Some skills are not readily available: These students are learning to be blackjack dealers at an MGM-sponsored school.
Some skills are not readily available: These students are learning to be blackjack dealers at an MGM-sponsored school.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

In staffing Springfield casino, MGM leaves little to chance

SPRINGFIELD — Long before MGM Resorts International got the green light to build a nearly $1 billion casino and hotel downtown, it analyzed the local labor market to figure out what it would take to fill 3,000 jobs in a state new to gambling.

The socioeconomic snapshot that emerged became a road map for creating a workforce from scratch.

Census data and labor reports revealed a higher-than-average number of single parents and former offenders. So MGM Springfield added federally funded day care to the resort and lobbied to loosen a state law that restricts casinos from hiring people with criminal records. A lack of experienced blackjack and poker dealers in the area led to the creation of a gaming school.

Advertisement

Managers also fanned out to senior centers, veterans clubs, vocational high schools, even churches to talk up casino jobs. They pored over layoff data from the state, including from a Springfield hospital and a nearby Sam’s Club that had recently closed, to pursue workers who might be good fits.

Now, months before its scheduled opening in late summer, MGM Springfield is embarking on a major hiring spree to staff its hotel, restaurants, bowling alley, movie theater, spa, retail shops, and 125,000 square feet of gambling space, all of which take up three city blocks.

On Monday, the resort is set to announce openings for about 1,000 of its 3,000 jobs, mainly in food and beverage service. Just over 100 employees have been hired so far.

Overall, roughly 80 percent of MGM’s jobs will be full time, with the company helping to provide local training for many of them. Given MGM’s good relationship with organized labor at its other resorts, a fair share will probably have union protections.

Wynn Boston Harbor has been undertaking similar workforce development efforts, including analyzing demographics and partnering with nonprofits and community colleges, as it looks toward opening in Everett next year.

Advertisement

MGM has committed to filling more than a third of its jobs with Springfield residents and natives. The company would not disclose entry-level wages, other than to say they are competitive and above minimum wage and the average annual salary will be $40,000.

The median household income in Springfield is nearly $36,000; statewide, it’s $71,000.

The MGM Springfield resort and casino, under construction on Main Street, is due to open in late summer — in a city with a 6.6 percent jobless rate.
The MGM Springfield resort and casino, under construction on Main Street, is due to open in late summer — in a city with a 6.6 percent jobless rate.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The company stresses its commitment to moving people up the career ladder, but service workers such as waiters and housekeepers typically don’t have much room to advance, said Tom Juravich, interim director of the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. That makes for a less reliable form of economic development.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“What I worry about is the large number of people who will be in low-wage jobs that really won’t go anywhere,” Juravich said. “This is not like bringing Amazon to town, or even traditional manufacturing or health care, because those jobs all have a much higher predominance of middle-wage and high-wage positions.”

Thuy Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, lived in Springfield until her parents lost their manufacturing jobs and moved to Maine. Nguyen, 26, came back to the city for college and turned an unpaid MGM internship into a job as a campaign organizer in 2013, when the resort was trying to woo voters in a city referendum. After stints at MGM resorts in Las Vegas and Maryland, Nguyen returned to Springfield last fall to work in employee relations.

Advertisement

Initially, she said, “My parents thought I was crazy to run back to Springfield, where they know there aren’t any jobs.”

Now, “they’re very proud.”

So far, however, even in a city with a 6.6 percent unemployment rate — well above the state rate of 4 percent — the gaming school is only at half capacity for dealer jobs, which pay around $45,000 a year, mostly from tips, in line with the national average. The school’s director speculates that the novelty of the industry in the area is holding people back. Math anxiety and mandatory background checks could also be roadblocks. And training isn’t cheap — $400 for a six-week roulette class — although everyone who completes two courses gets an audition for an MGM job, and those who are hired get reimbursed.

But the casino company is determined to breathe life into a city that has been ravaged by a decades-long decline in manufacturing and a tornado in 2011.

A blackjack manual in a window overlooking downtown Springfield.
A blackjack manual in a window overlooking downtown Springfield.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

“We’re looking for a renaissance,” said MGM Springfield president Michael Mathis.

On a recent day at the Massachusetts Casino Career Training Institute gaming school, on the ninth floor of MGM Springfield’s administrative offices, chips clinked and automatic card shufflers whirred as a few dozen students learned the ins and outs of blackjack. The students, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, all dressed in white shirts and black pants, took turns dealing while instructors leaned in to show them how to stack chips and where to put their hands to avoid suspicion.

A dealer drew an ace and a 10 of clubs for himself — blackjack — and raked in the bets from his fellow students.

“When you lose, the house is happy,” said Raymond Caporale, a retired phone company worker with a cane hooked over the table. Caporale, a 71-year-old Springfield native who likes to bet on horses, had always wanted to work in a casino. His daughter, a MassMutual employee, is also interested in a job.

“I have a knee issue,” he said. “But . . . you can just put that aside, take a couple of Tylenol, and we’re all set to go.”

Diane Garvey, who was recently laid off from a sales job, thought her background might help her become a dealer. “I have the gift of gab,” she said.

Diane Garvey worked at her game.
Diane Garvey worked at her game.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The gaming school is a collaboration between Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College, which are part of a statewide consortium that was formed after the state authorized gambling in 2011. MGM, which is providing the instructors and the gaming equipment, is looking to hire 450 table games dealers — for mini baccarat, roulette, craps, blackjack, and carnival games — and 100 poker dealers.

Instructor Angel Rivera, 45, a Holyoke native, will be a floor supervisor once the casino opens. After several decades as a dealer in Atlantic City and at Mohegan Sun, he has mastered the fine art of entertaining guests while dealing cards. Rivera had been working in security for Springfield Public Schools, but when MGM announced it was vying for a casino, he jumped at the chance to get back in the game.

“Even when there was nothing here, they had my resume,” he said.

Getting to know the local workforce is key, said Wanda Smith-Gispert, regional vice president of talent and workforce development for MGM. The best loss-prevention specialists, she has found, often have a background at Marshalls, the discount department store. Bank tellers make excellent cage cashiers, the employees who cash in players’ chips.

When Smith-Gispert saw the math scores of Springfield students, she met with the state’s education secretary to talk about how to better prepare potential employees. To make up for a shortage of culinary professionals in the region, MGM gave Holyoke Community College $500,000 to expand its cooking school, now named the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute. MGM also asked Cambridge College, which has a branch in Springfield, to teach its hospitality students the art of “luxury guest service” — saying, “It’s my pleasure,” instead of “You’re welcome,” for instance — and to drill students on the top 10 questions tourists ask in Springfield, including where to buy souvenirs and go leaf-peeping.

To open up jobs to even more people, MGM appealed to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to change a state law that previously barred many former offenders from casino jobs. As a result, 800 of the MGM Springfield spots, including housekeepers, cooks, and front desk clerks, have been exempted from that restriction.

MGM has also partnered with local agencies to secure scholarships for residents who can’t afford training. With help from organizations such as New England Farm Workers’ Council, which assists low-income residents from all walks of life, Yoly Carrasquillo was able to attend security and hospitality classes, and soon, the gaming school. The 25-year-old Holyoke resident, a former home health aide who lives in subsidized housing with her two children, has her sights set on a management role at MGM. For the first time, she can see a career path.

“It’s a great opportunity for us single mothers,” she said, noting the resort’s on-site day care. “On break time we could run across the street and give our kids a few kisses.”