PITTSFIELD — Jonathan Butler is a millennial, the age group that the Berkshires are seeking to attract.
The Cheshire native grew up in the Berkshires, graduated from high school in 2000, then left to attend Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, where he majored in history and political science. But unlike many other members of his generation, he came back home.
After a stint working in state politics on Beacon Hill, Butler returned to the Berkshires in 2009, to serve for five years as town administrator for the town of Adams. In late summer 2014, he became president and CEO of 1Berkshire Strategic Alliance, the county's state-designated economic development agency. Given his background, and his previous and current work experiences, Butler is well-acquainted with the economic development issues currently affecting the Berkshires, and is involved in efforts to bring the members of his age group back home.
We recently met with Butler to discuss 1Berkshire's role in the community, how he ended up in politics, and ways of solving what he refers to as the Berkshires' "workforce conundrum."
Q: What was your first job like?
A: I kind of had two careers. I started after college working part time as a paralegal, but also working full time in the restaurant business. I took a year off after college trying to figure out whether to go to grad school or law school. I worked at the '6 House Pub in Williamstown, after they first reopened and rebranded. I managed the front of the house for the better part of a year. ... While you're figuring out what you want to do with your life, you've got to pay the bills. ... I still have a soft spot for that industry. I could see myself doing it again at some point in my life.
Q: Grad school or law school — which did you decide?
A: I went to grad school at Suffolk University for a dual master's program in public administration and political science. One of my deep, dark secrets is, I haven't finished those programs yet. When I moved home, I had to kind of unenroll for a bit, so I never finished. But I will. I think I have a total of nine more credits [left].
Q: How did you end up working in Boston?
A: I got a job working for the executive office of economic development on Beacon Hill as a staff assistant. It started out as a college internship. I was there for a year, and that's when Ben Downing was elected to the state Senate. I was a 25-year-old kid living in Boston from the Berkshires, he was a 25-year-old about to move to Boston to represent the Berkshires. So, I reached out to him cold and said, 'Hey, I'm already on Beacon Hill, I'd love to work for your team if you have any openings.' So, we met. That was the formal beginning of my public-sector career.
Q: What did you learn working for Ben?
A: Working for two or three years on Beacon Hill ... it's like a bachelor's degree all in its own. You learn how policymaking and the political process works in Boston, and you get a feel for how it works in a major city. I learned a ton about the Berkshires. ... That was where my connection to local economic development began to evolve. ... Working with Ben was a tremendous privilege and opportunity for me.
A: While we were the same age, he was so full of wisdom. I could learn so much from his talents, not only from a policy perspective, but from working with people and understanding people's vantage points. That really helped, I think, shape the way that I approach much of what I do today.
Q: Why did you leave Boston to return to the Berkshires as a town administrator?
A: The practical reason was, it was a transition point for me. I had kind of reached the point on Ben's team where it was either move into another office and do another bit of politics on Beacon Hill just to advance my career, or I could look more local and come back to the Berkshires. I was always motivated by this desire to help make the place I grew up in better.
Q: What did working in local politics teach you?
A: The first thing I learned is that local politics is very up close and personal. When you work in local government, you're literally interacting with people where your decisions on a daily basis have an impact on their lives. You're seeing the impact of a decision you made when you're at the grocery store or you're at the gas station and [people] walk up to you and ask you why did the town decide to do this. So, you literally live that job all the time.
Q: Is that difficult?
A: There's a strain to that, but also there's an opportunity to be in your community, which I very much valued. What I learned from that position is a lot about effective strategies and how to work with people: to be fair, to be consistent, to communicate as best as you can on a daily basis so that people kind of know where you stand.
When you're in a management role, you inherently have to make decisions that people aren't going to like. But at least if you develop a rapport with people where they at least know you're fair and you're thoughtful about what you're doing, and you can do that consistently, I think it helps your ability to be able to navigate one challenging issue, then move on to the next one and still work with that person.
Q: Why did you join 1Berkshire?
A: Going to Adams, the economic development work I did was very focused on Adams, but I never lost sight of the global Berkshire landscape. I think I looked at my time in Adams as, I've done good things here for five years, there's a strong foundation, but what I'd really like to do is take this opportunity to work on a more countywide scale.
Q: 1Berkshire is a state-designated economic development agency. What does that mean?
A: We have a responsibility to all of our communities to be a resource when we can and to keep an eye on what they're up to. And, all of that work marketing the region is telling the story of the region, and all those things are a business service, which is the backbone of a business organization.
Q: When 1Berkshire released its updated version of the
Berkshire Blueprint in February, you said it was "time for a new narrative." What were you referring to?
A: Since moving back home in 2009, it felt like I had moved back to a different Berkshires than the one I had left to go to college as a 19-year-old. There was definitely a period of — I don't want to call it hopeless — but a downturn in our spirits in the Berkshires in the '80s and '90s, and I kind of grew up in that. ... When I came back, it was like this is different than it was 10 years ago. Something's happening here. There were all these investments being made that were hard to even imagine a decade before. There's just a sense that we're on a better trajectory than we were on 15 to 20 years ago, and, to me, that's been my narrative since I moved home. ... I believe that we offer a far better value proposition to young professionals and families in their 30s and 40s than we did 20 years ago.
Q: How many of your classmates
at Hoosac Valley High School are still in the Berkshires?
A: I would say it's probably close to 50-50. I have a lot of classmates who went away and have done well and have a lot of interest in coming back here.
Q: Lots of young people say they won't come back to the
Berkshires because they can't get good-paying jobs here in the fields that they studied in. How do you get those people to return to the Berkshires, and is any progress being made on that front?
A: In certain employment sectors, there is a very robust economy for kids or professionals to come back in such sectors as health care, advanced manufacturing, engineering and tech, and there's a lot of great opportunities in higher education in the Berkshires. Obviously, there are more workforce opportunities around Boston or New York City, but we are definitely experiencing a deepening of career path potential in our sectors in the Berkshires.
Q: Where, and how so?
A: Look at a company like Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing (in Lee). They landed here less than four years ago, started out with 25 employees, scaled up to 60 or 70 and, at the end of the year, [could] have over 120 employees. That's basically biotech and biopharmaceuticals. That career ladder didn't exist in the Berkshires five years ago.
Q: Is workforce development the county's top economic priority right now?
A: I would say, yes. We have a couple of specific programs running at 1Berkshire that also play a role in the connective tissue [of the area] where workforce development is [written] all over it.
Q: Where do you see the Berkshire economy in five or 10 years?
A: I see continued growth in the visitor area. ... I see an opportunity to really grow and continue to spin off from Berkshire Sterile. That really could become a new sector, a prominent sector in the Berkshires, basically in advanced manufacturing connected to biopharmaceuticals, getting us more intentionally connected to the economy in Boston or Albany. That's pretty exciting.