Mass. Labor Pools May Be Crowded, But They’re Not Always Deep

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Any company that’s not laying people off right now counts itself lucky. But the Cambridge company HubSpot is bowled over with excitement.

This week HubSpot celebrated its third birthday by getting all of its employees together at a bowling alley, for the second year in a row.

“The first party was just pizza and beers in the office,” says company vice-president Mike Volpe, who, like the rest of the 90 workers here, is wearing a T-shirt with a big orange triangle on the back, showing the company’s fast growing sales.

When Volpe joined HubSpot two and a half years ago, he was just the fifth employee. Volpe’s online marketing company has been adding three people a month. Next year, HubSpot will have to hold its party somewhere else. Because this bowling alley won’t be big enough.

“Knock on wood — and I hope things keep going well — but that’s the plan, and so far it seems like it’s coming true,” Volpe says. “You can’t go bowling anymore as a whole company, because it’s too big. I mean, it’s obviously a good problem to have.”

But HubSpot also has a bad problem to have. Some of those new positions, they go unfilled for months. Because it’s hard to find good people. Some of the out-of-work marketing types who’ve been applying lately are really good at trade shows and direct mail and telemarketing campaigns. But they often don’t know about landing pages and web analytics and conversion.

The state’s unemployment rate has climbed to 8.6 percent. The latest figures from June show that Massachusetts lost 2,300 payroll jobs last month. So how can it be that with so many people looking for work, companies say they still are having a hard time filling open positions?

Volpe says getting more applications from the growing ranks of unemployed doesn’t always translate into more good candidates. “You have a lot more to sort through,” he says. “So you’re looking for that needle in the haystack and that haystack is getting bigger, but there aren’t necessarily more needles.”

Information technology is just one industry that’s having this problem right now. Defense is another. Raytheon’s unit in Tewksbury, Integrated Defense Systems, has been battling just to find qualified applicants to fill more than a thousand jobs.

Same story for BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H.

The company’s Maryellen Tansey says BAE has added 850 jobs so far this year. But some of the company’s defense contracts have been reduced. BAE gave pinks slips to about 125 of its New Hampshire workers. They’ve had the odd experience of being laid off at a company where Tansey says jobs are waiting to be filled.

“We have a hiring sign up, so, on the one hand, while we’re hiring very specialized functions — for example optical engineering — we’re reducing across the board in many disciplines,” she says.

It’s normal to have a mismatch between the skills employers need and the skills prospective workers have. But what’s troubling is that the recession and growing unemployment are making this mismatch even bigger.

“Now that we have this labor surplus, employers can require even higher levels of skill and education to fill the jobs that they have available,” says Suzanne Bump, Massachusetts Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development. She says it’s not just tech companies, the bar is being raised across the board.

“So that is why we are pushing the folks who are on unemployment so aggressively to take advantage of training opportunities,” Bump says.

Just this week, the Patrick administration anchored a new statewide network of training programs designed to develop a cutting-edge green energy workforce. But just what will employers ask of a so-called green collar worker?

Jill Lacey Griffin works for the Boston Foundation, which is a major player in SkillWorks. The public-private job training effort has been holding meetings recently with green energy industry companies. Lacey Griffin says there’s a sense of urgency because of new federal stimulus money for job training.

“There’s still a lot of information needed about what their workforce needs are,” she says. “Everyone from the commonwealth to the city to private funders, everyone has an interest, and we’re all trying to get on the same page and really learn more about this sector.”

Because the real fear is that if the state doesn’t do it right, economic growth will be stifled. It’s not just about the workers for those jobs, it’s about their employers. If companies can’t move forward with the available labor pool, they may just move away.

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