[Podcast] Local Innovators in Action: Volume 1- Getting to Regional Operations: 3 Areas, 3 Strategies that Worked | Maher & Maher
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Local Innovators in Action: Volume 1- Getting to Regional Operations: 3 Areas, 3 Strategies that Worked

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In this 30-minute episode (the first in a 2-part series), host Rick Maher is joined by three “innovators in action” -- Judy Emery from the Colorado Urban Workforce Alliance, Bruce Ferguson from CareerSource Northeast Florida, and Jacob Maas of West Michigan Works. Discover how each guest took a different but effective path to working in regional partnerships.

Episode Guest List:

Judy EmeryMs. Judy Emery directs the Colorado Urban Workforce Alliance (CUWA), a multi-regional collaborative working with eight workforce Directors/Regions on cross regional workforce efforts and industry focused initiatives.

At CUWA, Ms. Emery assists in aligning business services across the workforce regions and supports and promotes the development of career pathways and industry focused strategies.

Connect with Ms. Emery on LinkedIn.


Bruce FergusonMr. Bruce Ferguson is the CEO at CareerSource Northeast Florida and has more than 24 years of experience in workforce development. Currently, Mr. Ferguson leads a workforce system consisting of eight Career Centers within a six-county region of Northeast Florida.

Mr. Ferguson is involved with economic development entities and Chambers of Commerce in Northeast Florida, where he acts as a catalyst to form strong relationships among these partners. He also recently served as a consultant for the US Department of Labor as part of their Driving Transformation Summits in Seattle, Baltimore, and Chicago.

Connect with Mr. Ferguson on LinkedIn.


Jacob MaasMr. Jacob Maas is the CEO at West Michigan Works!, which serves employment and training programs in Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, and Ottawa counties. West Michigan Works!, in partnership with employers, educators, economic developers and community organizations, works to identify the region's talent needs and provides resources to prepare job seekers for in-demand jobs.

In this position, Mr. Maas is responsible for oversight of 25+ million dollars of Federal, state, local, and foundation program funds providing both direct and contracted services.

Connect with Mr. Maas on LinkedIn.


Full Transcript of this episode:

Introduction:     Welcome to Talent Talks. Each month, human resources veteran Rick Maher, welcomes America's thought leaders to discuss ways to reinvent America's talent development and education systems. Tune in and discover how we can drive global competitiveness for future generations. Talent Talks is presented by Maher & Maher and IMPAQ International who, together, are delivering research and evidence-based solutions to workforce challenges. And now, your host, Rich Maher.

Rick Maher:        Well, thanks for joining us today on Talent Talks as we explore the world of talent development with our nation's most prominent thought leaders on workforce and educational issues. Today's podcast represents a turn from our previous sessions because today we're going to hear from people who are working, like I say, where the rubber meets the road at the local and regional levels. I really felt like we needed to hear from folks who execute on policy, from the folks who actually turned policy to practical applications, and I'm just thrilled that we've been able to attract three leaders from diverse geographies to do just that. I'll call them innovators in action because they're not just talking about the future of workforce like people like me. They're actually doing it. So, welcome today's workforce innovators in action panel.

Rick Maher:        Joining me today are Judy Emery. She's the director of Colorado Urban Workforce Alliance, a 10 county regional collaborative in Colorado. We've also got Bruce Ferguson, CEO, CareerSource Northeast Florida. Again, a six county area around Jacksonville. And, Mr. Jacob Maas, chief executive officer at West Michigan Works, a seven county region in Michigan. Folks, thank you for joining us today on Talent Talks.

Rick Maher:        You know, we've got a lot of turf to cover today and I want to be sure to get you all involved so we can learn from each of your experiences. So, I'm going to dive right in, but now I think we all have gotten to a point, I think, where we supposedly understand what it means to operate regionally and what we're supposed to be doing. Regional operations working to develop talent pipelines to fuel the needs of growth industries, sector based approaches led by industry, and focused on creating opportunities for all job seekers, but also on targeted populations resulting in pathways and family sustaining careers. So, long sentence, but that's the essence of what we're being called to do. And, I think most people get that, right? It sounds so simple.

Rick Maher:        But, I think the reality is that everybody isn't yet doing it. We haven't gotten there across all areas in the country. My point is I think everybody by now knows what they should be doing, but a lot of us need to get better ideas about how to do it. And, that's my purpose for gathering you guys today. So, let me start with, if you will, working regionally. Each of you work across multiple counties and workforce development boards between five and ten of them, I think. You've all had different approaches to getting there, which I find so interesting. If we can, can you tell us quickly about your region and, if you will, how you were able to get folks working collaboratively across your labor market region. Starting with Judy. Judy, you and Colorado have an interesting approach, I think. Maybe a little bit different one than some have used. Can you briefly tell us about what you're doing in Colorado?

