George Ward—Executive Director for Coldstream Research Campus and Real Estate at University of Kentucky, and UEDA Membership and Marketing Committee member—recently talked with Greg Wilson, Public Service Associate for State Services And Decision Support at University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, finalist in the 2021 UEDA Awards of Excellence Talent + Place category for their Cherokee Workforce Collaborative program.
Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length.
George Ward: First of all Greg, can you just give us a brief description of the program?
Greg Wilson: Sure. The Cherokee Workforce Collaborative grew out of an economic development strategy project in Cherokee County, which is located in the metro Atlanta region. The strategic planning process included looking at what factors would lead to continued success in the community. They identified that one area where they could really focus was workforce development.
The Cherokee Office of Economic Development engaged our team at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at University of Georgia, which is part of the university’s public service and outreach mission, to look at how we could move the needle on workforce development. County leaders were asking “How do we figure out where we are right now, and where do we need to go forward?” The Institute got connected with the Cherokee Office of Economic Development to provide technical assistance for this work.
George: Who are some of the other partners that were part of the workforce development collaborative?
Greg: We started off with a strategic plan approach looking at where they were starting from, and what was working and what wasn’t working. Some core partners were at the table for that conversation, including Chattahoochee Technical College and the local K through 12 school system. There were some other university partners like Reinhardt University. Then, of course, the employers—they have a large, diverse industrial base, so we had many employers at the table, working alongside their government and education partners to figure out workforce needs and workforce gaps, growth areas, and skill needs that could be translated back to the technical college.
Cherokee is a highly educated community. But the data showed that so many of the residents were leaving and going elsewhere for work, so that was on the minds of leaders in the county—how do we help people skip the commute? If we’re thinking about economic development recruitment, but also retention of existing businesses, we have this great talent in our community, but they’re leaving and commuting an hour-plus a day. How do we help connect the talent in our community with opportunities in our community?
George: What have been some key outcomes?
Greg: There have been a number of early successes. Both tangible and also intangible, harder to quantify, successes. For example, they have told me a number of times that they have developed stronger relationships with the school system, their local technical college, and area employers. There’s just a deeper spirit of collaboration on workforce development, a greater appreciation of what each partner is doing, how they can work together. We hosted a training class in early 2020 in Cherokee County and we had all these partners at the table, and it was really interesting to see just how much they’ve grown together as partners. That’s the intangible piece.
Thinking about some other results.They’ve started a number of signature programs to address issues that were identified during the planning process. The first thing they launched was the Cherokee Internship Program. Recognizing that one of the gaps was that young adults didn’t see the opportunities that were in their community that they could return to after college, they launched an internship program for high school students in the summer. They’re placed at companies in Cherokee County, and they’re doing real work. There’s a mentorship component, a soft skills—or employability skills—component, and the interns are learning together about some of those core skills we hear so much about as well.
They launched what is now a statewide campaign called Be Pro, Be Proud and it’s all about introducing young adults to the skilled trades. They were able to purchase a mobile workshop that travels to high schools around the state of Georgia to help promote five core skilled trades—all of them representing gaps in Cherokee county and gaps around the state.
George: These triple helix partnerships with academia, business, and government are just so strong when everybody gets along and nobody’s worried about who takes the credit.
Greg: Yes. This program is now going on five years of success of collaboration, open communication, mutual understanding. That’s been a success in and of itself. We see it over and over in our work. If we can get the partners to the table, and we can get them figuring out what their shared issues are, they can solve those issues. A lot of times you need that neutral third party facilitator, the experts, to help work through that. That’s the role we play so many times at the Institute of Government.
George: If you could go back to the point where the program started, is there anything you would do differently now that you know how it’s developed?
Greg: We’ve learned a lot as a state, as partners, but I don’t think we’d do anything differently. It’s a process of bringing the partners to the table, using data to guide the decisions, and developing a realistic strategy. Certainly we’ve got new strategies and best practices to highlight new things that they could do now, but I don’t think we’d change anything. We’ve done this process with a number of communities and it continues to work well.
George: Are there any factors you could point to as important to the success of the program?
Greg: This is an organization that was really invested in workforce development. They have a staff member whose time is dedicated to the collaborative and I think that’s another secret of success for them. They built the strategy, but it takes a coordinator or liaison to play a problem-solver role. It has to be part of someone’s job description. The executive directors and presidents of organizations, they don’t have time. That’s been part of the success, having someone who can build those relationships, help them maintain those relationships, and invest in those relationships.
George: If another university wanted to adopt this kind of collaboration, what are some of the first steps that they need to be considering?
Greg: I think you should consider that there are two different roles that are required. It can be one person filling both of those roles, but you need to consider both. First, you’ve got that process facilitator. In a lot of ways, we were able to help this group because we’re a neutral third party. We want them to be successful, but we don’t have any skin in the game because we’re a little bit removed from that. That’s one piece of it.
Another role is workforce development knowledge and expertise with data. We use labor market, demographic, and education data to drive strategy. We also get qualitative data from industry partners on skill needs and gaps, projections on future employment and challenges. In addition to the facilitator role, you need the data role.
Beyond having those roles, so much of it is just having the right partners at the table. That’s why this initiative has succeeded from the beginning. They were very intentional about having the right partners at the table and making sure they had industry, economic development, government, and education all at the table, working together to collectively solve their challenges and move forward.
Another consideration is that you can’t do it all at once. Our workforce challenges were large, and now they’re immense. But we didn’t get into the workforce challenges overnight, and there are so many factors outside the community creating these challenges. But a step at a time, you can choose actionable strategies, make an investment, move the needle, and connect talent with opportunity. You can shape the career paths of young adults and working adults.
George: That’s really what’s important, right? How has participation in UEDA helped?
Greg: We’re grateful to be able to talk about the work we’re doing and have the opportunity to share some of our work with others that are doing similar work across the U.S.