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To save money and better navigate increasingly complex workplace issues, three northern Berkshire communities plan to hire and share a human resources director.
With the state’s help, Adams, North Adams and Williamstown will soon develop a job description and start searching for an HR professional. This spring, the communities received a $100,000 grant to cover the first year of the person’s salary and benefits, plus related expenses. The grant was part of $1.6 million awarded in March by the Community Compact Cabinet Efficiency and Regionalization Grant Program, which promotes efficient and cost-effective municipal services.
Local officials say the grant reflects a tradition of regionalization in Berkshire County, where communities collaborate on veterans’ services, planning and development, public health, assessing, sewage treatment and solid waste disposal, among other needs.
“I think the challenges have gotten too significant to have us all continue to stand alone,” said Andrew Hogeland, a Select Board member in Williamstown. “We need to stand together and be more cooperative.”
Until now, the communities, with workforces hovering around 100 employees or fewer, had been able to manage without dedicated full-time HR professionals, said Adams Town Administrator Jay Green. More recently, though, they found that HR issues were monopolizing more of their time, and they felt uncomfortable handling some of the matters themselves.
“I think with recent developments, the constant flux of labor law changes, what happens in a municipal environment, and then particularly with the rapid impact in the labor force due to COVID, we realized that these issues really need somebody watching them,” Green said.
Green and Hogeland said they want someone to track HR trends, update policies to reflect new regulations, and oversee training to reflect evolving workplace expectations, to shield the communities from potential liability.
With the $100,000 grant, officials expect to spend about $89,000 to cover the first year’s salary ($65,000 plus health insurance and retirement), with the remainder covering a workstation and technology needs. The communities will fund the position’s second year themselves, and evaluate the arrangement after that. The percentage of each community’s share would correspond to population size, with North Adams assuming the largest portion (45%), and the other communities assuming roughly similar shares of the remainder.
Officials hope that an HR director will bring new ideas to address recruiting difficulties, a problem faced by municipalities throughout Massachusetts but made more challenging by the Berkshires’ remote location. They also hope that the shared process will lessen their chances of hiring employees away from each other, an ongoing issue faced by many communities.
Realizing that the municipal hiring crunch could hinder their effort to find an HR person, the communities secured grant language allowing them to engage an HR consulting firm if they’re unable to fill the position.
The officials also stressed the position’s importance for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Green said the HR director could help them identify any barriers to creating more diverse workforces, and adjust recruiting practices accordingly.
Hogeland also focused on the need for training to ensure that employees are respectful to each other and to the public.
“I think it is important for all the towns, particularly given the environment over the last several years, to make sure that they get the training on cultural competency and unconscious biases,” Hogeland said.
Though the position will have an expected breakdown of responsibilities, officials said they anticipate periods when one community needs more HR coverage, depending on situations such as collective bargaining issues, onboarding work or employee departures.
“Over time, we’ll figure out how it works,” Hogeland said, “and how to make it work.”