Judy Emery:        Sure, thanks. And, I really feel pretty honored to be part of this panel, and also to be representing Colorado. So, thank you. So, I represent what's called the Colorado Urban Workforce Alliance. And, basically, it is an alliance that has been going since, I don't know if folks remember Wired, when that all started. But, it's been going for over 15 years now. It started with five or six local workforce areas, and now we have 10 active local workforce development boards and their directors involved in what I'm going to start calling CUWA.

Judy Emery:        So, our vision for CUWA, and it's visited every year, it's a collaborative regional partnership. It's organized as one strategic unified voice to basically influence, advocate, and innovate with the dedication to the relevance and future of workforce development. So, let me break that down. So, like I said, CUWA's been around for a number of years and it's grown quite a bit, and we have a solid 10 local workforce development boards, which actually makes up 15 counties in the state.

Rick Maher:        Wow.

Judy Emery:        And, for people who understand Colorado, think of the map in front of you. And, we have the Front Range, which is, we have the Rocky Mountains, and to the east of the Front Range is basically all of the metro areas and urban areas. And then, the rest of the state, the balance of the state is rural. And, what CUWA represents is up and down the Front Range, as well as Mesa County, which is Grand Junction because it is also an urban region. And so, these represent probably 75 percent of the economics or businesses in the state. We are driven by regionalism, data, we're data driven. We're all about alignment of services, sectors, and everything that Rick had talked about. We're all about economics and labor market shed.

Judy Emery:        CUWA was validated actually when WIA actually came into effect. When the governor was to appoint regional areas based on economics and the economic shed within a local area. And, CUWA represented the Front Range, and so it almost validated what we've been doing for a number of years. So, what the directors do is they pay dues each year. They fund this position, my position, and this position basically represents the director's voices for many, many statewide initiatives and regional initiatives. We revisit goals each year.

Judy Emery:        But, I think what we talked about earlier is the unique thing about this is every workforce development board is still intact and still has their goals and objectives that they're trying to implement to meet the economics and the industry's needs. But, right now I am the only staff. And, the way it works is because we pick, as a local area, or as a CUWA area, what are the things that we want to align, what are the regional activities, the sector activities. The things that we want to implement that meets business and industry needs, as well as our job seeker needs. And so, the directors basically assign staff from the local areas who are passionate about whatever that initiative is, and they become part of the team. And it works. And it works because, as I said, people are passionate and we know what we're charged to do and what we hopefully deliver in the way of outcomes. So, that's CUWA in a nutshell.

Rick Maher:        Yeah. And Judy, the thing that I think our listeners, to me, I want them to take away from what you're doing in Colorado is, I mean, here's a regional collaborative in the true sense of the word. No boards have been collapsed, no mergers have occurred. You are a singular staff. You coordinate the activities and each of the board's endorse what you do, you have input to what you do. And, importantly, your work is staffed by actual members, people from each of the workforce board areas. So, they're collaborating by giving you their resources, their dues, and their people to get the work done. So, a very different approach that I wanted our listeners to hear. I mean, it's a soft approach, a soft hand. It doesn't threaten anyone's turf. Yet, it is really working for you in Colorado and it's a different approach than what I've seen a lot of other folks do. So, I wanted to make sure that point came across and I thank you for that introduction.

Rick Maher:        Let me turn to Bruce now. And Bruce, I've known you for years and worked with you plenty, and in the Jacksonville area you've really been able to get a tight regional mindset, I think, working down there. Contrast it, or tell us a little bit about it. How's it different than what Judy's doing in Colorado?

Bruce Ferguson: So in our case, Rick, it's not as broad, it's not as large, although we are a six county region here around Jacksonville. We actually started this back in the late 1990s, around 97, when actually two private industry councils were merged. But, it was done in an amicable way, kind of getting ahead of the Workforce Innovation Act that now seems like the distant past.

Rick Maher:        Right.

Bruce Ferguson: But, there was a lot of concern at that time that big Jacksonville would kind of run the region, if you would. So, by balancing your board membership and those sorts of things, we're able to overcome some of those fears from the smaller counties "being concerned about being dictated to." But, that never occurred over the years. A great deal of trust is developed and has remained. So, everybody gets their fair share of services and that sort of thing.

