PITTSFIELD A local nonprofit wants to help employers in Berkshire County retain workers by bringing "success coaches" into the workplace.

That's the goal of the Berkshire Bridges-Working Cities Initiative, which is pitching the new proposal after four years of research.

The group recently signed a memorandum of understanding with a national organization known as the Employer Resource Network that would supply success coaches to help employees manage ongoing or sudden barriers to job retention, such as transportation issues, or personal and social problems.

If such a program is established in the Berkshires, it would be run under the auspices of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity.

The agreement between the Berkshire Bridges-Working Cities Initiative and ERN establishes a framework for how the two organizations "are going to be communicating and working together" to bring such a program to the Berkshires, said Nathan Mandsager, who runs a similar ERN program in Schenectady, N.Y.

On Wednesday, at Hotel on North, Mandsager outlined how ERN programs work and the services that they can provide employers and employees as Berkshire Bridges pitched the idea to the local business community for the first time.

Success coaches are third-party agents who build relationships in the workplace to help employers assist workers in solving personal, social and work-related issues before they grow into major problems that can affect the productivity of an entire company. Addressing these issues while they are in their early stages can increase an employee's ability to cope with these problems, and has been shown to increase job retention, according to the Berkshire Bridges-Working Cities Initiative.

Nationally, turnover issues across all industries annually cost employers an average of $4,125,Mandsager said. Low unemployment rates have exacerbated this problem because when workers leave, it's difficult for employers to find replacements.

"It you lose someone, there's no one to take the job," Mandsager said. "There's not a lot of people to train right now. ... There are real costs to this turnover when we lose people."

Poverty also plays a role.

"Too many families are unable to make ends meet as they try and move off assistance benefits and towards economic independence," he said.

Alisa Costa, initiative director of the Berkshire Bridges-Working Cities Initiative, told The Eagle on Wednesday, during an editorial board meeting, that when people don't have access to the resources they need to cope with these problems, the results can be "devastating," she said. "It can happen very quickly."

"When there's so much going on in life, it's hard to function," she added.

ERNs typically are set up as private-public partnerships that involve five to 10 employers located in the same geographic area, Mandsager said.

"They share the costs of having a success coach embedded in the company," usually in the human resources department, he said. ERNs don't duplicate company services.

He described success coaches as "conduits" for employees to obtain information on financial literacy, training resources and personal achievement programs.

In 2017-18, companies that participated in ERN programs in Michigan had a job retention rate of 98 percent, and registered a 518 percent return on their investment, he added.

ERNs have been adopted in nine states by over 175 companies that service over 80,000 employees, Mandsager said. The program in Schenectady, which began in 2014, has an 88 percent employee retention rate.

"Employers who gravitate to this model want to do right by their employees," he said. "They feel like they fail their employees all the time because they don't know who to call or how to help them."

Establishing an ERN program in the Berkshires would be a good idea, according to Celia Clancy, who served as CEO of the former Country Curtains in Stockbridge and is president of the Berkshire Business and Professional Women's organization.

"I think that it offers a cheaper and more efficient and more expert HR solution," said Clancy, who also serves as a business consultant. "My company, Country Curtains, was a family-friendly company; we employed a lot of women. But we had all the problems they noted, plus some more serious problems that we weren't equipped to handle. It went right through the HR department up to me. ... I think it makes a lot of sense."

During the meeting with The Eagle's editorial board, Costa said introducing the ERN program to local businesses represented the culmination of the work that the Berkshire Bridges-Working Cities Initiative has done over the past four years. That work included community discussions with people who are dealing with poverty.

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