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Hire Anxiety

Employers Brace for a Possible Casino-fueled Talent Flight
Keith Makarowsky

Keith Makarowsky says that staffing is already tight, and he is concerned that it will only get tougher with a casino in the area.

When New York Times bestselling author Erma Bombeck wrote her book The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank in 1976, Vogue called it “the exposé to end all exposés — the truth about the suburbs.”

It offered humorous stories, based on real research, enlightening readers as to why so many long for what the Joneses have.

Today, the ‘grass is always greener’ attitude is one that’s being used by many employers with regard to the eventual arrival of a casino in Western Mass. and the likely response from many currently in the workforce. It’s a mindset they’ll be looking to prevent, or least keep under reasonable control.

That’s because the inevitability of a casino somewhere in the 413 area code — be it in Springfield, West Springfield, or Palmer — and the 2,000 to 3,000 jobs that will come with it, have many, both employed and unemployed, thinking and dreaming about a situation better than the one they’re in.

Keith Makarowsky, partner and owner of JT’s Sports Bar, Theodore’s, and Smith’s Billiards in downtown Springfield, which together employ close to 90 people, is one of the many concerned employers.

“I’m already having a hard time staffing,” he said. “And it’s only going to get worse — much worse.”

If U.S. Department of Labor statistics are any indicator, Makarowsky, whose businesses are located just a few blocks from the dueling Springfield casino proposals, may see talent flight from all three venues. In 2010, the commercial casino and gaming-equipment-manufacturing industry employed nearly 370,000 — more direct employees than the U.S. automobile industry. The thriving gaming-entertainment industry expects that number to rise to more than 470,000 over the next 10 years.

And those jobs come across a number of fields and professions. Most think about blackjack dealers, pit bosses, waitstaff in restaurants, and other hospitality-related positions, but there are also myriad money-handling and backroom operations that should have employers in the broad financial-services realm concerned.

“There will be many levels of educated professionals that will be needed, as well as a big customer-service element behind the scenes, and these people will come from the banks, the professional-service firms, and local hotels,” said Kristina Drzal Houghton, partner and director of Taxation Services at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Peter Rosskothen, owner and president of Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House, the Delaney House, and catering through Log Rolling and at Wyckoff Country Club, takes a generally positive approach to the situation while focusing on what he believes is the primary challenge for the region — supplying a trained, talented workforce for the casino without necessarily impacting existing employers.

“Of course I have fears, but I’m focusing on the positive side,” said Rosskothen, who manages a staff of 200. He believes there’s enough unemployment in this market to supply current and future workforce needs. “But we need to get them to a level that they’re hireable, and my biggest concern now is, how do we plan … how do I keep my good employees while the casino gets its good employees?”

This is, in many ways, the unofficial assignment for a recently established consortium called the Community College Casino Careers Training Institute. The unique initiative, developed by leaders at Holyoke Community College (HCC) and Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), is a collaboration among the Commonwealth’s community colleges, one that gives casino developers a single point of contact in the three different regions across the state where casinos will be constructed to help develop their workforce.

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen knows that educational programs that target skills for casino jobs will benefit many who are unemployed in the region.

While HCC and STCC currently offer programs in many of the professional skill sets casinos will require, neither offer dealer- and entertainment-related courses, which prompted the consortium to consult and contract with Atlantic Cape Community College in Atlantic City (more on this later).

For this issue and its focus on the casino era, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how an $800 million gaming facility, such as those being proposed for Western Mass., could and likely will impact the region’s employment situation, and also what employers can do to improve their odds of minimizing the impact on their businesses.

 

Sure Bet

The question of ‘if’ a casino is coming to Western Mass. has long since given way to other queries about ‘when’ and ‘where.’ And this inevitability has business owners thinking about many things, from opportunities to partner with the casino operator of choice (see related story, page 17) to what will happen with their current staff when the 800-pound gorilla sets up shop.

John Thomas, general manager of Max’s Tavern at the Basketball Hall of Fame, believes a casino — wherever it lands — will be a positive development for Springfield simply in terms of bringing more people into the area. “It’s more competition for us because we’re going to have a casino with restaurants, and it’s going to make me step up my game a little bit more.”

From a staffing standpoint, though, Thomas, who not only oversees Max’s Tavern, but catering for events in the MassMutual Room, at center court, and in the Hall concourse, believes retention will be an even greater challenge in his sector.

“A casino is definitely one of those things that could steal away a couple of my servers and chefs,” he said, “and I don’t want to have to hire new employees because it takes six months to train them, and turnover is not the best thing for guest services.”

If surveys by the American Gaming Assoc. (AGA) are to be believed, turnover may prove inevitable for local employers.

A 2007 AGA Survey of Attitudes of Casino Industry Employees by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc. found that more than 85% of the nation’s gaming employees find their job satisfying. Another 2007 AGA study with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the Gaming Industry Diversity Snapshot, found that participating casinos hired a greater percentage of black, Hispanic, and Asian workers than the U.S. workforce — overall, employing more minorities than the national workforce by 20.6%.

