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July 2013
Educate Empower Engage
By Zenda Douglas

     With the issue of jobs reigning supreme in the minds of business, government and the American family, Charlotte Works has just one thing on its agenda—getting qualified people into suitable jobs. To accomplish this, however, means spending a great deal of time and effort working and collaborating with businesses and organizations, municipal governments and schools and colleges to develop a globally competitive workforce for employers in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

     “We’ve just celebrated our first anniversary rebranded as Charlotte Works,” announces Steve Partridge, president and CEO of Charlotte’s newest one-stop, which is a consolidation of former offices.

     The 501(c)(3) organization was established in 1998 as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Workforce Development Board with the passage of the federal Workforce Investment Act. As in other states, federal funds are provided to the governor’s office and channeled through the Department of Commerce and down to local levels. In 2012, Charlotte’s Workforce Board was rebranded as Charlotte Works.

     “Our goal is to get people out of unemployment and back to work,” says Partridge. “The rebranding was needed to improve employment-related services for both employers and potential employees.”

     “Previously, we were a much smaller organization and subcontracted out most of our services,” explains Partridge. “We realized that to carry out our mission to upgrade and expand services, we were going to have to raise the bar on the qualifications of the people hired to deliver these services.”

     Now, with 24 professional employees, Charlotte Works is directly engaged in a broad array of customized services including coaching, training and networking—all targeted to the ever-changing needs of the Charlotte-area employers.

     “It all begins with the employer,” confirms Partridge. “In order to be effective, we have to know what they want and need by way of skill sets and experience. Perhaps they just need us to post a job for them or to help them find employees. The intensity of services goes up from there.”

     Popular among employers are the screening services Charlotte Works offers whereby only the top, fully vetted candidates are presented to the employer. Charlotte Works also helps when companies seek to achieve mass hiring such as Siemens did in 2010, ramping up staff by 750 to 1,000 people.

     “We set up a web portal for them and moved candidates through a vetting system. These are win-win situations because we own the data and can use it to work with other businesses,” touts Partridge.

 

Funding Skill Training

     Services become especially critical when employers cannot find employment candidates with the specific skills needed. “You see this more in technical trades, advanced manufacturing and energy fields,” says Partridge. “In these cases, we have the training dollars to subsidize wages while an employee learns the job or earns a certificate for specific work.

     “If a person is unemployed and seeking work, they may qualify for these dollars. It’s an expensive program but a win-win for the employer and candidate. Plus, the retention rate is very high.”

     For small businesses, Charlotte Works can reimburse wages up to 90 percent; for large firms it drops to about 50 percent, according to Partridge.

     “This program has really taken off. Two years ago we weren’t working with employers very closely. Our goal this year was to work with 200 employers. We’ve worked with 433. I’m afraid of the new goal the board will set for us,” says Partridge with a smile.

     Charlotte Works has targeted several sectors for job development including information technology, energy, health care, advanced manufacturing and transportation/logistics as well as aviation, bioscience, defense, international business, tourism, nonprofits, media/advertising, staffing companies and more. Representative companies include Marbach, ClickFold Plastics, Maersk, BAE Systems, ABB, Chiquita, SPS and Siemens.

     “We’re also aligning more with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and area community colleges because they represent the pipeline for talent. They are preparing the next generation of workers,” says Partridge, adding that the academic community is always adapting and growing curricula to meet the needs of a changing workplace.

     “We help find the people and, together—we fund, they train—put them through a rigorous curriculum to get up to speed for the employers. The economic downturn has limited people’s abilities to invest in themselves,” Partridge points out. “We have training dollars. If a person is willing to go into a job in high demand, we will pay for them to go back and get training.”

     The organization’s career counselors and training coordinators work individually, as well as in group and workshop settings, with people who are unemployed and underemployed.

     “We teach people how to find a job and are honest with them about why they may be having trouble,” explains Partridge. “Sometimes people have skills but don’t know how to sell themselves. We offer instruction in networking, developing a personal brand, and other areas such as salary negotiation.”

     Services for both employers and potential employees are free of charge. Charlotte Works operates on a $5.9 million budget funded by the federal government. Two-thirds of the money goes to help job seekers; one-third is designated for at-risk youth.

     “Our efforts with youth are to either get them back into school or get them a job,” says Partridge. “If kids have dropped out, they probably aren’t excited about school. We try to expose them to high-demand areas in manufacturing and allow them to make some money.”

 

Community Engagement

     Charlotte Works operates under the direction of a 24-member board—all appointed by the mayor of Charlotte who, according to Partridge, has been very involved at both the local level and with the U. S. Conference of Mayors’ Workforce Council.

     “The goal is to appoint people who are economic drivers in the community; people who can speak on behalf of their industry, whose businesses are large enough and connected enough to see shifts in employment and needs,” says Partridge.

     The board currently has representation from Siemens; the Charlotte Area Fund; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; Goodwill Industries; Wells Fargo; The Urban League; Charlotte Chamber; Duke Energy; Carolinas HealthCare System; Packard Place; Central Piedmont Community College; and several other businesses and organizations.

     Each office is designed to be a full-service workforce preparedness center. “We want people to be able to go to one place for the services they need. We’re aspiring to have all offices standardized such that the public can expect the same high quality of service from each one,” says Partridge.