Bruce Ferguson: And from that, kind of simultaneously through the years, our economic development entities for each of the six counties grew into what is now known as the JAXUSA partnership. And, it's a seven county, it's actually one that's outside of our workforce area, but a seven county economic development collaborative. And so, we early on in WIA said business is our customer and really started focusing on the targeted industries that are economic developers had said, look, these are the industries that are ripe for growth, this is our strengths of the region.

Bruce Ferguson: And so, we began, at the workforce level, steering our dollars and the most of our services for training toward those targeted industries. And, it's been great for us because it keeps us focused. And, we create win, win, win for the industries, for the workers going into those industries. And, even now, we've got a transportation collaborative that involves all these six counties. So, this regionalism idea has really become part of our DNA in this part of the state. It's expected. As new leaders come into different organizations, there's an expectation that we think and act regionally. And, it's just been a huge benefit for our entire region.

Rick Maher:        Yeah. And that's interesting. And, again, the keynotes here for our listeners, not only did you guys predate Wired, you predated WIA, right?

Bruce Ferguson: In that case we did.

Rick Maher:        Yeah. And that also, I love the fact that you say it's in your DNA, and maybe because you've been able to create such a strong bond with economic development, you become really data driven and strategically aligned, and you're doing great work in Jacksonville as Judy is in Colorado. But, interesting for our listeners, entirely different ways of getting there, different timelines, but the outcomes are producing the kinds of things you need. And, with that, thanks Bruce for that. Let's head up to Michigan Works. And Jacob, tell us a bit about your region and how you got to a point where you're working regionally, across so many different areas.

Jacob Maas:       Sure. First, thanks Rick for having me on today. I truly appreciate the honor. Our story's very similar to Bruce's. Prior to the merger we worked with consultants and key stakeholders across our region at several different options. One of them which being a merger. We had some intense discussion on strengths and weaknesses and really took a deep dive look at data. We use the term up here, mission driven, but data directed-

Rick Maher:        Cool.

Jacob Maas:       ... and so looking at the American Community Survey and commuter data across our counties, we could clearly see why it made sense to be together as a region. Our largest county has a population of about 600,000. And, three quarters of that population live and work in that county. Whereas some of our smaller, more rural counties of about 60,000 in population, about a third of them might live and work in that county, but are commuting to one of our other counties, making up more than 60 percent of the labor force being within our region. And, understanding much like what Bruce talked about that we are demand driven system and employers are our primary customer. Then why not design a region around where the employers are pulling that labor force from, so that we can better serve them.

Jacob Maas:       So, we've been merged together for about three and a half years now, and certainly have seen some pretty impactful benefits. The first one being really cost savings and greater financial flexibility. We're now able to use the funds within the region across multiple boundaries to best address the needs of our region. Sometimes there's a greater need in our rural counties that are really struggling with transportation and other supports. And, other times it might be in our urban areas where we might have an employer that the ends up leaving or downsizing that truly impacts that region.

Jacob Maas:       And then, we also are able to flex staff time across boundaries that we weren't able to prior to the merger. And then, we're able to identify the best structure to save money by looking at salary alignment, staffing patterns, really the economy of scale for purchases, contracts, vendor's licenses. We joked that we're the Walmart of workforce development now. We run around eight and a half percent of our funding covering administrative costs. So, we've really seen the administrative benefits that those funds are going back into the communities who are investing more money in training than we did prior to the merger.

Jacob Maas:       The other thing that we realized was that consistent service delivery. It's confusing for some of our employers why we had different policies, procedures, practices. Why one employer might have had five different contacts for different boards that they were working, or organizations running workforce investment and boards. So, really making it easy for them and identifying the trainings that were highest in demand and in most need. So, that was another huge benefit.

Jacob Maas:       And then, having a more impactful workforce development board. We're the second largest workforce development board based on population now for our state and our second largest based on funding. So, there's some real influence that comes with that, and the ability to affect policy at local, state, and federal levels. And, we're able to do all of it recognizing the strengths of each of our organizations, and without laying off staff. So, our C-suite, we really treated this as a merger, not as a acquisition. That our chief operating officer came from another organization, our chief financial officer came from another organization, and were able to blend the key management across the region too as well. So, we've some real positive strengths as a result, much like Bruce has seen.

Rick Maher:        Yeah. And, you know what? Again, here we have Judy who's done it by really, I don't want to say herding cats, but that sounds like what it is. In other words, getting 10 boards together to come up with a common vision and a common desire to act together without changing anybody's organizational structure. Bruce, it kind of evolved naturally through probably great leadership regionally, but without the force of law, prior to any of these laws being written frankly. And then, you guys who did it by a merger of a number of boards, but very keenly did it in a voluntary way by coming together and figuring it on your own, not being imposed per se, and without anybody losing a job. So again, three different approaches, each of them effective. And, it's just so interesting to me to hear how you guys have figured this out. But yet, you've all found different paths to get there.

