S2,E10 - Kristi Eck

Posted on May 22, 2024

Talk CNY - Season 2, Episode 10 - Kristi Eck

This is Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank, a semi-monthly podcast by CenterState CEO, Central New York's premier leadership and economic development organization. Join us as we meet the people and explore the projects driving the regional economy forward.

This is Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank. I'm Katie Zilcosky, director of communications at CenterState CEO and your host for Talk CNY, Central New York will need a skilled workforce that's representative of its population in order to build a vibrant, equitable economy. That's something our partners at SUNY Oswego know well as the largest public employer in Oswego County, SUNY Oswego is committed to making a positive social, economic and civic impact. They recently opened the Office of Workforce Innovation and External Relations to serve as a single point of entry for university partnerships. They also offer programs that upskill and prepare community members for the job opportunities that are coming our way. Leading the Office of Workforce Innovation is Kristi Eck. She joins me today on Talk CNY to talk about what SUNY Oswego is doing and all of the regional opportunity ahead. Kristi, thank you so much for being here today with us.

Thank you so much for having me. It's wonderful to be here. Yeah.

So you like me, you're a Central New York transplant. So what was it about the community that made you want to put down roots here and really get involved in some of the critical challenges that we're facing?

It's a great question. So I was thinking about this in preparation for the interview, of course, and it's been a long time that I've called New York State home. So I came here in 2006 after my first job in Denmark. And the reason I picked New York was really, you go back to the values of the state and you go back to Ellis Island, Island of hope. To me as a person who grew up in Illinois looking across the nation for where do I want to establish my career? Where do I really want to try to make an impact? I was looking at places like this state that care deeply about diversity care, deeply about providing access and opportunity for all and that like Ellis Island are an Island of Hope. And so I sought careers here and I took my first job when I moved back to the United States here, and it's been home ever since. And so when I also think about Central New York, what brought me here, it's really eds and meds. And what I mean by that is the people and the places and the opportunities around that. And so when I think about who's driving change here and who's making a tremendous impact, it's a lot of the same people who've been here for a long time. And the circle has widened to be inclusive of more voices and their commitment to our state and to provide an opportunity has not deviated and that's inspiring.

You've been in New York state since 2006. Yep. You've been at SUNY Oswego for a little over a decade now, right? Yeah. So can you take me a little bit through your career with SUNY Oswego? What have you done so far

during your time there and what are you doing now? It's been a wonderful journey to be at Oswego. So I'll answer that question in two parts really. Okay, great. So I want to reiterate the people, place, and opportunity comment that I made before completely taking that from the Allyn Family Foundation website because it so perfectly captures it. They're great partners. They are. And CNY Community Foundation also writes about that and writes about providing equity and access. And so when I think about why have I had a career at SUNY Oswego for so long, and why did I start in Central New York, frankly with SUNY Cortland? And then, I went on to Say Yes to Education in Syracuse. It came down to people, place, and opportunity. So leadership matters tremendously, right? And ethics around leaders, critical. It is what I seek in any employer and in any region.

And so it's the people who brought me here and then the place, investing in opportunity. So we think about Say Yes to Education, investing in the future of the Syracuse City School district students if they wanted to go on to higher education, making it more affordable, if they wanted to go straight to careers, helping those pathways be possible, SUNY Oswego was discovered really through that connection. So then President Stanley was working to lead, I should say the Say Yes Collaborative, which is a collection of higher ed institutions from around the region that were providing scholarship opportunities to students. And through that I saw that the words were really backed up with the dollars and the supports that our students and families need. I was inspired by that. So when I accepted the position of chief of staff with her, it was to work on a team that was truly transforming lives and putting resources behind the supports necessary for students to be successful while contributing greatly to the common good. Over time, over a decade,

it's hard to believe that it's been that long. My role at the institution has evolved from chief of staff, which was never a traditional chief of staff role, actually. It was inclusive of accreditation liaison work. So co-chairing our periodic review report and our self study, yeah, overseeing WRVO station manager and doing strategic planning for the institution. But more importantly to me, what that allowed me to do was always keep the institution's needs in mind and work to advance them to the betterment, like I said, of the common good. So as a public comprehensive university, that's what matters most. What are we doing to serve the public, advance the public, together? And then that relationship, that mindset, that work has led to where I am now as Assistant Vice President for Workforce Innovation, external relations charged to create an Office of Workforce Innovation and External Relations. We're being consistent with words here, but really to work intentionally with partners like CenterState CEO to bring more resources into the region that advance the goals and the initiatives that the region needs to pursue and achieve in order to have greater change again for all.

