PITTSFIELD — Shaun Cusson was looking for a job, not a career, when he took a position as a youth development counselor at Hillcrest Educational Centers in 1997.
But what Cusson first thought would be a way station turned out much different than he thought. The Pittsfield native liked working at Hillcrest so much that he stayed, and worked his way up the corporate ladder. He’s held eight positions at Hillcrest Educational Foundation, the nonprofit agency’s umbrella organization, over the last 25 years. In 2013, he was promoted to executive director, second in command behind president and CEO Gerard “Jerry” Burke. On July 1, he officially became Hillcrest’s president and CEO when Burke retired after a 37-year career there, 30 as president and CEO.
We spoke to Cusson recently about taking over the top spot at Hillcrest, his plans for the nonprofit agency going forward, how the agency is dealing with the workforce development issues that have affected other Berkshire businesses, and why he did not pursue a musical career like his brother, singer Matt Cusson, or his father, Craig Cusson, who wrote the school song for Berkshire Community College.
Q: How does a college marketing major end up in a career in human services and education?
A: I was graduating from Westfield State with a business administration and marketing degree. I knew I needed to buy a new car and I needed health insurance. I knew somebody who worked at Hillcrest and suggested that I give them a shot because it would be fun work, I could make good money and hang out with kids. I figured this job is a pretty good job for about six months before I got a real job.
Q: Obviously you weren’t thinking about Hillcrest then as a career
A: Not at all. I wanted to get into marketing and advertising for a big corporation. That was kind of my goal in college. (Cusson later obtained a master’s degree in education from Cambridge College.)
Q: What changed your mind?
A: I loved the work. I wasn’t very good at it in the beginning. It took some time. I was taught by good people, figured it out, thoroughly enjoyed it, and stuck with it for some time. I still tried to leave on a couple of occasions not thinking that I wasn’t meant to do this work. But I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and have opportunities that I took full advantage of and continued to be promoted through the system. As I did that I really developed an incredible admiration and appreciation for the people that I worked with.
There’s something about the staff at Hillcrest, the work they do with our kids, the miracles that they’re capable of, that truly made me want to do whatever I could to serve them. That’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s what keeps me incredibly energetic for our work. I see my job as doing whatever I can to create an environment so that our staff can do what they do best.
Q: Jerry Burke was so well-known in the Berkshire community that whenever you saw him you thought of Hillcrest. How do you replace a guy like that?
A: There’s absolutely no replacing Jerry Burke. What he has done, what he has accomplished in his career here it’s almost unfathomable, that’s the word I use. It’s beyond humble beginnings. When he started at Hillcrest in 1985 they were completely defunct. They had lost their license to treat people, and they were bankrupt. Jerry over the three decades he was CEO just developed and blossomed the organization that thrives today and that has experienced incredible amounts of success.
If I had it in my mind that I had to replace him, I would fail. What Jerry instilled in me and everyone else is you have to lead according to who you are. And you have to be you. That’s the only way this is going to work. Fortunately for me and the organization, Jerry and I are pretty in lockstep in how we go about leading Hillcrest and what we believe are the priorities.
Q: What are your goals and plans for Hillcrest during your first year as president/CEO?
A: For the first year it’s quite simple. It’s trying to keep this big wheel turning. We’re not out of the woods in terms of COVID. We still struggle to make sure that our precautions are sound so that when people or staff or kids are exposed we respond accordingly. We do our best to keep people safe. It’s not easy.
As you know the entire [Berkshire County] workforce continues to be a significant problem for employers across all industries. So there is a workforce crisis right now and Hillcrest is very much wrapped into that. My top goal this year is we’ve got to get to an equilibrium where we can maintain the operation without leaning on state and/or federal support.
Q: Is your workforce down?
A: We have about 475 employees just under Hillcrest Educational Centers. We also have our dental practice and we have Kids’ Place. But just for Hillcrest Educational Centers we have about 475 right now. To get to our full capacity for students we would need about 540 or 550.
We made significant enhancements to our compensation to our staff across the board, which has allowed us to bolster our recruitment, our retention. We’re making progress, but it’s gradual measured progress. We’re only halfway there.
Q: How have the workforce issues in the Berkshires affected Hillcrest?
A: If I could answer that accurately I could write the best-selling book in the world. We’re all perplexed as to where the employees are. That doesn’t matter if you’re in the banking industry or the restaurant industry, or human services or education. We don’t know where the workers went.
It’s not just a Berkshire County phenomenon either. I talk with my peers in Eastern Massachusetts and they’re absolutely wrestling with the same problems. We were blaming it on the tremendous support from the government for people who were out of work and people becoming reliant on that assistance. There was a small shift when that ended last September, but that clearly is not the issue.
Q: Then what is it?
A: I think people have been pinned down. The incredible cost of child care has made it unaffordable for single parents or young families to have dual income households, but beyond that the pendulum has just swung completely the opposite way from decades ago. I’m not sure what makes that pendulum come back, but we all have faith that it will come back over time. Right now we’re kind of competing with each other as employers for the same employees. We think that our recruitment has improved some, but it’s cost us a tremendous amount in payroll to deal with that.
Q: Why didn’t you follow your father and brother into music?
A: Lack of talent. We had a piano at the house and I liked to bang on it but unfortunately that just wasn’t in the cards for me. ... I dabbled with the trumpet when I was young, but I was just more interested in sports. Pursuit of music takes discipline. I wanted to hang out with my friends who were playing sports. I’d love to go back and work a little harder at it for sure.
Q: What’s your future look like professionally?
A: Whatever the future is, it’s going to end at Hillcrest, there’s no doubt about that. I’m a lifer. It’s the first job I had out of college and it will be the last job I have when I retire, Lord willing.