Filling a void: Attracting Millennials to the Berkshires is vital

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PITTSFIELD — Jonathan Butler grew up in Adams, graduated from Hoosac Valley High School, attended college in New Hampshire, and began his professional career in Boston.

It was a well-worn path for millennials, those between the ages of 20 and 36, who grew up in the Berkshires: Leave the county to attend college, go to an urban area where the opportunities for career advancement were greater, and never come back.

That scenario, accelerated by changes in the Berkshire economy, has left a significant hole in the county's population.

But not everyone turned their backs on the Berkshires.

Butler, 35, is one of the millennials who came back.

He returned to the Berkshires nine years ago to become the town administrator in Adams, then became president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the county's leading economic development agency.

Now, he's trying to get more of his peers to remain here, settle here or return home.

"It's absolutely vital that we're retaining and attracting that demographic," Butler said. "There's a bit of a gap in the ages 20 to 40 population [in the Berkshires], which encapsulates most of my generation. It's not only critical for balancing the workplace, but also substantial in growing our population."

BOOMERS RETIRING

Millennials surpassed baby boomers as the largest generation in the U.S. workforce two years ago, and are expected to make up 75 percent of the country's total workforce by 2025.

Last year, they became the country's largest living generation. As the Berkshires grow increasingly older — the county has the second-largest aging population among the state's 13 counties, according to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission — attracting and retaining millennials is vital to the area's future.

In this year's Berkshire Business Outlook, we look at what millennials want and need. We explore millennial interest in technology and their impact on the county's burgeoning creative economy. We also examine the kinds of work spaces they prefer and how they struggle to repay student loans. We even profile a Berkshire business that is run by millennials.

But don't take our word for it. This year's supplement includes first-person profiles of what it's like to be a millennial in the Berkshires from five members of that generation who range in age from 21 to 33.

COUNTING HEADS

Determining the number of millennials who live in the Berkshires isn't easy because separate statistics aren't kept for the 20 to 36 age group.

But those between the ages of 20 and 34 make up 17 percent of the county's population, according to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, slightly below the state level of 21 percent. Williamstown, at 22 percent, has the largest percentage of residents in the 21 to 34 year old age group living in the Berkshires, but Lee and North Adams are the only other Berkshire municipalities where the percentage is as high as 20 percent.

Pittsfield, which has more residents in that age group (8,846) than any other Berkshire community, is on the cusp at 19 percent. Nine Berkshire towns, six of them in South County, have percentages lower than 10 percent.

Two years ago, the planning commission conducted a "young adults" survey to examine the attitudes, preferences and needs of people between the ages of 18 and 39 in the Berkshires. Almost 3,800 participated in the project.

The survey found that young adults enjoy living in the Berkshires due to the scenery, opportunities for outdoor recreation and cultural activities. But respondents also cited a lack of quality jobs in the fields they went to college to pursue; a lack of quality affordable housing, which has become a major issue in South County; a lack of things to do; and too much of an emphasis on tourism, which is replacing manufacturing as an economic driver.

"I think we're sort of getting counter messages," said Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the planning commission. "It's encouraging that overwhelmingly the folks who responded, including those who were currently here and no longer here, said that they enjoyed living here. That's a good thing.

"But then you get into why people had left, or were planning on leaving, and even the ones who were here and it basically came down to jobs, jobs, jobs," Karns said.

"That took different forms," he said. "Some said they couldn't find the job they want here. Many said they don't really have a path for advancement. Some don't see where the stepping stone is here."

SEEING GAINS

According to the survey, 63.2 percent of the respondents listed better-paying jobs as reasons why they might leave the Berkshires, followed by lack of things to do (55.4 percent) and job availability, coupled with opportunities for advancement in their career path (54.3 percent).

Of the 22 other reasons cited, only "no nightlife" received as much as 40 percent.

Karns said the information garnered from the study is helpful because it gave Berkshire officials goals.

"Now that we have that information, we have an appreciation that there are some things we can do," he said.

Based on the latest information from the annual American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, Karns believes some progress is being made in retaining millennials in the Berkshires.

He cited improvements in the Pittsfield and Adams downtowns and more moderately priced housing in those municipalities as reasons why the number of millennials leaving has begun to slow.

Karns notes that two former commercial buildings in downtown Pittsfield — the Howard Building and Onota Building — have been renovated into housing units. "These are market-rate rentals of quality housing, and they are being filled up before they even finish the apartments."

"We're starting to see some promising trends," said Butler, of 1Berkshire. "Young families are buying properties."

But there's still a lot of work to do.

"We still have, on any given month, upwards of 2,000 jobs that go unfilled," said Butler, referring to Berkshire County job openings posted on the state's JobQuest site. That list typically shows between 1,300 and 1,800 open positions, according to monthly data The Eagle has obtained from the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board.

"One of our biggest problems is the workforce. We have to continue to create workforce training so that companies like Boyd (Technologies), Onyx (Specialty Papers) and General Dynamics can expand and create job opportunities. It's one of the things that we need to cultivate," Butler said.

Based on his experiences as a millennial, Butler believes the Berkshires are much more attractive to his generation than when he left after graduating from Hoosac Valley in 2000.

"I'm at the very far side," said Butler, referring to his place in the millennial generation. "But having grown up here, moved away, come back and been here for almost nine years, the Berkshires are a much cooler place than they were 20 years ago. We've made it a more attractive place to be. I think we're on the right side of the trajectory."

Reach Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224

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