It seems like nearly every CEO these days worries about workforce shortages in their industries. But not every CEO is actually doing something about it.
Enter Fred Van Heems and his team at energy and environmental services giant Veolia North America, a Boston-based subsidiary of the French company Veolia. While speaking at a United States Conference of Mayors meeting last month in Columbus, Ohio, Van Heems made an unusual announcement: The need for water and wastewater workers across the country is so acute, particularly with a wave of retirements underway, that Veolia North America is making certification classes with the company’s online academy available for free to the general public.
Sure, the company benefits from the goodwill generated, including among the municipal clients assembled at the Columbus conference. But Van Heems said the biggest motivation is to serve the public good, particularly as water supplies get increasingly threatened by contaminants and long-term drought. For a marginal extra cost, he added, it’s relatively simple for the company to open its “Veolia Academy” to outsiders.
“We’re a purpose-driven company,” said Van Heems, who moved here from France to take his current job in 2021. “We want to make profits. But in everything we do, our ‘Veolia Way’ is [also] to create a positive impact.”
Veolia Academy offers more than 100 classes, in seven different areas, for people looking to obtain certifications in the water and wastewater fields. More than 250 employees have taken advantage of it since its inception in 2021, and roughly 1,000 nonemployees have registered for it in the past month since the big announcement.
“We are impressed by the feedback, which is a lot stronger than we anticipated,” Van Heems said. “A lot of our employees are really proud.”
There are no strings attached. Trainees can even go work for Veolia’s rivals. “Obviously, I’m happier,” Van Heems adds, “if after getting their license, they come to work for Veolia.”
Diversifying the city’s real estate scene
Boston’s clubby commercial real estate sector has long been one of the least diverse industries in town: mostly white guys, all around.
Those doors are finally starting to open. And to push the change along, leaders of 10 business associations in the city’s real estate sector, such as NAIOP Massachusetts and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, have set diversity goals of their own. As part of an initiative championed by Paul Ayoub, chair of law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish, and Amanda Strong, asset management director at the MIT Investment Management Co., the various associations have already made some headway with the makeup of their boards. In 2020, when the initiative was just getting started, 39 percent of the groups’ 283 board members were women, and 12 percent were people of color. By 2022, those percentages were 43 percent and 19 percent, respectively.
The groups just decided on a new goal: get the percentages up to 50 percent for women and 25 percent for people of color by 2026. Ayoub has previously been involved in similar initiatives with the Real Estate Finance Association and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. The associations are also trying to diversify the industry among entry-level jobs, with recruitment and mentorship programs. They’re working with the Builders of Color Coalition, in part to increase networking opportunities.
And they want to set an example at the top, at the board level.
“It becomes self-fulfilling once you set the goal,” Ayoub said. “There’s a business case [for diversity] that’s unequivocal. But there’s also a sense of just doing the right thing.”
Falchuk’s new venture draws investors
It’s been tough for many startups to raise funds from venture capital firms recently. But Evan Falchuk’s latest venture, Family First, pulled it off, announcing last week a $11 million round of equity investments. The money came from RPM Ventures and Eos Venture Partners, as well as Wormhole Capital and investment banker Stephen Fromm, who serves as Family First’s president. The startup provides professional advice to clients’ employees on family care-giving issues; employers offer it as part of their suite of benefits.
Falchuk, previously a longtime executive with Best Doctors and a one time-independent candidate for governor, said he launched the business after COVID-19 hit because many managers were seeing the need to assist their workers deal with caregiving stresses. The funds in part will help him hire 10 people for his remote workforce. Investors, he said, liked the fact revenue is scheduled to grow 40 percent this year and the business is close to turning a profit.
“There’s money to be raised but you need to have the right team, the right story,” Falchuk said. “What I like about this market is, you have to have something real, no pie-in-the-sky magic.”
Restaurant advocate King keeps the network going
Early in the pandemic, Bessie King quickly became a prominent advocate for the needs of independent restaurants, as a cofounder of Massachusetts Restaurants United. Now, she’s doing something else to help: launching Friends Who Dine.
King and her mom Julie King run Villa México Café in downtown Boston. She writes a things-to-do e-mail newsletter for friends and acquaintances, an idea she first tried about a decade ago when she was a student at Northeastern University. Now, she’s kicking it up a notch, with a $5-per-month newsletter and online member platform, as well as a social function aimed at bringing groups of 10 to 12 people together for restaurant meals and other food-related activities.
Her first two events are this week: the annual Get Konnected! multicultural food festival in the Seaport on Tuesday, and a prix fixe dinner at Faccia a Faccia on Newbury Street on Wednesday.
It’s not really about making money — King doesn’t get any commission for the group outings. Instead, it’s about building a sense of community, and giving back to local restaurants.
“Instead of coming home and watching Netflix,” King said, “I might as well put my time to good use and support the communities that I love.”
Making the night shift count at the T
Just how challenging is it for the MBTA to staff up? They even want to bring back former T administrator Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, in a hard hat.
Well, new MBTA general manager Phillip Eng was obviously joking about that one. But the need to hire more personnel at the T was still a major theme during a chamber event at Wayfair’s headquarters last week that featured Eng and state Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca. The event was sponsored by lobbying firm Serlin Haley.
State Street Corp. chief executive Ron O’Hanley kicked things off, by talking about the importance of restoring confidence in the region’s troubled transit system. He noted how Rooney got his start as a track laborer at the T, often replacing tracks on the overnight shift during a four-hour window when the subways weren’t running. “He also reminded me he only worked four hours a night,” O’Hanley deadpanned.
Rooney responded by saying he didn’t have much of a choice: “I only worked four hours because the trains stopped at 1 and started at 5 . . . unless you wanted me to be on the tracks when that happened.”
Rooney peppered Eng and Fiandaca with transportation-related questions, including about the T’s workforce shortages. Eng did not provide a timeline for when the aggressive oversight from the Federal Transit Administration might end in response to Rooney’s questions, or when all the MBTA’s notorious “slow zones” might be gone for good.
Finally, Rooney asked Eng and Fiandaca what the business community could do to help. Fiandaca said holding community forums like last week’s event was a great step. But Eng had something else in mind for Rooney. “You could help by coming back to the T and doing some track work for us,” Eng said. “Even those four hours, I’ll take.”