Berkshire County Wants To Reverse Decreasing Population With Young Workforce

Oct 25, 2017

According to a new report, economic leaders predict Berkshire County’s already decreasing population will lose 12,000 more people if employers don’t attract a strong, young workforce. 

The economic development agency 1Berkshire convened a special task force in July 2014 to address Berkshire County’s rapidly declining population.

John Bissel is the co-chair of the Berkshire Initiative for Growth.

“To really grow our population, we must let go of some of our favorite myths: there are no jobs here,” Bissel says. “We adopted that mindset when those rivers of [General Electric] employees stopped flowing. And it was easy to believe and perhaps for many years it was even true. Well, it is not true now.”

The region lost more than 18,000 people between the 1970s – when General Electric, the area’s largest employer, began to pull out of Berkshire County – and 2010, according to U.S. Census data.

Now, the Berkshire Initiative for Growth has announced the results of its nearly three-year study on ways employers can recruit and retain millennials in the region (Millennials are between 22 and 40 years old).

Bissel spoke at 1Berkshire’s presentation of the report Oct. 20 at a press conference at Pittsfield’s General Dynamics, one of the agency’s partners.

“Myth No. 2 is that young people don’t want to live here. This myth is false as well,” Bissel says. “Lots of young people and young families do want to live here. Hundreds of the people who grew up here and moved away would like to come back.”

The Berkshire Initiative for Growth says to fill the gap, which is to blame for an array of economic problems, 800 people need to move to the county each year.

“We need to do a much better job of communicating the opportunities that are here,” Bissell says. “And myth No. 3: these population trends are beyond our control; this problem is simply too big for the resources that we have. This myth is perhaps the most insidious of all because it allows us to take comfort in the current situation and to me it’s an excuse of inaction.”

1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler made several recommendations for employers.

“Supporting entrepreneurial business development and business recruitment programs in the Berkshires,” Butler says. “We need to recruit smarter. Also, improving workforce readiness and hard and soft skill training. Offsetting wages with student debt programs.”

Julia Dixon, who authored the report, says improving workplace culture is vital.

“A physical and a professional culture that is comfortable, and encouraging, and welcoming,” Dixon says.

Dixon says the county should also encourage home ownership.

“To not only attract young people but to attract immigrant families,” Dixon says. “Cultural integration, cultural competency: Making sure these individuals and these families feel welcomed once they arrive in Berkshire County.”

1Berkshire highlighted General Dynamics in Pittsfield as a good example. Half of its nearly 1,500 workers are under 40, and a quarter are under 30, Vice President and General Manager of Maritime and Strategic Systems Carlo Zaffanella says.

“You want to attract Millennials? One of the great things that you can do is say: what matters to them,” Zaffenella says.

Zaffanella touts General Dynamics’ open work environment, flexible work hours and telecommuting schedule, and recruitment strategies in area colleges. Manufacturing makes up 15 percent of the region’s workforce.

Butler, of 1Berkshire, says changing the narrative of the region is a top priority.

“The narrative is the backbone of everything here,” Butler says. “You know, we have allowed our region become a little bit of a place where we let narrative of previous generations become the narrative of our future, of the Berkshires being a post-industrial place, being a place that used to be something that it isn’t anymore. There is an opportunity to change that and in many ways it’s already changing.”

While authoring the study, 1Berkshire has sparked several millennial-focused businesses and initiatives to start up. The agency is working to expand ride-hailing services like Uber in the county.

1Berkshire’s blueprint on the region’s economic development strategy will be updated by August 2018 to align with the report’s conclusions.