As Massachusetts Gaming Law Awaits Voters, Plans For Developing Casino Workforce Continue

Casinos coming to Massachusetts are no sure thing. That is after last month’s ruling by the state’s highest court that allows a repeal question to go before voters in November. However, the behind-the-scenes work continues to develop a workforce for a Bay state casino industry.

Looking for work

About a year ago, shortly before Springfield voters approved MGM’s casino proposal, Michael Hill was among scores of residents attending a company-sponsored career workshop. Hill says he’d been recently laid off from a job with a local gun-manufacturer. And he was hoping for the fresh start the casino industry could offer him.

“There’s room for advancement, there’s growth, there’s great benefits, everything that you would want. It’s not just a job it’s a career. And you can travel within the job. It’s just a lot of open opportunities,” says Hill.

If the law survives repeal, the state Gaming Commission estimates about 30,000 people will need to be considered in order to fill 10,000 casino-related jobs statewide. MGM Springfield would need 3,000 mostly full-time workers. And that’s on top of an estimated 2,000 construction workers who would build the casino. Many believe this would be a huge spark for economic development in the area.

“The scale of this project is certainly not anything that we’ve had here in the region,” says Dave Cruise.

Calling all applicants

He directs the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County. His agency has developed a rough template to help MGM get the workers it needs for opening night and beyond. That plan includes recruiting and then assessing candidates.

“We’re not looking to screen people out here, we’re looking to screen in the right people and make certain that work in the casino is the appropriate career pathway for them as well.”

And then most importantly, Cruise says, comes the training. For that, the Employment Board partnered with Springfield Technical and Holyoke Community Colleges. About two thirds of the jobs in the casino would have nothing to do with gambling, like hospitality, food and retail. The rest, says STCC’s Bob LePage, would be careers entirely new to the state.

“Those would be slot technician jobs, dealer jobs, slot assistance jobs. Those would be surveillance jobs, counting room jobs, supervisors of those various areas jobs,” he says.

‘Perhaps a blackjack dealer is not the right career path’

LePage is directing a statewide coordination of community colleges and the casino industry. He says classes in the hospitality side started in June with 80 participants in Holyoke and Springfield. Gaming technician and surveillance training classes are slated to begin later this year. LePage says one challenge is helping people find the job that’s best for them.

“People will often say I want to be a blackjack dealer, and I’ll say to them. well you realize you’re going to have to stand six hours a day, you’re going to have to do some foundational math in your head very quickly, and you’re also going to be dealing with some people who are very excited that they were successful, and some people are not as excited. so you’re going to have to manage relationships. And then they will say “Well I don’t like math and I don’t like standing and I don’t like people”. And I’ll say well perhaps a blackjack dealer is not the right career path,” says LePage.

A shortage of skills

There are some major obstacles to getting on that career path. There’s a shortage of basic adult education courses that provide a GED, English language and other basic skills that individuals need to be successful in a casino training program. Bill Messner, president of Holyoke Community College, testified about this to the gaming commission last month.

“We’re finding, certainly in the west and my suspicion is in the other two regions as well, that simply providing training in specific areas for the casinos is not going to be sufficient if we want to reach those individuals who are most in need of jobs,” says Messner.

No gain for ex-offenders

Many of those most in need of jobs are ex-offenders. The gaming law prohibits anyone with a criminal record in the last ten years from working in a casino. Gaming Commissioner Bruce Stebbins says his colleagues have written the legislature asking to have those rules revised, particularly for those who would be working in non-sensitive positions.

“We’re hoping the Legislature will agree with us and make the changes to the statute, at least for gaming service employees, to allow us a little more flexibility to take individuals who might have had a criminal mishap in their past, but give them an opportunity to pursue career and get their life back on track,” says Stebbins.

Casinos or no casinos, training continues

Perhaps the largest obstacle in all this is the ballot question that could end up repealing the casino law entirely. But whatever the outcome of November’s vote, STCC’s Bob LePage says the training programs will continue because many of the job skills are transferable. He says employers across the region have consistently reported shortages of qualified applicants to hire. Shortages, he adds, that will not be going away anytime soon.

“Whether MGM comes or not, we know that we have a large portion of workers in this region who will retire in the next three to five years. So we have to be more prepared and pro-active to meet those employer needs,” says LePage.

Jobs were a key selling point when companies like MGM campaigned to win local referendums for their casino proposals. And they’ll once again be a visible part of the campaign this November, as Massachusetts voters decide what they want or don’t want in their economy.