Now, you hinted at it a little bit about why SUNY Oswego would be interested in establishing an Office of Workforce Innovation and External Relations, but can you get into that a little bit more about why the goals of this office are so important to the institution and what some of the programming and resources are that are offered through this office?

Glad to talk about that. So I had to pause for a second and say, the institution was founded in 1861, and why does this matter? It was founded by Edward Austin Sheldon and his whole commitment in creating the institution was to educate the next generation of teachers. The region needed teachers, it needed people who were going to be receiving hands-on minds on learning, is the way we've always said it, to really be effective right away in the classroom and to contribute to the workforce and the talent needs of the region. It's the same conversation we're having now in 2024. Literally, what Edward Austin Sheldon thought about in 1861 is repeated. History repeats itself as they always say. So that has been the grounding foundation, really, of the creation of SUNY Oswego. And now you fast forward to fall of 2023, SUNY welcomed its 11th president, President Peter Nwosu, he's following in terms of a president and officer in charge, Deborah Stanley, who is a phenomenal leader for the institution for 26 years.

And he's building off of really her legacy. And he said, we've had an Office of Business and Community Relations at SUNY Oswego for many decades actually. And it was valuable and necessary, but when we think about Central New York and this historic moment in time, that Micron's investment has really sparked. But also all the decades of work prior to Micron from other major employers and from just people, right people, place, opportunity made possible. So when we think about where are we right now, how do we remain relevant as an institution, we knew that we needed to transform the Office of Business and Community Relations into the Office of Workforce Innovation and External Relations to give really a front door, like quite literally, that's what we say. I'm a front door into SUNY Oswego, with both our main campus and Oswego population being served and our Syracuse, downtown Syracuse campus population, and all the external partners being served.

So we focus in three areas. We focus on workforce innovation. So being very nimble and creative with the programs that we're offering in the community, whether that means micro-credentials, certificates, our instructor bootcamp that's funded by Empire State Development right now, office of Strategic Workforce Development to prepare instructors for the next generation of workers or social and upward mobility focused programs that are obviously intertwined with any effective and meaningful workforce innovation program. Government and legislative affairs, sometimes you just want to know who to call or what is an institution, especially a public one doing to secure public resources at the state and also federal level. And then thirdly, is a focus on high impact community serving programs. So also this past fall, SUNY Oswego celebrated with the retired and senior volunteer program of Oswego County, 50 years of that program. Wow. So that program is part of a federal RSVP program around the nation. We've had it since its inception in Oswego, literally 1873. And that falls under my area as well as the instructor bootcamp program I mentioned before, and the Oswego County Micron Strategy Steering Committee.

Now of these partnerships, are there specific moments or specific creative partnerships that you want to see more of, that you'd like to see expanded in the community that, because this office is pretty new, so how would you like to see it going forward? What would you like to see more of?

Another excellent question. So I think that the, and of course I have a mouthful of an answer again. So I think that,

Well, I'm sure there are lots. There's

a lot to say. There's a lot to say. I would say what matters most, mutually beneficial partnerships, again, as a public regional comprehensive university, and we'd like to say the most mission critical meaning that we're really meeting the needs of the region in a unique way by providing, as I said, on-ramps into higher ed, at the micro-credential, non-credit, even opportunity, all the way through master's degree. And we have a location in downtown Syracuse, and obviously in our main campus location. When we think about how are we able to best apply what we can deliver to the community, it has to be through mutually beneficial partnerships. Meaning is this an alignment with the institution's goals and mission statement, which of course is a higher ed institution. We're focused on education and on student success. So if somebody comes to us, even if it's for a short-term program, we want to see them succeed and earn that credential or complete that non-credit program.

If they want to come to us for a full on four-year degree or a master's degree, et cetera, then wonderful. We want to have them for longer and be successful. But also, how do we utilize the talent and the resources that we have as a public institution, provide the community. So through recreation opportunities, summer camps, arts and culture programs, research that's available even through Startup New York, we're partners still with that program throughout the state. We have an active Startup New York partner right now. It can only happen when the needs of the partner are clearly understood by the institution decision makers. And those needs are met and elevated through the relationship with working with our faculty, our staff, our students, or all of the above. And our response to that relationship is also a positive one, meaning our students are getting increased learning opportunities. Our talented faculty and staff are able to share, frankly, their talent more widely and help secure dollars for the region through their research or through their service. And again, Office of Workforce Innovation and External Relations, we're trying to be that front door. So if somebody, it doesn't matter who you are, wants to engage with the institution, they have one number to call, one email the right, and then they get connected with me. I help connect them to my colleagues within the institution. Yes.