Rick Maher:        And, I guess the lesson here is no one size fits all solution exists, right? But yet, in my experience, there's still many areas who are not working as effectively regionally as you guys are. Some of whom feel restrained, frankly, by a lack of resources and sometimes a lack of an ability to get started. And, sometimes because their boards don't get it, or local elected officials worry about loss of control, or a negative impact on performance measures. As each of you kind of went down this path and started this journey, did you experience any of those kinds of fear responses that were holding you back? And if so, just really briefly, I'd love to hear whether those kinds of things popped up for you, or everything was just so easy and it was a snap for you. Why don't we turn it around and Jacob, we'll start with you and then go to Bruce and Judy.

Jacob Maas:       Sure. There were several concerns that our local elected officials were worried about when having these conversations. Some of the biggest were liability. Who's going to be responsible if there is disallowed cost with being such a large organization. Some of the smaller, more rural counties we're worried about if it's a large disallowed costs, it could eat up some of their own operations budget, which is very limited and they just couldn't afford it. So, that they really had to come up with what's a good structure for them, who's responsible for it, and it really just comes down to good governance and creating a good governance model.

Jacob Maas:       Funding too. There is this fear that you're giving up control, much like Bruce talked about. Within our region there was always the 900 pound gorilla, whether it be a county or a city that everyone was afraid of and losing some of their local funding and the local impact in the community. There were some concerns around the director employment. Some of the county administrators were working with other other programs and there was some bad leadership. Whether it was your airport authority, or the community mental health provider. They all have situations and scenarios where where the director employment wasn't good. And so, they created a structure around some super majority as it relates to employing and separation of the director. And then, bylaws. They wanted some protections around the bylaws that the new organization or entity couldn't really come in and just change a bunch of stuff. There was still that connection back to the local communities. Service center locations, was another concern. Prior to the merger-

Rick Maher:        All valid, by the way. These are all valid issues, right? Yup.

Jacob Maas:       Yeah, yeah. And they all had their experience, right? It might've been a perception or a misperception, but they were real situations and scenarios that made them bring these things to the table. And then, they were also concerned about membership too, as it relates to making sure the workforce development board was regional. That it was a true representation of the industries that are in demand. And, key partners were at the table as well. So, we have all of our community colleges and their presidents on the board. We have our economic development agencies on the board. So, they were really strategic about thinking about what it looks like moving forward.

Jacob Maas:       But, with each of those concerns that they had, they really worked on solutions too. And so, when you take a deep dive look at our governance model and our bylaws, they really address some of those key concerns that have come up in a way that it was strategic, in a way that we haven't had to change our bylaws or our governance. And, I haven't had to go back to the seven jurisdictions, actually there's eight because we have the city of Grand Rapids on our board too, to have an amendment to our ... and I hope to never have to do it again, honestly. Because there were 17 meetings and there were pre-meetings and there was a committee of the whole meetings and the pre-committee of the whole, so there was a lot of work around in answering some of those tough questions.

Rick Maher:        Yeah. Some of them, like you say, are real and some of them are perceived, but regardless, those become real to the stakeholders involved and there's no shortcuts. It's tough work. But, I think your message is, it can be done, particularly when you're working collaboratively together and where there's a commitment to not having someone win and someone lose, right? Where-

Jacob Maas:       Absolutely.

Rick Maher:        ... everybody's jobs are protected. And, I love that story. Alright, let's swing south to a warmer climate, and Bruce. Bruce, did you see any of those turf issues? I know that some of probably what happened down there even predates you.

Bruce Ferguson: I wouldn't say it's turf issues. Much like Jacob just said, Jacksonville is the economic hub of the six county region with a population of a little over 950,000 now. And, we have a county, a small county, Baker County, that has a population of about 20-something thousand. So, and very rural to very urban. And so, our region is really quite the mix of urban intercourse, city issues to suburbia, and then to rural migrant seasonal farm worker kind of things in parts of our county. So, the big thing for them was, is Jacksonville going to take this thing over and just run roughshod? And, that didn't happen. Strategically, as Jacob said, putting the right people on the board. So, you get the right kind of mix with representation from all the counties so that Jacksonville can't vote as a block and run the entire meeting or run the entire strategy. That never happened. But, we kind of structured it so that it couldn't anyway.

