A panel of Massachusetts business leaders agreed Friday that the economic glass is more than half full, but expressed concern about long-term growth in the face of gaps in skills, innovation and business costs.
“My sense from most clients is that the economy is in better shape than it was. They tend to be experiencing some growth, though it’s not easy,” said Michael Sheehan, former Chairman of the Boston advertising firm Hill Holiday.
Sheehan made his comments during a panel discussion at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts Economic Outlook forum in Waltham. The discussion followed AIM President Richard Lord’s inaugural State of Massachusetts Business address.
Leslie Greis, director of machinery maker Kinefac Corporation in Worcester, said her business is “growing nicely” but added that manufacturing will “hit a wall” if it does not address the challenge of attracting enough skilled workers and generating the innovation it needs to remain competitive.
“We don’t have enough skilled workers now to meet the demand. In addition, we’re not attracting enough people into the industry and we have an aging workforce that will time out over the next few years. We have to address the employment issue if manufacturing is to move forward,” said Greis, who is a member of the AIM Board of Directors.
J.D. Sherman, Chief Operating Officer at inbound software maker Hubspot, said his company now employs more than 700 people in Cambridge and battles every day to attract engineers and developers in a competitive national market.
“There’s a competition for some of the higher skilled workers,” Sherman said.
“When people ask me what competitors I worry about, it’s not so much our business competitors, it’s about folks coming after the same engineers we’re trying to hire.”
Sherman said Hubspot, one of the fastest growing companies in Massachusetts, has invested heavily in its internal training capabilities as part of a strategy of hiring people directly out of college and bringing them up to speed once they get on the job. He acknowledged that technology companies in particular must keep young employees challenged and engaged in an industry in which workers may change jobs multiple times.
“The days of spending 15 years with one employer are largely gone…They have to be growing and learning all the time or they will not stick around.”
Sheehan, who was just named special advisor to new Boston Globe owner John Henry, believes that the burgeoning field of Big Data represents a growth opportunity for Massachusetts. The challenge of being able to distill predictions and forecasts from reams of data plays well to the educational and business strengths of the commonwealth, Sheehan said.
“Around the world there are millions of jobs available analyzing data - data analytics. Which means you need students studying statistics today. So if colleges could quadruple the size of their statistics departments they would be doing Massachusetts companies a big favor,” Sheehan said.
The three panelists are looking for different clients to the course of the economy in 2014. Sheehan believes that the result of the gubernatorial election in Massachusetts will be a key development, while Greis said she is hoping to see a sustained increase in employment at small businesses.
Sherman said he hopes to see the workforce participation rate stop shrinking.