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Zogics owner Paul LeBlanc shows Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Senate candidate Adam Hinds the new gym he is building for his staff.

Zogics To Senate President: Lack of Skilled Work Force Biggest Setback

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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For more than an hour on Friday LeBlanc spoke about his company with Rosenberg and Hinds.
LEE, Mass. — With the state of current technology, a company can basically operate from anywhere. So can employees.
The current workforce wants more out of life than traditional jobs. They want to find ways to combine their lifestyles with a career. That's the angle Paul LeBlanc has taken when building Zogics, an e-commerce company based out of a small office in Valley Industrial Park. 
"For me, it is all about lifestyle. Whether it is the company I've created, the location I've chosen to build the company or anything else. We are all faced with choices in life and if we are going to spend so much time working hard, and enjoying our surroundings why not do it in a place like this? Why not create a company that is fun and rewarding to be a part of. That's what we've tried to do here," LeBlanc told Senate President Stanley Rosenberg on Friday.
Zogics has become somewhat of a model for the Berkshires because of its perks. It is often characterized as a "millennial" company. LeBlanc offers his employees such benefits as $500 a year to attend cultural events, or pays the cost of any competitive event such as bicycle or running races. He is building a gym with a sauna, and subsidizes a community-supported agricultural membership for employees. 
While LeBlanc has crafted this more modern way to recruit and retain workers with those non-traditional benefits, most of his workers weren't born and raised in the Berkshires. Out of the staff of 15, he said just a couple have grown up here. Why don't more Berkshire residents jump on such an opportunity? Because they don't possess what he needs and he won't compromise on talent.
"The biggest challenge, as we know, is finding really high caliber talent. I believe I've done that here but we'd be twice as big if I could find twice as many," LeBlanc said. "That is our limiting factor."
He's got employees video chatting in from Nashville, Tenn., or Burlington, Vt. He's offered three months rent for them to move here because he believes the face-to-face interactions in the workplace are much more valuable. But, when that fails, it isn't really that hard to work remotely. 
"When we can find local talent, we're very excited and bring them on board. As you saw earlier, we are not going to limit ourselves to talent in the county or settle. What that means, when we are looking for a top notch e-commerce specialist, we will hire someone in Burlington, Vt. When we are looking for another sales specialists, we hired someone in Nashville, Tenn. I will post jobs in areas outside of the Berkshires and attempt to widen the net that I cast," LeBlanc said.
"We will try to get them here first. If they can't get here, then we will let them stay where they are. Fortunately, technology allows us to stay quite connected with those who are remote so it is not as challenging."
LeBlanc's workforce challenge isn't unique to the Berkshires; many companies have expressed the same struggle. Yet, there are still thousands of unemployed people in Berkshire County who simply do not have the right skills companies need.
"In a company like this, it is unforgiving. It is not like we can take an eager person and say, we can have you do something. It is I need an expert in a particular area and I need someone who has not only done it previously but has done it well," LeBlanc said.
A 2012 labor report showed Berkshire County has become a net importer of jobs because of a lack of qualified workforce — more and more people are living elsewhere and commuting to the Berkshires. Those living in the Berkshires tend to have a lower educational attainment than the state average. And, according to recent Berkshire Regional Planning Commission studies, the biggest group leaving the Berkshires is the young working population, specifically those who have obtained at least a bachelor's degree.
A 2015 survey of young workers in the Berkshires show that the No. 1 reason people leave is for higher paying jobs. 
"Whether the jobs are here or not, there is often a feeling they are not. So people leave for that reason," LeBlanc said.
BRPC's survey showed that those with lower educational attainment and who don't attend cultural and other events want to leave, but few actually do. Those with higher education and partaking in the social offerings of the county, are more likely to want to stay — but leave because they find better paying jobs elsewhere. LeBlanc's program to offer his workers $500 to attend cultural events helps retain his employees because they become more connected with the community. 
"Often times when I hear people who have left, they are often not the ones who are going out and taking advantage of all of these things. By having a program in place that kind of pushes them a little, one it makes them excited about working here because they get that benefit and two, it gets them more grounded with the community," LeBlanc said.
There seems to be a population bubble with those workers in the Berkshires, with many leaving right after college but then returning to the Berkshires in their 40s when they are looking to settle down and raise a family. The result is a large segment of experienced older workers and, on the other end, younger workers with fewer skills.
