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Economy in Western Mass. a good news/bad news situation

Date: 12/22/2008

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD At the Dec. 17 meeting of the Hampden County Regional Employment Board (REB) there was good news and bad news.

The good news is that REB was one of two workforce development boards in the state to receive the designation of High Performance Board and to receive a $100,000 grant. Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Suzanne Bump presented the award.

FutureWorks in Springfield and CareerPoint in Holyoke will largely use the grant to fund greater outreach.

The bad news is both career centers are "under siege," according to Rexene Picard, the executive director of FutureWorks.

She said both local centers have a capacity issue. Everyday there are 50 to 60 people waiting for the doors to open at FutureWorks and that is besides the 100 or so customers the center anticipates on a daily basis.

The reaction from her and her staff is to try to do things differently in reaction to the changing times, she said.

"The biggest thing we can do is to provide that human touch," she added.

Last year, Christmas week was the busiest for FutureWorks and she predicted, "We're going to get hammered [this year]."

She noted there are success stories such as an intern program with Big Y Markets in which at-risk teens are given a part-time job and then mentored to stay in high school. So far, there are 22 youths in the program and Picard would like to expand it to other employers.

David Gadaire, the executive director of CareerPoint, said the recent mid-budget elimination of the welfare to work program meant nearly a $1 million loss of services to the poor in Hampden County. What concerns him even more is whether or not the program will be restored in the FY09 budget.

"This program was a nationally recognized model," he said.

The group of people served by this program does not respond to the self-directed employment searches offered by the career centers.

"That's not what this group needs," he said. "They need hand-holding."

He added his center needs additional translation services and has had to be creative in collaborations, such as one with the city of Holyoke with a summer youth program, to try to meet the growing needs.

Bump said the state's workforce priorities are to get more youth into the employment pipeline, align state resources for greater effectiveness and to build capacity to meet rising need.

She commended both local career centers for the jobs they are doing.

"[They're] very, very good at focusing in one significant need and opportunity in your area," she said.

She said that in the long term, one of her goals is to restore the welfare to work program that was cut. She said the Department of Transitional Assistance was directed by Gov. Deval Patrick to make cuts and the program was eliminated to ensure essential services were preserved.

Noting the demand in services for the unemployed she said the number of people at the call center to file unemployment claims has been increased as well as the hours of operations. She noted people have waited more than a half-hour to reach staffers at the telephone claims centers.

Unlike other states, she said, the funding for unemployment benefits in Massachusetts is solvent at least through 2009.

She also offered tips on how to navigate through the state's employment claims process:

File as quickly as possible.

Be patient.

Stay away from making inquiries on Mondays.

Make a point of coming to a career center to make use of their services.

She added the skills evaluation the staff at the career centers can assist a client with is necessary as the jobs that are being lost may not ever return, she added.

More good news-bad news: Bump said that Western Massachusetts "has not been disproportionately affected by the downturn." The bad news? She said many economists have predicted hard times through 2009.