[Podcast] Local Innovators in Action: Volume 2- Getting Employers Engaged with Sectors: Strategies to Get Started and Show Results | Maher & Maher
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Local Innovators in Action: Volume 2- Getting Employers Engaged with Sectors: Strategies to Get Started and Show Results

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In this 25-minute episode (the second in a 2-part series), host Rick Maher is joined by local “innovators in action” -- Judy Emery from the Colorado Urban Workforce Alliance, Bruce Ferguson from CareerSource Northeast Florida, and Jacob Maas of West Michigan Works. Each guest shares sector-based strategies and reflects on their real-world experiences in engaging with employers and delivering meaningful results for those they serve. They also share advice for those who are just getting started and need to begin engaging with employers.

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:        Thanks for joining us again on Talent Talks as we explore the world of talent development with our nation's most prominent thought leaders on workforce and educational issues.

Rick Maher:        Today's podcast is part two of our discussion with our local innovators in action. Judy Emery from the Colorado Workforce Alliance, Bruce Ferguson from CareerSource Northeast Florida, and Jacob Maas of West Michigan Works! In part one, we talked about regionalism and how each of our guests took different paths to working effectively to creating regional partnerships. In part two, I want to turn our discussion to sector based strategies. How did each of them engage with employers and what kinds of outcomes did they deliver for the people they served? So, let's get right to it as we resume our discussion with Judy, Bruce, and Jacob.

Rick Maher:        So, each of you, I know, are dealing with sectors directly. It's one thing to say, "Okay, I'm going to read the data. I'm going to get my team together. We're going to decide which sectors to focus on." That's step one, and that's important, obviously, but it's another to actually then engage the employers in that sector, and have them willing and able to jump in and work with you. So, I want to ask you now, how did you start that engagement discussion and what advice do you have for others about, that maybe aren't quite as far along this continuum as you all are? What advice do you have for others who are starting out now, and need to figure out how to start with sectors and how to engage the employers in a growth targeted sector that we're working with.

Rick Maher:        This time I think we'll split up. We'll start with Bruce and then go over to Michigan and Colorado. So, go ahead Bruce. How did you start with business? How did you get them engaged?

Bruce Ferguson: So, I mean, the initial start in and of itself was really a board decision to say that the business community is our customer, which really turned our old model upside down. It made us look at the way we provide services through an entirely different lens. In order to do that, we thought, "Wow, how do we engage?" That's really what started our relationship with our economic development partners, you see?

Rick Maher:        Yeah.

Bruce Ferguson: These guys reach out to business day in and day out. They know what they're doing. So, that's where we went. It was difficult at first. We had not engaged that side of the equation as well as we should have in the past, but they warmed up to us. They understood what we were trying to do. Because they have focus in targeted industries, it helped us sharpen our focus and come up with the strategies and say, "Look, we have a finite amount of resources, so let's ensure that we're directing resources where our community partners are as well. If they're going after manufacturing, and logistics, and distribution, and allied healthcare, then that's the ripest area for growth and continued success. We need to focus our training dollars in those same areas."

Bruce Ferguson: So, that's how we got started and that partnership has evolved over the years. It's quite frankly, now, it's like we're joined at the hip. We're right there with our economic development partners when we're meeting with site consultants and new companies are exploring our region, and when they're to talk about labor force and training and how we can help the company be successful. You know, the ED partnership is really what drives our what we now call sectors. We didn't call it that initially, but that's what it's evolved into. It's been tremendous. Our biggest sector and our biggest successes to date is undoubtedly in the healthcare sector and it's got so many career pathways and I think we'll get that in a little bit. But being able to work with the hospitals, and the other allied healthcare providers in moving their pipeline, moving their current workforce up a notch or two with certifications, and then back-filling those positions that are left open with lesser skilled individuals, and just continuing that cycle has been tremendous for us.

