The state, working with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, has launched one of the most comprehensive analyses of Massachusetts’ workforce and labor market, with the goal of ensuring that workers develop the skills demanded by employers and needed to propel the state’s economy into the future.
The analyses will provide detailed looks at demographics, employment, key industries, worker training, and other factors in eight sections of Massachusetts. The first report, on a largely suburban area to the west and south of Boston, is scheduled to be released Tuesday by the Fed’s New England Public Policy Center and Commonwealth Corp., the state’s quasi-public workforce development agency. The other regional studies, as well as a statewide report, will be released over the next six months.
While focused on the region encompassing the Route 128 and I-495 technology belts, this first report nonetheless identifies issues and challenges facing the entire state, particularly looming skills and labor shortages as baby boomers begin to retire. The region, dubbed Metro South/West, has one of the oldest populations in the state, but is also home to high-tech and life sciences companies that drive the Massachusetts economy.
“If you look at the industry composition here, these are industries that require a really specific set of skills,” said Nancy Snyder, president of Commonwealth Corp. “The challenge is helping people to understand what the economy is made up of, what the range of opportunities are, and how to find them.”
About 55 percent of the region’s working-age population is 45 or older, compared with about 52 percent in Massachusetts overall and 50 percent in the United States, according to the study. Despite higher unemployment among young workers in Metro South/West, young workers don’t seem to be moving into jobs being vacated by retiring baby boomers, stoking fears of a mismatch between the skills that younger workers are learning in schools, community colleges, and universities and the qualifications needed by employers.
‘We’re up there preaching about what’s important in the workforce, but we’ve never had experience ourselves.’
Many of the fields with the most job vacancies require training in the so-called STEM disciplines, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But encouraging students to pursue those fields after high school has been difficult, workforce analysts say, and meeting the challenge may require significant educational reform.
Even teachers have found that the skills taught in schools may not be relevant. Karen Strader, a math teacher at Framingham High School, spent eight weeks in 2010 working at nonprofit defense contractor Mitre Corp. of Bedford as part of a program that exposes teachers to what companies are demanding of their workers. She said she learned that her school’s curriculum wasn’t teaching the kind of self-motivation, problem-solving, and innovative thinking that companies like Mitre need.
“We were kind of spoon-feeding them information and asking them to regurgitate it,” she said.
To encourage her students to think for themselves, Strader assigned short lecture-like videos about basic concepts as homework, and concentrated on collaborative problem-solving and student-driven projects in the classroom — a model that mirrors her industry experience.
The result was invigorated students and higher test scores, Strader said. “You have to affect the teachers before you affect the students,’’ she said. “We’re up there preaching about what’s important in the workforce, but we’ve never had experience ourselves.”
The program in which Strader participated, Lift2 , is sponsored by Marlborough-based Parternships for a Skilled Workforce Inc., an organization that helps match job seekers and employers in the region. It is an example of the kind of connections between employers, workers, and educators that the initiative by the Boston Fed and Commonwealth Corp. aims to spur as it documents the strengths, challenges, and needs of regional economies.
The studies largely rely on data from sources such as the US Census and the US Labor Department. The findings reported for each region will be followed by a series of summits where companies, college representatives, workforce boards, and policy makers can meet to discuss challenges and options.
Joanne Goldstein, the state’s Labor and Workforce Development secretary, said the study has shown that steering young workers into programs that will end in employment — not just four-year degrees — is one of the state’s most important economic hurdles.
“Having the data really allows us to plan,” Goldstein said, “which is something that doesn’t always get done in difficult times.”