     Charlotte Works has two offices in Charlotte; the second is located on South Boulevard. There are currently 23 workforce boards in North Carolina; more than 550 in the nation.

     Also available are 30 SNAP (Share Network Access Points) sites in the Charlotte area that are collaborations with targeted area community partners to extend resources to local neighborhoods and faith-based organizations so that communication, transportation and other barriers to employment are reduced or eliminated.

     Each site is equipped with computers, software and volunteers that offer clients convenient access to resources needed to become more employable and to find work. In the coming year, Charlotte Works will be piloting some programs that will allow people to meet with career counselors remotely.

     Charlotte’s workforce professionals realize that the workforce doesn’t stop at the borders of Mecklenburg County. “The population swells by 20 percent during the work week,” says Partridge. We work closely with our Gaston County and Centrolina counterparts to align our services.”

     Regional concerns such as the Charlotte Regional Partnership, which currently represents 16 counties around Mecklenburg County, can become frustrated with having to deal with numerous workforce boards. “Since their footprint is larger than Charlotte, they want one workforce system to work with. I think we are headed in the direction and will see some consolidations in the future,” says Partridge.

     In other future plans, Charlotte Works hopes to diversify its funding, taking advantage of its nonprofit status and eligibility to receive grants. The organization was awarded a $150,000 grant for computer equipment by the Microsoft Foundation this past year.

     The 1998 Workforce Investment Act is currently up for reauthorization. A bill has been passed in the House of Representatives and a Senate version is being crafted. Partridge hopes for a few changes. “The current law doesn’t really take into account how people today look for jobs and how they are screened. In 1998, the Internet was in its infancy. Monster.com launched just a year later.”

     Politically, Partridge is optimistic. “Anything in Washington has politics around it but I think a well-prepared workforce is one of the unique things people can agree on. We’re committed to getting people back to work. If we [the United States] don’t train skilled workers, businesses will go elsewhere for talent.”

     In a more recent development, the German federal nonprofit GIZ has announced the opening of its first United States branch office to be located in Charlotte at Charlotte Works. GIZ has worldwide operations supporting the German government in the field of international cooperation for sustainable development and in international education work.

     Its clients include governments, companies, international institutions and private foundations worldwide, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. GIZ helps people and societies improve their prospects and living conditions.

     “Charlotte’s workforce system is an ideal fit for this new partnership with GIZ. We’re focused on developing relationships with employers, particularly here in this key North Carolina manufacturing hub, and with other collaborators, to fill the skills gap and get people back to work,” says Partridge. “We’re honored that GIZ chose to locate its first U.S. office in Charlotte in our Employer Engagement Center, and we’re excited to see where this venture takes us.”

 

Regaining Focus

     “Sometime in the 1960s, in our schools, we started switching from career preparation to college preparation,” says Partridge. “We assumed the American dream was to get your bachelor’s degree and go on to a professional job. We all bought into that and we thought manufacturing was going away and that we weren’t going to make things anymore. But as we looked at the drop-out rate in colleges, we realized that there was something wrong with that model.

     “Blue-collar work had become tainted; people moving into the workforce wanted ‘clean’ jobs. It’s ironic,” continues Partridge. “If you take a look at today’s manufacturing, technical and energy environments, they are super clean rooms with sophisticated equipment, robots, keyboards and mice everywhere. These aren’t the ‘dirty’ jobs that we heard about from our grandparents and parents. Today, there are a lot of college-educated professionals out of work. We can do a lot more to educate our kids earlier about career options.”

     Partridge claims mass media hasn’t helped. “There are no CSI-type television shows that make manufacturing or technical jobs look cool,” laments Partridge. “The legal and medical professions both have shows that expose people to these careers and since these shows began, the numbers of graduates in those professions have gone through the roof. We don’t expose our children to many career options.

     “Then, there is the inevitable lag between rapidly advancing technology and the necessary response from the academic world to develop new curricula. Business changes on a dime,” says Partridge. “This is not a Charlotte issue; this is the world of modern technology. Sometimes things have changed by the time a new program gets developed.”

     Partridge is a native of Scottsdale, Arizona. He earned an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree in economics, political science and communications from the University of Arizona in Tucson. From there he went to Arizona State University in Phoenix to complete his graduate work in public policy. His work experience began in Arizona state government supporting small businesses through the Department of Commerce.

     By age 29, he was heading up the state workforce system. Following a move to Charlotte in 2003, he worked for the Charlotte Chamber overseeing member value. After working with the Charlotte Workforce Board on a project basis, he was tapped to become its new president and CEO. In addition to his local role, Partridge serves as co-chairperson of the Policy Committee of the U. S. Conference of Mayors’ Workforce Council.

     On average, people entering the workforce will have 11 jobs in their lifetime, according to Partridge. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ you will be unemployed, but ‘when.’”

     “Charlotte Works is set up to help anyone. People think of it as the unemployment office but we’re really the opposite,” says Partridge. “We may not be the ‘just in time’ solution all the time, but we can create a pipeline. I never want an employer to tell us that they are unhappy to be in the Charlotte community because they can’t find talent here.”

 

 

Photo: Fenix Fotography www.fenixfoto.com

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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