Rick Maher:        And again, interesting, and again reminding the listener, you guys started this before we were talking about wired, before we were talking about demand-driven, right? So, you leveraged the business relationships with the echo they have had to help you get these conversations started. Very interesting. Not only do they know where their growth is and do they already have the relationship, they probably know within those industries, who are the individuals that are likely to be early adopters and drive in because they have those relationships. So, very interesting, Bruce.

Rick Maher:        We're going to kick it up to the cold area in Michigan. Jacob, how did you guys start out? I know that it was a different timing, but what were the lessons learned in reaching out and forming those employer relationships, engaging with employers for sectors work?

Jacob Maas:       Yeah. First it was really understanding what the data tells us, right? You know, Ricky talked a little bit about the importance and the value of data. So, we looked at what were those high demand, high growth occupations in the particular regions. We were working closely with our economic developers, much like Bruce had mentioned. We were very close, too, with our chambers and other employer associations across the region. And by doing that, we really created five key industries that we're working on. Advanced manufacturing, information technology, health sciences, construction, and the food processing talent council. Really, I would say these councils have, kind of, to put a high level perspective on it, short term strategies and then the long term strategies, because career awareness is just as important. Some of our schools are struggling with career counselors to student ratio. 700 students to one career counselor.

Jacob Maas:       The employer said, "Hey, look, we really need to do something and do something different." So, we started with talent tours. Just taking students out on site to some of our manufacturers to see that, look, manufacturing's not dead. It's not dirty, greasy, grimy. It's not your grandfather's shop like it used to be. You know, these plants are very clean. Good high paying jobs within these industries with a lot of growth potential. We realized it wasn't enough, you know, taking 60 students or 100 students. Then we kind of launched and worked with the manufacturing association and kind of pulled a playbook out of National Association of Manufacturer's Manufacturing Day. We turned into a week and a month in some cases because some of the schools weren't able to participate the week that we did it. But we have over 6,000 students now going out firsthand.

Rick Maher:        Wow.

Jacob Maas:       To see. We have these businesses sponsoring some of the transportation costs to get the students out there. So, really driving a systems change and letting students know that there are good paying jobs in their backyard. But yet, you know, the funny thing working with employers, they say, you know, "What are you going to do for us now?"

Rick Maher:        Right.

Jacob Maas:       Because they don't think it's enough. So, we got really the four key industries, construction, health careers, Michigan Health Career, the Construction Workforce Development Alliance, Discover Manufacturing and West Michigan Tech Talent. Together, we rent out the DeVos Convention Center, which is fairly large. Each industry has about a football size field to setup key occupations within their industry in a fun and engaging way. So, each year, we pull about 9,500 students into the DeVos Convention Center to see firsthand, and the response has been great. Students, there's about 80% of them, say that they were aware of an occupation that they didn't know existed before as a result of coming to the event. I think the 20% must have been in the bathroom the whole time, because I've walked around that venue many times and I'm like, "Wow, I didn't know that occupation was available in information technology or in manufacturing."

Jacob Maas:       So, one of my favorite stories is a student was in the healthcare quadrant. She was drawing blood. I say blood in parentheses, even though you can't see me, or air quotes. From a mannequin, so it was really like a simple syrup. As she began to draw the blood, she started to loose the color in her face as she started to faint. Strategically, for us, the EMT was positioned across the hall highlighting their ambulance and the services that they provide, so they quickly rushed over, caught her, put her in a wheelchair, and saved her from falling over. But we also saved her from going into a career path that wasn't a good fit for her, right?

Rick Maher:        Yeah, right. Yeah.

Jacob Maas:       So, we kind of joke about that, that, "Hey, look. Let me talk about healthcare administration or let's talk about all the jobs that at in IT or construction or manufacturing that might be a better fit for you. Maybe blood's not your thing." So, you know, that's just one example of the many things that have happened there. You know, another one is in the construction industry, they have live welding going on. So, they have live welding going on. So, they have individuals that are welding onsite and they're teaching the students how to weld. One of the students said, "It just reaffirmed that I want to be a welder when I grow up. My dad's a welder and I'm very proud of him and I want to be a welder like him."

