Sunday, November 8, 2009

Boots on the ground

On Wednesday of past this week, I went to a conference in Portland focused on diversity issues and their intersection with workforce development. Coordinated by Working Together, a coalition of businesses and organizations intent on finding a way to integrate individuals with disabilities into Maine’s labor pool, the conference was held at USM’s Abromson Center, and was attended by a mix of business people, state officials, representatives from a variety of organizations, as well as non-profit agencies.

During the morning session, John Dorrer, of Maine’s Department of Labor/CWRI gave a presentation on the challenges facing Maine and the nation as our demographic “time bomb”—Maine’s aging population, mainly baby boomers—reaches the age when they’ll be leaving our workforce en masse. This will create a huge gap affecting productivity, economic growth, and U.S. competitiveness. Dorrer cited statistics by economists that indicate that by 2030 that gap of necessary employees and the diversity of skills represented could be as high as 35 million individuals, in the U.S.

Dorrer, an economist by trade talked about the need to address this, and how Maine needed to “get serious” about this. Others, like Martha Antilles, Manpower’s chief diversity officer, spoke to this issue, framing it in global terms, given Manpower’s international corporate focus.

What was lacking in my opinion was an offer of an action plan.

That’s been my experience over the past three years in the trenches of workforce development. By-and-large, recognition that there are problems with both scarcity and skill-level of Maine’s workforce is not an issue. Yes, politicians make the mistake of lauding our state’s workforce, which is still mainly skilled for the state’s 20th century, resource-based economy of manufacturing, paper mills, and wood products. As Maine shifts to a service sector economy, with healthcare growing, jobs in state government, and other business service jobs looking for fulfillment, working for 20 years in a factory environment, or running a paper machine doesn’t easily translate into transferable skills, however. As a result, the transition becomes difficult for many presently out of work.

So how does Maine help people transition from a 20th century skill set, to a 21st century one? Is merely championing four-year degrees going to push the state forward? What happens when displaced workers are told that they need to go to college, but don’t have the academic, study, and other attendant skills that will ensure success in the kind of environment conducive to higher education? Many will stumble and falter, unfortunately.

As I’ve written about before, there needs to be an emphasis on skills characterized as “middle skills.” These entail training beyond the high school level, but don’t necessarily require four-year degree programs. Some of this training can be short-term, conferring a certificate, or credential at its completion.

With all due respect to many good people, talk is cheap. Maine, like many other states have organizations, state agencies, and various hierarchies that crunch numbers, issue reports, and unfortunately, shuffle and/or warehouse elements of the state’s workforce that need to be trained, and ultimately, working. Maine’s large DHHS roles demonstrate this approach, and in my opinion, it’s a terrible waste of human potential, not to mention that it represents a partial solution to the looming labor shortage that Maine will be facing.

There are those in our region that have moved beyond talk, to action. This is due, I believe, to their recognition that workforce development is one of the key elements looking forward towards growing their local/regional economy. Three leaders in Waterville--John Butera/Central Maine Growth Council, Kim Lindlof/Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, and Ken Young/KVCOG—all recognize that if the economy of their city and region is going to be a vibrant one, then having a workforce with the kind of skills that the 21st requires is essential.

While a program like WorkReady won’t solve all of Waterville’s, or Maine’s ongoing issues of workforce development, it is a great first step in pushing the issue forward. It also moves beyond mere recognition of a problem, to finding a solution to it. An action-oriented approach should not be minimized. Far too often, problems are wanting a solution primarily because no action plan is developed.

WorkReady is the kind of foundational program that has been developed primarily to meet the needs of businesses, addressing many of the ongoing problems that HR people and hiring managers regularly encounter in their attempts at hiring new people, particularly for entry, or lower level positions in their firms.

Over the past three years, our workforce board has built a solid coterie of local WorkReady programs in key communities across Central/Western Maine. We’ve developed a model that starts first with a pilot of the program, and then constructs the next steps forward towards building program sustainability. Even better, the WorkReady curriculum has demonstrated that it has the capacity to transform and change lives, while maintaining a cost-effective approach to training.

While originally intended to target those stuck in the “ghetto” of low wage/low skill jobs, with many bouncing from seasonal position, to seasonal position, WorkReady has been successful in helping displaced workers transition by identifying transferable skills, upgrade their technology skills, and better represent their qualities on a resume, and through the interview process. Additionally, WorkReady continues to find new audiences for its training, including recent successes within Maine’s correction system and county jails, including the Somerset County Jail in East Madison. Other programs have been offered at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, and one currently under way at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.


Friday morning, Morning Sentinel reporter, Erin Rhoda's compelling feature article on the WorkReady graduation was a welcome acknowledgement of much of the work I've been involved in to bring WorkReady to its current place in the community. This came about because I left a voicemail for her, and she felt it was newsworthy enough to follow-up with me by phone.

Having a feature article on our program was significant because it validates the efforts that many of us have put into building WorkReady from the ground up, which is how it develops in every location where it ends up being launched. Rhoda’s article was excellent, and really captured the essence about what WorkReady is all about.

Friday was also the day of our third WorkReady graduation in Waterville. This current group of trainees is our largest one in Waterville, with candidates being awarded their WorkReady credential. This group is also a very strong group of future employees for any business that would want to employ them.

For the first time ever, we had a former WorkReady graduate returning to deliver the keynote address to the current group of trainees.

Jeneese LaRouche has taken the training she received last March, and has parlayed that into success for herself. Like many young women in Maine, Jeneese had graduated from high school without a clear career direction for her life. Before she knew it, she was a mother of two, with no firm opportunities on the employment front, and not sure of where to turn to move her life forward.

I first met Jeneese in Skowhegan, at an informational meeting that was held to promote the program and potentially recruit attendees to participate in our upcoming offering of WorkReady. Jeneese was the one person who jumped at the opportunity, and WorkReady has been a springboard for her, putting her on the road to employment success.

Upon graduating last March, she was hired by Global Contact Services (GCS), in Pittsfield. GCS is a customer contact center, working with major clients throughout the U.S. Jeneese was committed to being a success and despite some logistical issues with daycare, and carpooling with her partner to work, she managed to be a model employee. In fact, when the United Way of Mid-Maine wanted to interview a WorkReady graduate for their kick-off video (United Way is the current funder for WorkReady inWaterville), Jeneese agreed and did an outstanding job on camera, representing the program, and demonstrating its success in helping transform her life, and the lives of others. Her employer even agreed to speak on camera about her performance, telling how she had been modeling the qualities that WorkReady imparts in its trainees.

Jeneese delivered an inspirational speech to the graduates on Friday. She encouraged them to take what they’ve learned, and in particular, some of the personalized lessons that Kathleen Lewia, the program’s outstanding facilitator has given them over the past four weeks. Jeneese spoke about the challenges, and also, about the opportunity that she now has, to be a role model for her children, who see their mother going off to work each day, helping to provide for their well-being.

Demostrating that good things come to those who apply the lessons learned in WorkReady, Jeneese was recently offered a position with T-Mobile in Oakland, and it currently going through the company’s eight-week training program. She will be one of T-Mobile’s customer service reps upon completion of the training.

For more information about WorkReady, you can visit the program’s website. You can also contact Jim Baumer, director of business services, for the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board at 207-753-9026.

[Waterville WorkReady graduation photo]