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In a work-from-anywhere world, will Mass. lose its edge in the race for talented workers?

Business Roundtable urges lawmakers to invest in housing and workforce development to keep companies from drifting away from Massachusetts in wake of the pandemic

Congress Street in Boston was mostly empty on a weekday last summer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Managers have a lot on their mind lately. The Delta variant is still upending fall plans. Shipping logjams are seemingly putting everything on back order. Oh, and the Sox are in the playoffs again.

But there’s one concern that looms larger than any other for nearly every company in Massachusetts, regardless of size, industry, or location: the hunt for talent.

Just ask JD Chesloff, the head of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. He met with more than 60 of his members, all large and-mid-sized employers, over the summer as he does every year. Each of them mentioned talent recruitment and retention and workforce development as their top priority.


It became such a pressing issue that Chesloff did something he rarely does: He authored an eight-page report on the issue (with help from the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts), and sent it to legislative leaders this week in the hopes they use some of a nearly $5 billion pot of federal stimulus funds that they oversee to address the issue.

Lawmakers are no doubt aware by now that everyone from Fidelity Investments to the corner coffee shop is struggling to find workers. But Chesloff frames the issue by focusing on the threat to the state’s competitiveness.

Massachusetts’ talented, well-educated workforce is the number one reason that most companies say they choose to relocate or expand here. But what happens when employers can hire from anywhere?

Coming out of the pandemic, with hybrid and remote work widely seen as the norm not the exception, rest assured that many will look outside Greater Boston to fill jobs. (Just check out Boston software firm’s LogMeIn’s interstate C-suite for proof.)

As far as Roundtable members go, only 5 percent of employees tied to in-state operations worked elsewhere before the pandemic. Today, that number is 20 percent, and when the pandemic ends, it’s not expected to fall much.


Numbers like those worry economic development officials in Massachusetts. Chesloff sounds a little concerned, too. He says the growth of remote work and the opportunities it presents for companies to hire the best and brightest from around the world threaten the state’s economic competitiveness, particularly given Greater Boston’s place in the top 10 priciest housing markets in the United States.

The pandemic accelerated preexisting telework trends and prompted people to rethink life and how they want to live it. Now, employees are in the driver’s seat. They can call the shots more than ever before: pay, benefits, where and when they work. And the longer workers remain physically untethered from their offices, the greater the likelihood that their emotional ties to colleagues and corporate culture start to weaken.

So what can the state Legislature do about this? Chesloff has some ideas. Lawmakers have received a long line of letters from various advocates and lobbyists, spelling out ways to best spend the state’s American Rescue Plan Act windfall. The Roundtable doesn’t offer breakdowns for how to divvy up the $5 billion. Instead of specific dollar amounts, the business group wanted to offer a framework. Some of these elements, such as affordable housing and workforce development, mirror Governor Charlie Baker’s proposals — and some of the state Senate’s newly stated priorities too.


Housing, particularly affordable housing, tops the list, with a call for development-friendly policies and more funding. The Roundtable wants the MBTA’s commuter rail and bus routes to be less reliant on monthly passes and rush-hour peaks and better accommodate people who hop on board two or three times a week, or at odd times of the day. Then there’s the issue of “placemaking:” Government officials should put more emphasis on improving local communities — downtown districts, village centers, and the like — by encouraging amenities and attractions such as restaurants, parks, cultural hubs, and reliable broadband service.

Chesloff also sees the opportunity to address inequities in the regional economy, by funneling money toward classes tailored for Black and Hispanic workers to help them move into better-paying jobs and more promising careers.

The Roundtable, in its talent treatise, doesn’t mention tax policies. Some business leaders, Chesloff among them, fear the proposed “millionaires tax” could make Massachusetts less competitive in this regard. But state lawmakers have already spoken: They voted overwhelmingly in June to put the proposal, an income tax surcharge on earnings above $1 million, before voters next fall.

Of course, the Roundtable isn’t the only business group with these concerns. Far from it.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts’ monthly confidence index fell on Tuesday for the second straight month, with AIM members citing staffing as their biggest worry. The Massachusetts High Technology Council on Thursday hosted a Zoom event aimed at shifting the “Great Resignation” to the “Great Retention” for women in the workplace. And the National Federation of Independent Business reported that the number of small-business owners who can’t find enough qualified workers reached a record high, again.


Jay Ash, chief executive of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, said he met with a number of small businesses in central and western parts of the state last week, and he heard repeatedly about the challenges in finding the right hires, from entry-level to executive roles. Employers, he said, are putting more money and benefits on the table, and candidates still aren’t showing up in many cases.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, too, has pointed to talent as the number one issue after polling its members. That’s one reason why Chamber CEO Jim Rooney asked lawmakers in July to devote a piece of the ARPA pie to skills training, and addressing the long waitlists at the state’s vocational and technical schools in particular.

Yes, Chesloff is technically speaking for the Roundtable’s members, which together represent more than 250,000 workers. But in a way he’s speaking for all Massachusetts employers that struggle to fill the jobs they need and wonder when, if ever, there might be some relief.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.