By Greg Reibman
Every business faces its own unique challenges.
And then there are those more universal problems that keep lots of employers up at night.
Across Greater Boston’s inner western suburbs, the most common challenges can be summed up in three words: traffic, transportation and talent.
That’s according to the chamber’s annual survey, where three out of four respondents told us road congestion and inadequate public transportation would be the biggest impediments to their business success heading into the new decade; followed closely behind by the ability to attract, retain and pay talent.
These problems, of course, are joined at the hip. Luring workers here from Boston, Cambridge or communities west and south of us is challenged by traffic, inadequate public transportation and the region’s housing shortage.
“I can't emphasize enough how important a ‘competitive’ commute is to us attracting and retaining top talent,” wrote the owner of a large Newton-based life sciences company. “We are losing talent now to people taking the commuter rail and the T into South Boston and the Seaport and Cambridge. If you are serious about building pharma and biotech in the Newton-Needham area you must fix this.”
“Public transportation, parking, traffic and environmental issues are all dire concerns and inextricably linked,” added an employee at a local college. “When are we going to match chatter with actual solutions and action -- and not just proposed ten-year plans?”
The results of the chamber’s email survey, conducted in late October and early November of 2019, compared to a year ago, demonstrated growing anxiety when it comes to local businesses’ external challenges.
One year ago, 60 percent of respondents told us they were worried about their ability to fill everything from high-salary tech and life sciences jobs to hourly workers for hotels and restaurants. Twelve months later, 68 percent of our respondents listed workforce as a top impediment to their success.
And like the volume of single occupancy vehicles, ride share drivers and online shopping delivery trucks, anxiety over traffic keeps growing.
In the last five years, the Boston Metro region has added 300,00 cars and trucks, the Boston Globe reported recently. Meanwhile, the metro area has added nearly 110,000 residents and 148,000 new jobs but only permitted 32,500 new housing units over the last decade, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council reports.
Add that all up and it’s easy to see not only why our roads are so clogged but how the lack of housing close to public transit and jobs is making it so hard for employers to lure workers to our inner suburban communities.
Sure enough, one year ago, 61 percent of our survey respondents told us moving around the region would be an impediment to their success heading into 2019.
Now, 71 percent of respondents say traffic and transportation will have a negative impact on their ability to be successful entering 2020.
Other leading concerns in our survey were either connected to attracting and retaining workers (namely “wages,” “health insurance costs” and “education and workforce training) or related to moving around (“parking” “streets and sidewalk conditions”).
“Our biggest challenge is finding good workers and keeping them,” said the owner of a landscaping business. “The labor rates continue to climb every year and as we continue to pay higher hourly rates in order to retain the help, it becomes more challenging to make the profit margins we would like to.”
“I can't emphasize enough the importance of affordable housing with reliable public transportation,” added the owner of a growing architecture firm.“Newton and Needham have the opportunity to capture a young and energetic population of trained professionals if local systems of housing and transportation can offer more and better alternatives.”
Also weighing heavily on the minds of just under half our respondents heading into an election year: “Uncertainty about federal policy” and general uncertainty about the economy.
“The thing that keeps me up at night is how long is this current cycle going to last? It is hard to balance keeping trained staff with uncertainty of a downturn.”