Jacob Maas:       So, you know, those things are, I think they're important. They're important for the businesses to say, but more importantly, they're important for the students, as well. These events wouldn't have happened, I think we started three and a half, four years ago, without convening those employers, getting them together, and talking about some of their pain points as it related to talent. So, we've also seen success in our state as a result. The state allocated $400,000 statewide for activities such as MiCareerQuest and we've seen other boards launch it. I think there's six or seven and in the next year, we'll have about 10 of the 16. So, we're working on doing it statewide. We've worked with other states to help them, you know, come up with what a successful event looks like, and working with employers, how to get employers engaged, and how to raise funds. So, great opportunities.

Jacob Maas:       This is one of the ways that you can start with simply having these conversations with employers and helping to understand what some of their pain points are and how to get them active and engaged.

Rick Maher:        You know, and what I love about that tactic is you're not developing a long training solution and all. At the front end here, you're helping demonstrate for them that you can gather the demand size, the supply side, sorry, for them in a way that all of them need. I mean, they have talent pipeline issues, and when you start pushing 6,000, 9,000 kids into a pipeline where they have an opportunity to talk to them about a career, that's ... You know, you're talking about a big number and that's an interesting strategy to start that engagement and demonstrate your value to employers. Appreciate hearing about it, Jacob.

Rick Maher:        Judy, Colorado. How did you start the employer engagement process?

Judy Emery:        So, I think what was our unique way of building trust initially was a couple of our workforce boards, in fact a few of us were dealing, the industry was dealing with the whole healthcare shortage. So, you know, often times, industry sits on these boards and they go, "Well, what role do I play? How can I contribute? What value can I contribute?"

Rick Maher:        Yeah.

Judy Emery:        Well, by getting these couple workforce boards together, in fact, there were four across the local areas, they identified healthcare as a big issue. A couple of the HR people in these large hospital systems sat on these boards and said, "Why aren't we working together collectively?" It was that discussion that started our sector work years ago, where we had seven of the largest hospital systems represented on these workforce boards, and we were like, "Okay, collectively, we need to build the talent pipeline. How are we going to do it?"

Judy Emery:        And so, they identified we said we would focus on workforce issues, so everybody figured out what role they play. I mean, even our chambers came to the table and said, "Okay, we'll house the healthcare initiative and we'll contribute space, the meeting space, whatever."

Judy Emery:        The industry said, "Well, I'll give you some subject matter experts."

Judy Emery:        Workforce said, you know, "We'll supply the data. Here are the trends. Here are the in-demand occupations. Are we accurate?"

Judy Emery:        Industry would say, "Yep. That's our need."

Judy Emery:        We started trying to build the pipeline, but what was really probably most important is once we started doing that, and working with our training programs to revamp curriculum, and things like that, I mean everybody had a role. What we were able to do then is to show outcome. We were showing how many new people were getting into the talent pipeline. What type of training did they receive? Based on receiving this training, what's the cost benefit ratio? In other words, for every dollar spent on training in this targeted occupation, what are they now making when they're hired by these different industries in healthcare or these different businesses in healthcare, and what amount of money is going back into the community that's being spent on goods and services? That was enough to convince our industry to continue to move this forward.

Rick Maher:        Absolutely.

Judy Emery:        As a result, now we're doing things ... Data is huge. We're constantly showing return on investment of the amount of money spent and what's the return. About either the time that's given or the financial money that's given. We are constantly being able to give each partner feedback about how they contributed to the success of these sectors. So, now, we've actually got in one of our apprenticeships, which I love, is you've got the community training partner who revamped their curriculum for one of our targeted occupations, which is medical assistant. The revised their curriculum from a two-year to a nine month. They're looking at this apprenticeship. Workforce is doing all the recruitment and trying to screen for and get people into these apprenticeship programs. And together, workforce and the business is paying for the training.

Rick Maher:        That's awesome.

Judy Emery:        So, everybody now is contributing, and again, it's just been this evolution that just keeps evolving, but it's the data, the return on investment, the economic impact that keeps driving, I think, these sectors moving forward.

