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Too prosperous, Massachusetts is losing its labor force

(Page 2 of 2)

The clamor for affordable housing bumps up against resistance from communities closer to Boston that fear the impact of low-cost housing on existing home values or from more distant suburbs worried about a flood of new children in their school systems.

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"One of the biggest things people are worried about is the value of their home," says Mr. Francese. But when residents say "not in my backyard" to new housing – particularly high-density or affordable units – they are shooting themselves in the foot, he says. "If the labor force keeps shrinking ... your house is going to be worth less in the future."

It's an argument that affordable housing advocates here are trying to make. Joe Kriesberg of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations says his group works through local community developers to build or preserve more than 1,000 housing units annually.

"One of the things our members do is organize the people who are often not heard from – lower-income people, tenants, people who are new to the community – whereas long-standing homeowners are often reluctant to see new development going on," says Mr. Kriesberg.

The demand for affordable housing is so great that buyers such as Tracy Moore are chosen by lottery. She and her daughter moved into a new three-bedroom home in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood for only $151,500, with a salary under $33,000. "The way that the house costs are right now, there's no [other] way," says Ms. Moore.

Other groups are working to attract businesses to less expensive parts of the state. "The big issue for companies [outside Boston] is what I call critical mass," says Patrick Larkin, deputy director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. "There's a certain isolation, and they feel a lot better if they have support, infrastructure, investment" – some of the things that governments can help provide.

One high-tech company that set up shop last year in the western part of the state is Vaupell, an industrial plastics firm. The company is happy with its location in Agawam, next to the blue-collar city of Springfield, says Mark Evans, chief operating officer at Vaupell. Rent is half the price of locations closer to Boston. And the company had no trouble attracting engineers, as they are part of a highly mobile workforce.

Massachusetts, generally, does a good job of poaching these transient, highly educated workers from competitor states, according to a 2003 report, "MASS.migration."

The real problem for Mr. Evans is finding highly skilled tradesmen such as machinists and toolmakers. It's a line of work that doesn't call for a college degree, but two to four years at a trade school.

The state should put more focus on such training, experts say. Increasingly, the report found, men with limited education have stopped looking for work as employers say these workers don't have the skills they need.

"There's a generation gap. People are not going to school for the trades," says Evans. Employers everywhere are feeling the void, he says. "I'm looking for 18-year-olds who want to get into a career, and who want to learn the business from people that we have."