Rosenberg's visit was one in which he hoped to gain some insight on what the government can do to help match those up. There are jobs and people looking for work, but the two are not aligning in the Berkshires, Rosenberg said.
"One of the biggest challenges we face on the government side is trying to figure out how we help with this problem of not being able to meet labor market demands. We know we've got 100,000 people on any given day who have no job and 100,000 jobs sitting vacant. We have not been able, and I've served with several governors, and none of them in the executive control of agencies nor in the Legislature we've been able to figure out what government can do," Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg said the state has invested in plenty of education — leading Massachusetts overall to be one of the most educated states in the nation, a high per-capita income, and a great quality of life. But somehow, there is a still a misconnection when it comes to matching up the jobs and the workers.
"One of the things we mandated, which in 20 years still hasn't occurred once, is that the Department of Education should partner with the Secretary of Labor to do a labor market analysis to determine to the best of our ability, project forward 10 years, what kinds of jobs are going to be created, what number of jobs will we need, so we can align the training programs with what see as the potential for the labor market," Rosenberg said. 
Training programs aren't going to help companies like Zogics because the need is too immediate. But one thing government can do, according to LeBlanc, is increase the viability for companies like his by building out the needed infrastructure. He said a few years ago he issued a hiring freeze because his location didn't have access to broadband and he was running low on bandwidth. He didn't have the internet capacity to sustain another employee.
"The lack of broadband in areas here is incredibly crippling. It is getting to the point where it is as important as electricity and water. Companies are run on it. Families are connected by it. There are still large pockets in the county that don't have broadband access or basic cell phone coverage," LeBlanc said.
He spoke to Time Warner Cable about running a broadband line from the street, over the bridge, and to the industrial park and the cable company asked for $13,000 to do so — a number Rosenberg characterized as robbery. LeBlanc then rallied the other businesses together to show the cable company could make a profit with the line, but Time Warner still would not run it. After more than a year of trying to get the increased bandwidth, he finally went to state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli who helped them reached an agreement.
The line was eventually run, but not until he signed a three-year contract, and the Zogics was able to grow again. While businesses can be located anywhere, companies still need that access to internet. LeBlanc says there are so many places in the Berkshires that lack internet or even cell phone. 
In downtown Lenox, LeBlanc says Verizon has limited service. When the hundreds of New York City tourists visit, they will love the place, but would assume that the lack of access disallows any company from moving here — they don't know that there are "pockets" in the Berkshires with all of the infrastructure needed, LeBlanc said. Simply expanding cell phone and internet service would at least make it possible for businesses to consider moving to the Berkshires.
"Once I explored the Berkshires just a little bit I decided that if I could make a go of something here, start a business here, what a tremendous life I could have," LeBlanc said. "We get here and then try to figure out how to stay. People are falling in love with this place every single day. If we could somehow connect the desire to be here with the ability to be here, it changes everything. That ability comes back to infrastructure and people."
LeBlanc isn't a native and he says when his friends come to visit, they all say they would love to live here. But, the opportunities to do so just aren't here. 
"If you are looking for that exciting urban environment where you are going to go to nightclubs, you are never going to marry that person with this area. But, there is a growing segment of the population — there is a large segment of the population that wants more than a job in a high rise building and a nightclub. Whether it is outdoor activities, or agriculture, having chickens in your back yard, you can do that all here. If you can figure out that magic sauce to make a living out here, it is appealing to a lot of people," LeBlanc said.
While much of the millennial workforce has been characterized as lazy and entitled, LeBlanc has built a company out of his garage to doing some $10 million in business across the world because of his workers. These young workers have proven to be a massive asset in the e-commerce sphere and his recruitment and retainment programs, centered around offering a lifestyle and not just a job, has built his business. But he needs more.
"Being able to combine what we have here in the Berkshires with a career is tremendously appealing," LeBlanc said. "I'm surprised there aren't 100 little companies like ours popping up."

Tags: business event,   state officials,   workforce development,   

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