Rick Maher:        That's awesome.

Judy Emery:        Yeah.

Rick Maher:        And I think what I'm hearing from your experience here is you went to the industry with the most pain, healthcare, and pain is a major driver. It can press people to do things differently, like nothing else can, right? So, when that healthcare industry recognized they needed help, they were the great place for you to start and demonstrate success that I suppose now probably a lot of other people in that region have seen and that brings people to the table.

Rick Maher:        So, Jacob, following up on Judy's answer and her work with apprenticeship. I know you're all doing something, but specifically in West Michigan Works!, Jacob, you guys have taken the dive in with both feet. You've actually become the sponsor for apprenticeship programs in your area. Can you just give us a taste of what that's like and why you decided to do it?

Jacob Maas:       Sure. You know, we joke that we're the easy button for employers, but we all know that overall, there's a stigma that apprenticeships are just manufacturing and construction or maybe even only for the unions, but what we found is that's really just not the case. Any occupation can be an apprenticeship. Well, maybe not any occupation because there are accreditation standards, but a lot of occupations can be apprenticeships. Really, you're just flipping the model as to how the schools are providing the training. So, traditional route is someone becomes interested in training. They take out loans, grants et cetera, so they're compiling debt, and maybe even working independently, maybe retail or some other occupation while they're going to their school.

Jacob Maas:       But the way that we structured it is that you have two days on the job. You have an extra day for either working an additional day at the particular location or to focus on your schoolwork, and then your two days in the classroom, and in that training. So, we, you know, it's all the benefits of working with those industry councils.

Rick Maher:        Yeah.

Jacob Maas:       Working with them, we've successfully integrated US Department of Labor registered apprenticeship programs into our overall organizational strategy. Currently, in partnership with 42 employers.

Rick Maher:        Wow.

Jacob Maas:       We hold the standard for 17 programs and we have 112 apprentices actively enrolled.

Rick Maher:        Wow.

Jacob Maas:       So, there are many major benefits that can directly impact. We make it easy for employers. Again, the easy button. We have a great relationship with our local Department of Labor apprenticeship representative, who's been able to work with us, and help employers understand that process. And then, we're making sure that program's running smoothly then, right? We're making sure that the employers are doing what they said they'd do, the community colleges are doing what they said that they'd do, and the standards are being held to. We've seen a lot of great outcomes as a result, so I'd strongly encourage other boards to work closely with their Department of Labor, work closely with their state workforce development agency. We've had some very good successes result and employers are loving the outcomes.

Rick Maher:        That's awesome. Again, a real innovation where the board steps up and says, "Look, we're going to sponsor. We'll take the work off of your hands, employers, and give you a chance to see in an easy way how this can impact your talent pipeline with a provable, sustainable learning model." So, I wanted people to get that in. That's awesome. Thanks, Jacob.

Rick Maher:        So, guys, I mean, we could go on all day, right? I mean, I've got a million questions but I don't have a million hours. I need to move this to wrap it up today, unfortunately, because I'd like to keep you for a day or two, but I can't. So, I have a question for you. This is the way I'd like to wrap it up. If each of you were starting this journey over, if you could advise your younger selves, right, with the knowledge that you have now, and you wanted to start out and make an impact in a region, working regional through sectors in innovative ways. If you're advising your younger selves, what one, two, or three tips would you give yourself?

Rick Maher:        Judy, I'll go back to you and then Bruce and Jacob.

Judy Emery:        Thanks. My advice would be, in all caps, alignment. One thing that we did in Colorado is we undertook the alignment of our business services across the state. We used to talk to employers and we could offer them 120 different services, which got lost.

Rick Maher:        Yeah.

Judy Emery:        So, now, we have 11 core services that we offer employers. It's one clear message. As Jacob said, we make it easy for our industry. So that when they look at working with us on work base learning, apprenticeships, anything that they are talking the same talk, no matter where you're working across the state. It also makes it easier to align regionally through Workforce because we're all talking the same. So, I would offer that. We're doing it in career services now. We're doing it with our data groups. It's alignment. So, that if an industry or a business comes to anybody in the state, especially right now in the metro area, they're going to hear the same answer from any business service rep through Workforce. If they're in the southern part of the state, metro, northern, it's the same message. So, that would be my recommendation.