Rick Maher:        Right.

Bruce Ferguson: And then, over the years, the trust that has been developed, we also have an inner local agreement among all six counties that sets up our structure. So, they're all, I guess, they're jointly liable for any, as Jacob said, for any disallowed costs or that sort of thing. So, that kind of agreement also puts some structure in place and helped us a lot along the way. But, that regional DNA, I'll keep going back to that, that has evolved over the years is a huge benefit to making this whole thing work.

Rick Maher:        Yeah. And, it is trust, Bruce. And, I'd imagine it's like you're a testimony to it. There's no fixed a way to do it. It gets earned over time. And, I wish I had a dollar for every time we were involved in trying to form a region where there was a large metropolitan area like Jacksonville, and local elected officials were concerned about either trying to serve people outside my city, or in the contrast, how do I know if I work with Jacksonville, I don't get swallowed up. And, I love how you addressed it by organizationally structuring it in a way that it wasn't likely to happen, but also love your testimony to the fact that it just didn't happen anyway. And, so often that is the case, but that resistance, those perceptions, are difficult things to get over. And, you guys have done it well in JAX.

Bruce Ferguson: Well, the fact of the matter is, too, Jacksonville is the job center. There are vastly more people that commute out of the surrounding counties and to Duval County every day to go to work. So, the businesses know that even though you may be serving or training somebody in Clay County, there's a 70 percent chance they're coming into Jacksonville to execute those skills and help businesses grow. So, knowing those commuting patterns and knowing where your workforce is going from and to everyday kind of helps you bolster that argument. And, in some ways, if you look at it, Jacksonville is subsidizing, funding wise, some of the outlying area. But again, it's the job hub. So, data is critical in being able to show how your workforce moves, and why it's important to ensure we're getting all six counties in the mix.

Rick Maher:        Yeah, I'm somewhat famous for telling people data shall set you free. There's almost nothing any more valuable than a labor shed study to start to get people to think regionally instead of locally. And, that's a great point, Bruce. Worth underscoring for our listeners. Thanks for that. Judy, again, a completely different approach in Colorado than these other two, yet no less effective. In your approach, did you see these kinds of obstacles that we're talking about or were they less prominent for you?

Judy Emery:        So, I would be wrong to not say that people are always fearful of loss of control, local control. And so, there was that recognition, but what both folks had said is, we also use data. I mean, we showed through various reports what type of economic impact we could have, return on investment. Like Bruce said, we talked about commuting patterns, we looked at age bands, and what's the retirement age going on for this particular sector or industry? And, it just was obvious that we needed to work together. We didn't have to worry about loss of control. We didn't have to worry about loss of staff. They didn't lose their voice. Instead, what happened is, now it's a collective approach where we can better influence policy at the state level and work with our economic development partners, our chambers, and things like that to say, collectively, we're a lot more powerful, let's do this together. And so, it's just been a real powerful regional approach, but yet unique in that nobody lost their voice locally as well.

Rick Maher:        Yeah. And again, a totally different way to get there, but no less effective. And, that's what I love about the three of you. I mean, there is no one size fits all, and you got to deal with the local dynamics and find a way that works, and there are multiple ways that work. So, that's really interesting, and I think important for some folks that are still wrestling with some of these issues to hear. And, when it comes to working regionally, local conditions will dictate the right approach to collaborating across boards, partner organizations, and such. In simple terms, there's no singular way, or correct way, to do this. And, I love the fact that you guys shared it and I think it's important for our listeners to hear. So, thanks for sharing your personal experiences and your journey with folks here. Really important.

Rick Maher:        So, in part two of this series, I want to kind of shift our conversation and talk about sectors. Why they are important, and how each of you kind of got started with them. After all, the whole purpose of working regionally is to target our resources to the needs of the regional economy. And, we do that by focusing on targeted growth sectors that hold the promise to create family sustaining careers for folks, and those sectors that we think can compete and win in today's global economy.

Rick Maher:        To our listeners, thanks so much for joining our discussion today on Talent Talks. Remember at Talent Talks, we hope to explore, inform, and inspire you because we are all actors in a global war for talent. One where talent is seen as the new global currency and you are America's talent investment bankers. So, we hope we've given you inspiration to take a risk and to make a difference. We hope you will dare to try to be great, break something, make it better, try and fail, but for God's sakes, fail fast and try again. Thanks again for listening and please join us for part two of this discussion where we'll continue to share real world experiences with our guests, exploring how they got started with sectors, and the outstanding outcomes they've earned in their respective regions. We'll see you on part two. Have a great day.


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