and give them the time and the attention they need to skill to the point where we don't need to watch over them any more?'"
"This idea of creating what I would call a kick-starter fund -- that's how I think about it -- will give employers an opportunity to go outside their traditional circles to find people who they might not normally bring in the door," he added.
The public health crisis dealt a major blow to the state's economy, prompting the loss of nearly 690,000 jobs between February 2020 and April 2020, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Since then, the outlook has steadily improved, but employers have only clawed back about 80 percent of the positions lost in those tumultuous first months and thousands of Bay Staters remain unable to find work.
A key challenge, officials said Wednesday, is the gap between the skillsets of prospective employees and the current landscape of available jobs.
About 35 percent of the state's open jobs are in "professional and management services," while the supply of workers seeking positions "is a little different," according to Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito added that the state has about 20,000 open jobs in the hospital sector in particular, plus another 20,000 in fields requiring substantial computer or math skills.
"The folks that are out there that are looking for work and want to work -- the biggest complaint we hear so many times is that they can't see themselves in the jobs that are available. They don't know how to get there," Acosta said. "What I am really, really hoping this program will do is help our employers by giving them some resources to look beyond the normal web, the normal catchment of folks that they will hire from."
Acosta also said the program could help boost equity in many fields, particularly alongside other efforts such as apprenticeships and the Career Technical Initiative that aims to train 20,000 workers over four years by offering vocational school training to students as well as adults.
"We're doing these things because we know that people can't afford to just go to school and not work," Acosta said. "They need to earn their money while they learn, and then they become, guess what, a real, loyal employee to you."
Baker's office said the $50 million program will be funded with American Rescue Plan Act funds the Legislature already approved to be spent on workforce development.
"There are just simply not enough skilled people to fill the jobs that exist in our economy here in Massachusetts," Polito said. "But if you get your foot in the door and you're willing to work hard, this program will allow the employer to invest up-front dollars in onboarding you, signing you on and providing some basic training for you to start working in a new career."
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