Creative Solutions and the Right Leadership Skills Make Northwest Pennsylvania a Success

Jun 3, 2011

Senior crossing sign
Northwest Pennsylvania is facing are poverty and significant aging of the workforce. Michele Zieziula, CEO of the Regional Center for Workforce Excellence and the Northwest Workforce Investment Board is tacking these issues head on. We spoke to Michele last week as a part of the Enhancing Workforce Leadership Initiative. Her workforce development peers recommended her as someone who would know about effective leadership, and they were right.  Michele is a wealth of knowledge.

Key Workforce Issues and Creative Solutions
“This workforce area has the highest poverty rate in the state”, says Michele, “In Erie, the largest city in the workforce area, one in four individuals is living in poverty.”  Michele and the Northwest WIB of Pennsylvania are teaming up with the local community foundations since they are the experts on poverty issues.  They have helped Michele and her board members “think outside the box” and develop creative solutions. One of these, ReTool Erie, is a partnership of The Erie Community Foundation, The Nonprofit Partnership, and the Regional Center for Workforce Excellence, aimed at strengthening local nonprofits focused on workforce development. Its goal is to help organizations and their clients prepare for and meet the challenges of the changing economy through training, one-on-one technical assistance and competitive capacity building grants.

The aging of the workforce is another critical communty issue. “The median age of the workforce is 42; the average age in manufacturing is 58,” Michele noted. Therefore, “pipeline development” - focusing on the development of youth as the new and emerging workforce to be ready to replace those who will be retiring in the near future - is a key board priority. The Board is supporting a number of initiatives designed to attract young people to engineering, maunufacturing and related industries. One example is RoboBOTS, a highly successful, competition-based education and training program for students in grades 7 – 12. The youth build robots, and in doing so, challenge their mathematical reasoning, scientific analysis, and team skills. This prepares them for high-demand and emerging careers while meeting the employer–identified skill needs of the advanced manufacturing industry. Student teams are connected to local manufacturers, resulting in changed perceptions by all, and students exposed to career opportunities.  

Connecting with Economic Development
“Employers create jobs and we support what they need,” stated Michele.  And this led to their connection with economic development, since it has a pulse on the needs of businesses.  This connection truly blossomed in 2004 when economic development received state funds to provide outreach for business retention.  At the same time, the Regional Center for Workforce Excellence was also interested in contacting businesses for the same reason.  They partnered. Economic development became the single point of contact with business but shared the information they learned, so that one plan could be developed with a business that would meet all of their needs, from capital investments to workforce training. This partnership pilot was so successful, it was implemented full scale and has continued beyond the life of the state grant that began it.  “It has increased the footprint of business retraining, recruitment, and retention,” Michele says.

Creating Sustainability
The Regional Center for Workforce Excellence is also trying to find ways to sustain the workforce system. They began by creating a “sustainability loop” by purchasing a building in Erie as a home for the Erie One Stop Center eighteen months ago. As they renovate parts of the building, they rent it out to other related workforce partners, and use the resources the building generates to continue current or fund additional services. Since they used the value stream map process to design the building space and customer flow, leading to new technology, and state of the art interview and assessment rooms, they have changed the perception that businesses and job seekers previously had about government funded programs.

Skills Required for these Successes
But what leadership skills did Michele and other community leaders need to create these innovative solutions?  First and foremost was the ability of the WIB to look beyond program funding requirements to broader community challenges. It also required having a vision, determination to seek change, and listening carefully to others in the community. Michele has continuous discussions with various community leaders. She sits on various boards in the community, which allows her to discuss and collaborate, and, develop trust and respect of other’s expertise.  “When doing so”, Michele says, “humility is key.  [To be an effective leader] you must walk into a room and not think you know it all.”

Creating effective solutions to these key workforce development issues also required “the ability to focus on the issue at hand and then ask ‘How can I make a difference?’” Michele stated. Creativity and a willingness to try new ideas and accept possible failure was also important. Michele stated her community pilots ideas and if successful, implements them full scale. This requires truly understanding each agency’s funding beyond your own, leveraging resources, and flexibility. 

Above all, Michele said, “you must engage others and trust the process.”