Rick Maher:        Alignment. Got it. Perfect. Bruce, what would you tell your younger self?

Bruce Ferguson: So, if you look at WIOA and you look at where we are, it can be a daunting task because you read it and you go, "Wow. They want us to boil the ocean." But sector strategies allows you to get focused and stay focused. It allows you to say no. If you get focused in four sectors or five sectors, it allows you to go, "Wow, that's a really cool project or idea that just got brought to the board, but it really doesn't fit out strategy."

Rick Maher:        Right.

Bruce Ferguson: So, getting focused and being able to maintain that focus is key. The other thing is look for small wins early.

Rick Maher:        Love it.

Bruce Ferguson: You don't have to go solve the healthcare talent pipeline in one bite.

Rick Maher:        Yeah.

Bruce Ferguson: Find that provider, find that hospital that's ready to go out and try something. Do it with them, fine-tune it, show the ROI, and others will join you.

Rick Maher:        I call it "pebbles in a pond," Bruce. And I love it. That's great advice. Jacob, what would tell your younger self?

Jacob Maas:       Oh, man. Those are some tough acts to follow. So, I would echo what Judy and Bruce said wholeheartedly, and then I would add that I would have told myself that you're not alone, right? There are others, other boards out there that are doing some amazing work-

Rick Maher:        Awesome.

Jacob Maas:       -every day. Who have struggled with starting and industry council, who have struggled with regionalization. Maybe even looking at how to integrate apprenticeships into your strategy or how to have a more active and engaged business community. So, I would have loved to reach out to Bruce or Judy pre-merger and added them to the list of, "These are a couple of good options that we can take a look at." And who knows? Maybe the outcome would have been different. But, you know, I just think knowing that other boards have gone through these things and are able and willing to be a key contact and a key partner, I just think would have been helpful for me.

Rick Maher:        Love it. So, align, focus, learn when to say no, stay focused, and remember you're not in this alone, folks. That there are people just like these three folks who are doing it and they're not all doing it the same way. They're doing it different ways, but there are people out there that you can learn from that can help you get over that first step anxiety that a lot of folks face. So, in closing guys, you have been an awesome panel.

Rick Maher:        Bruce, if somebody wants to get in touch with you or follow what's going on in your region, how would you suggest people stay connected to Bruce?

Bruce Ferguson: Sure. You can certainly look me up on LinkedIn or also visit our website at careersourcenefl.com.

Rick Maher:        Awesome. And how about you, Judy?

Judy Emery:        Same thing. You can look me up on LinkedIn. Or, an example that I'd like to share is our healthcare sector website that really shows this collaboration regionally. And so, it's www.healthcaredenver.com.

Rick Maher:        That's great. I'm going to check it out this afternoon. Thanks for that one. And Jacob, last but not least, how do we stay in touch with you?

Jacob Maas:       Yep. Same thing. Look me up on LinkedIn, or feel free to check out our website at westmiworks.org.

Rick Maher:        Folks, I hope you've enjoyed another chapter of Talent Talks. This is Rick Maher thanking you for listening and reminding you that at Talent Talks we hope to explore, inform, and inspire you because we're all actors in a global war for talent. One where talent is seen as the new global currency and you are essentially America's talent investment bankers. So, we hope we've inspired you to take a risk, make a difference. We hope you'll dare to be great. Break something. Make it better. Try, fail, but for God's sake, fail fast and try again. Thanks again for listening and have a great day. We'll see you next month on Talent Talks.

Speaker 5:           Thank you for listening to Talent Talks, presented by Maher & Maher and IMPAQ International. For more information on what is being done to position America's workers, employers, and communities for future prosperity, sign up for our newsletter at mahernet.com/Talent Talks. That's M-A-H-E-R-N-E-T dot com slash Talent Talks.


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