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Biz Experts: Enjoy Boom, Be Ready for a Downturn

December 16, 2018
Mark Melnik, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute, gave a presentation at Thursday's Middlesex 3 Coalition event looking at the region s economic and employment outlook. SUN/RICK SOBEY

CHELMSFORD -- Despite prolonged economic growth in the region since the end of the Great Recession in the late 2000s, there are plenty of questions and concerns that area officials must address in the coming years to deal with a potential slowdown.

That was the message from business and economic experts during Middlesex 3 Coalition’s Economic and Employment Outlook panel discussion Thursday morning at DCU’s new headquarters in Chelmsford.

The panelists from area and state institutions focused on industry and workforce growth, along with the needs and opportunities in 2019 for the state and region.

“I’m more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than not,” said Scott Latham, a UMass Lowell associate professor who worked in the software industry, experiencing the highs and lows of the dot-com boom.

Thursday’s discussion was moderated by Judy Burke, executive director of Institutional Advancement at Middlesex Community College.

Mark Melnik, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute, gave a detailed presentation -- exploring workforce trends, economic growth and challenges.

He pointed to the recent success in the Middlesex 3 communities, particularly when it comes to the unemployment rate for the nine municipalities.

“You’re doing great as a region,” Melnik said of the eight communities under 3 percent for their unemployment rates, as of October.

Lowell is around 3.5 percent, which he said is not surprising for a Gateway City, compared to the others in the Middlesex 3 region -- Billerica, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Tyngsboro, Westford, Burlington, Bedford and Lexington.

Economic growth in the state and region has been spurred by cutting-edge industries, research and development, an educated workforce and foreign-born labor, Melnik added. That international migration into Massachusetts has been key, he stressed.

However, there are numerous issues and questions for the state and region in the coming years, he said.

hose include housing costs, an aging population, attracting and retaining young workers, investing in public education, infrastructure, uncertainty with federal policy, and the geographic and social equity of economic opportunities.

Melnik highlighted the housing shortage in the state, stressing the need to increase housing production in order to attract young workers. He also addressed the high price of real estate in the state.

″(Boston Celtics star player) Kyrie Irving sold his house in Cleveland for the price I bought my house in Natick ... I don’t make $18 million a year,” Melnik said.

With the state’s aging population, a chief concern is where will local companies find labor, he added.

Companies looking to relocate here are all concerned about the talent pool, said Peter Milano, senior business development director for the Massachusetts Office of Business Development.

Many students leave the state, he said, emphasizing the urgency to have more training and apprenticeship programs to keep talent here.

“Companies are willing to come here if they find the labor,” Milano said. “They’re not coming here because of the climate and the traffic.”

There are job opportunities in a multitude of industries in Middlesex 3 -- including in health care, manufacturing and software development, according to officials.

Some people may be concerned about automation, but no one should worry about a robot taking their job, Latham said.

“As a university, our focus is getting kids out there, and getting their hands dirty,” he said.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.

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