In finding, retaining qualified workers in Berkshires, difficulties hammered home

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LEE — Generoso Gallo runs his own gardening firm, and has to compete for clients. It's harder for him to pick up new business without qualified help.

"Some are very high-end clients," said Gallo, who owns Berkshire Greenscapes. "I have a minimum amount of hours to fill in one day. They want me to be there, but I have to have enough people on my crew to meet that requirement."

Gallo is not alone.

Many small-business owners who own firms in a wide range of professions say a lack of qualified workers in the Berkshires has hampered their ability to operate. To retain the workers who are reliable and fit their criteria, small-business owners often have to offer them competitive pay packages and benefits like insurance or risk losing them to bigger firms.

"It's hard for an independent guy like me to hire somebody," said Peter Rathbun, who owns Route 102 Auto Sales in Lee. Two of his six employees are certified mechanics, meaning they are licensed to work at any garage.

"Newer car places pay all the money," said Rathbun, who has been in the motor vehicle business for 40 years. "To get a certified guy, and my two master tech guys are, you have to pay them.

"It's hard to make a living paying them what they need to be paid."

Finding qualified workers and keeping them is not unique to the Berkshires. It's a local symptom of a national affliction. Nationally, finding qualified applicants ranks second among the top four hiring challenges that small businesses face, according to Wasp Barcode's annual State of Small Business Report. Competing with big companies is No. 1.

In an article he wrote for Fortune Magazine at the end of last year, Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, said the biggest problem for businesses in 2017, and for the foreseeable future, is a "lack of qualified labor." Zandi ranks that issue ahead of weak sales, soft pricing and "too much regulation."

In the Berkshires, 64 percent of all local businesses had difficulty finding employees, according to a survey conducted last year by the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board. Those businesses weren't broken down by size, but small businesses vastly outnumber large employers in Berkshire County.

"Most companies are concerned with work ethic and motivation and finding skilled workers," said Heather Boulger, the regional employment board's executive director.

Retired labor union representative Michael Filpi of Pittsfield has heard similar concerns. Issues regarding the lack of skilled employees are often talked about during discussions about vocational and technical issues at meetings of the Pittsfield Public Schools' General Advisory Committee, of which Filpi is a member.

"Some of the basic problems are life skills — showing up on time and working a full week," said Filpi, who is also a board member of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority. "Basic math skills are a problem. A simple reading of the tape measure; not knowing the fractions. Those are a few."

Finding skilled labor was also discussed by Berkshire employers at a recent series of meetings held by the regional employment board.

"We talked about it a little bit," said June Roy-Martin, the human resources manager at Carr Hardware. "We went around the room. There were several types of businesses represented there."

Keith Girouard, director of the Pittsfield office of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Network, said issues involving the county's lack of skilled labor often come up when Berkshire entrepreneurs consider opening small businesses.

"When you start to recruit from a planning issue, that's an important consideration," he said.

Reasons abound on why Berkshire small businesses have so much trouble finding qualified help. Limited public transportation options in the Berkshires that make traveling to places of employment difficult is one factor, Girouard said, as are finding employees who have qualifications that meet industry standards.

"The problem it creates with skilled labor in the food industry, for example, is there are some pretty strict and comprehensive protocols they have to follow," Girouard said, "so employers have to make an investment in them."

Employees often leave either before or shortly after their training is completed, leaving employers in a hole.

"They (employers) are back to square one," Girouard said.

Colleen Taylor, who co-owns the Freight Yard Pub in North Adams, said training kitchen staff, only to lose them, influences the eatery in "a number of ways." The restaurant has 30 employees.

"If I hire someone and I have to train you, that's time and effort to have to train you," Taylor said. "That person is more of a ghost person when I'm training them, so it's expensive for us to do. If I hire them at $11 an hour and someone is getting $13 an hour to teach them, that's $24 an hour for that line station. So, it costs us a lot of money.

"If they don't like it, and quit halfway through, we have to start all over again," she said.

Luke Marion, who owns Otto's Breakfast & Deli in Pittsfield, said lack of a consistent work ethic, combined with the opioid crisis that has affected the region, make it difficult for restaurants to get qualified help.

"The biggest problem I have on a day-to-day basis is wondering whether people are going to show up," Marion said. "The heroin problem is probably the biggest thing holding the restaurant business back. The No. 1 reason I let people go or that they fall through is drugs. It's pretty easy to spot. You can't work like that."

Eva Sheridan, director of human resources for Main Street Hospitality Group in Stockbridge, said the hours employees that are required to work in the hospitality industry make it difficult for lodging establishments to find qualified employees.

Main Street, which operates four Berkshire lodging establishments, has over 300 total employees, according to Sheridan, so it's not technically a small business. But some of the group's properties, like Hotel on North in Pittsfield, have less than 100 workers.

"We're also looking for people with flexibility in hours," she said, referring specifically to Hotel on North. "It's not just 9-to-5. That's just hospitality in general. You're looking at weekends, evenings and holidays."

If prospective employees have a good work ethic, "you can train the skills," Sheridan said. But retaining some employees can be difficult, because benefits packages can be costly.

"Paying for insurance is really expensive," she said.

Limited public transportation options in the Berkshires also make it difficult for local firms to retain qualified employees.

"The buses really don't support the hospitality industry," Sheridan said. "Lots of times they can't get there. That's a huge challenge."

For gardening and landscaping businesses, the seasonal nature of the work makes it difficult to retain qualified employees year after year.

"This year is probably the first time that I'll have someone come back for the following year," said Gallo, who has operated Berkshire Greenscapes for six years. The company has three employees, including Gallo.

"Honestly, I think what motivates people is money," he said. "I think if the wage is higher initially, that will attract more people."

Kevin Holland, co-owner of Mountain Home Landscape of Williamstown, said it took a while for his company to find qualified employees.

"We kind of weeded people out," said Holland, whose firm has close to 30 employees. Mountain Home offers its employees a package that includes retirement benefits and insurance.

"We have a pretty good rate of return for our employees," he said. "But it's definitely a challenge to find people that are reliable as well as have a good work ethic and a good attitude. We've been through 20 or 30 people who didn't meet those standards."

Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or at 413 496-6224.


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