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Updated: April 1, 2024 Editorial

Editorial: It’s the workforce, stupid

Heading into the 1992 U.S. presidential election, Democratic strategist James Carville famously coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” on how voters would decide between incumbent George Bush and newcomer Bill Clinton. And he was right, as the health of the economy or at least how people feel about it, has been a central focus of national elections ever since.

The engine powering the economy comes down to people: the number of them, talent level, and availability of that workforce is the fuel helping companies grow, innovate new products, and operate efficiently. The skillset of our region’s workforce has long been an advantage, with its higher levels of education and productivity. However, there are not enough of us these days. Especially in the post-COVID era, workforce shortages have become a major issue.

Workforce shortages are nothing new for the manufacturing industry. For decades, manufacturers have been fighting against erroneous perceptions about their jobs being either dirty or low-paying, and too many companies not offering career growth opportunities. Today, that is far from reality, but most parents still aspire to send their children to college, rather than pursue the high-paying work available in manufacturing and the trades. Players in the industry have done a decent job adjusting to workforce shortages. As an example, Leominster furniture maker AIS has created a productive and worker-centric culture helping it keep employment roles full, which is why the company is a recipient of WBJ’s Workforce Development & Productivity Award, profiled in the Manufacturing Excellence Awards.

Still, if the Central Massachusetts economy is to expand, including in the strategically important life sciences industry, we need a more robust and educated workforce. Chinese manufacturer WuXi Biologics is building a nearly 200,000-square-foot facility in Worcester and will need 250 employees when it opens in 2025. That’s just the start of the wave of new life sciences companies economic development officials hope to entice to the region. Many of those workers are anticipated to be recent college grads, so it was alarming to see a report from the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce finding 25% of residents aged 25 to 30 in Greater Boston are looking to leave in the next five years, due to rising rent, home prices, and job availability. While Central Mass. does maintain a price advantage over Boston, the housing and rental market here is incredibly tight, and those same frustrations are likely being felt by our younger workforce.

We can’t afford an exodus of younger workers, and key to prevent that is to make housing more affordable. NIMBY may be a proud Massachusetts tradition, but leaving development of more affordable housing options up to each town is insufficient. It was revealing to see the results of WBJ’s March 25 poll about The MBTA Communities Act, which requires more multifamily zoning in communities served by the MBTA transit system; 58% of WBJ readers said the law was flawed and too coercive. Unfortunately, we don’t see a viable option other than to back the imposition of more housing. It's a challenge impacting us all and may lead to the worst possible outcome: a more exacerbated workforce shortage.

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