“I think small businesses might be the loser on that,” said Thomas, referring to local businesses that rely on a non-professional, minority workforce. “The grass looks greener at the casino.”

To retain his employees, Thomas told BusinessWest that his strategy is to treat them like guests. The Max Restaurant Group, he said, pays its employees well, covers half their health insurance, and holds frequent reviews. These steps have facilitated retention to the point where some of Thomas’s employees have been with Max’s for 10 years, and the majority for at least five years.

Rosskothen said he feels that he offers a fair wage and a pleasant, comfortable work environment to keep his staff satisfied with their jobs. “It’s the best shot I have at keeping them here,” he said, adding that all employers will have to sharpen their focus on retention strategies if they are to minimize the impact from a casino.

Houghton agreed.

“A casino is more than two years away,” she continued. “There is plenty of time for companies to access what their policies are and where their biggest areas of exposure are with their employees … because two years from now it’ll be too late, and the employees then are going to say, ‘too little, too late.’”

She said Meyers Brothers strives to be the proverbial ‘employer of choice’ with competitive pay, attractive perks, and flex hours, even during tax season. Despite all that, the company remains at risk of losing auditors and accountants to a casino, and its challenge moving forward is to minimize that risk while also perhaps trying to educate employees that the grass isn’t necessarily greener at a very large employer like a casino operator.

“I often hear that the honeymoon period does not last long,” she said. “And it’s probably a lot better to work for the local management companies than the bigger companies.”

 

Schools of Thought

While employers brace for the potential fallout from the onset of the casino era, area community colleges and workforce-related agencies are taking up the challenge of making sure this region has a large, talented workforce in place for not only the casino, but existing employers as well.

Holyoke Community College Presi-dent William Messner told BusinessWest that the consortium is an opportunity for the community colleges to demonstrate the ability to respond effectively, efficiently, and collaboratively to a significant statewide workforce need. To do so, they’ll need to cooperate with one another and with other workforce-related entities, such as the regional employment boards, FutureWorks, CareerPoint, and other agencies, all of which can play a role in meeting the opportunity and challenge of casino job placement.

Messner, who also leads the statewide Presidents Council of Massachusetts Community Colleges, and Ira Rubenzahl, president of STCC, convened the state’s community colleges, created three regions that will each host casinos (each with a lead college), and joined forces with the aforementioned workforce entities. The concept was met with enthusiasm from all those involved, said Messner, including the casino developers, who face the daunting task of filling 2,000 to 3,000 positions.

Rosskothen’s take on the consortium idea: “a brilliant concept.”

“We want people to look at this opportunity and say, ‘OK, I can work as a dealer, a receptionist, a housekeeping person, make good money, and make it a career,’” he said. “We need more of this in Western Mass.”

And it would appear the consortium is something gaming developers would like to see more of, too.

“My sense was that there is a varied pattern of experience from state to state, but as best as I could assess, no one had put together quite the same sort of organized effort that we are intending,” said Messner. “More often, it was a fairly disorganized effort with a variety of institutions and organizations sort of knocking on the door of the casino developer, leaving the developer trying to sort out who they were going to work with.”

Messner added that the final step included discussions with the Gaming Commission, which cautioned that the colleges could not be the exclusive parties working with developers, while expressing overall support for the concept.

Messner further explained that HCC programs in information technology, business, security, and hospitality could all be useful at a local casino, but gaming-related jobs that involve the gaming function and handling of money will require a great deal of scrutiny and a license from the state, so specific help was needed.

The consortium contracted with an institution that certainly knows the business of gambling: Atlantic Cape Community College in Atlantic City. In cooperation for more than 30 years with the gaming industry, its consulting services and tested curriculum have been used throughout the world, said Messner.

He added that some classes that provide employees with needed skills might be only a few weeks or a few months in length and at staggered hours, a schedule that should prove attractive to existing employers, many of whom will want to take advantage of additional training for employees as a retention tool when the casinos come knocking.

“I cannot send them to a one- or two-year kind of curriculum,” said Rosskothen, “but if they need to improve a specific skill, they’ll make money for my business and for themselves … it’s a win-win, and I keep them.”

 

Double or Nothing

Many area employers would be reluctant to use that phrase ‘win-win’ when it comes to a Western Mass. casino, especially when it comes to workforce issues and the prospects for a talent flight.

But with at least a few years to go before a casino opens its doors, there is the potential for a scenario in which, as Rosskothen suggests, casinos can have good help and area employers can retain theirs.

That is the job at hand — both literally and figuratively.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at taras@businesswest.com

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WGGB encourages readers to share their thoughts and engage in healthy dialogue about the issues. Comments containing personal attacks, profanity, offensive language or advertising will be removed. Please use the report comment function for any posts you feel should be reviewed. Thank you.
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