Yeah. An easy place for them to start and form a relationship with SUNY Oswego.

That's right.

So this Office of Workforce Innovation and External Relations is part of a larger vision, the SUNY Oswego Vision 4040 plan. So can you tell me a little bit about why that plan is important now and how it ties into Central New York's movement as a whole?

Yeah. So President Nwosu started as our 11th president, as I said, in fall of 2023, and he hit the ground running. He is a phenomenal individual and leader and thrilled that he's in the role that he is in. He says his leadership style is really rooted in Old African proverb that literally says, "If you want to go fast, go it alone. If you want to go far, go it together." So he has from day one, solicited a lot of external insight and internal insight on Vision 4040. So from legislators, from major employers, and obviously from faculty governance at our campus and from students, faculty, staff, etc., to say, how can we position SUNY Oswego as we go to be the thriving institution that it's been for decades, for decades to come. And back to the needs of the region, we know that, and really back to what brought me into the state, this Island of Hope idea, this idea of access and opportunity and inclusion in an equitable way is what we're rooted in.

So he says, Vision 40 40 can't just be about the traditional college university student who says, I want to graduate high school, enroll, do four years of higher ed, get my job, et cetera. That person still matters. We love that person. Please apply. And we also know that we need on-ramps, as we say, and off-ramps and acceptable, I'm going to even say roundabouts. I know some people hate driving on those. I personally love it on your little circle, take your exit. But I mean that sincerely, everybody's path is different. So if we think about what is our role as an institution, our role is to be accessible to the learner who wants to be successful with us and achieve and make sure that we have support systems in place. So we're increasing our goal with that Vision 4040 is to double the number of essentially graduates by the decade of 2040.

And thinking about how do we do that? It's not just through offering bachelor's degrees and master's degrees, but also through micro-credentials and certificates, stackable credentials. So somebody who does a three-credit experience goes and works, maybe comes back in six months and does another three-credit experience, stack it all up, and eventually over time leads to a bachelor's degree or master's degree. Again, that is only effective and possible by listening to your partners in industry, in the community at large. Nonprofits matter too tremendously and thinking about what are their needs, and then working interior to the institution, meaning with the faculty governance process, with our student demands, influencing thought as well to create rich learning experiences and market them effectively to have the enrollment needed to make them sustainable. Now, we do know the big challenge right now is we need a skilled workforce for all the opportunity coming our way. What are some of the finer details maybe in that big picture that people should be aware of, that they can engage in to better understand how we can lift this community up and really take advantage of all that is coming our way right now?

So I'll start with answering to say one thing that SUNY Oswego is really proud to be a lead convener of is the Oswego County Micron Strategy Steering Committee, something that was created by leadership from SUNY Oswego, from Oswego Health, from the city of Oswego, and then quickly stretched beyond that to be all inclusive of Oswego County and then some key partners in Onondaga County to come together in a very unique, highly collaborative way to examine what we as a county, Oswego County has as assets, has as opportunities. And to say, let's set differences aside. Let's share information. Let's think about how we can work together more effectively to secure more resources at the state and federal and also private sources. And let's literally, whether it means we write each other a letter, we're support for a grant, we're planing on, we sit down and we brainstorm a grant opportunity that we could go for together, or again, we just share information about events and make sure that we're all more informed.

That's been extremely effective and that has helped us understand workforce needs and be able to work with the partners who are literally at the table, whether it's through Oswego County Workforce Development Board or city BOCES who are educating the kids or the childcare providers who are saying, if we don't have high-quality childcare options available to our families, the kids are suffering because they're not getting what they need when they're in the childcare setting. But then obviously, the family members who need the childcare aren't able to work or the number of hours that they maybe want to work, they're not able to work. We're going to take a quick break here, and when we come back, we'll hear more from Kristie. But first a word from our presenting sponsor, NBT Bank.

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This is Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank. I'm Katie Zilcosky, your host, and I'm here today with Kristi Eck, Assistant Vice President of Workforce Innovation

and External Relations. Kristi, thank you for being here.

Pleasure to be here.

So you are one of 15 members of Micron's Community Engagement Committee. Can you tell me a little bit about that process? What it's been like so far, and what you've learned being a part of that committee?

Absolutely. First, it's a tremendous honor and responsibility to be one of those 15 members, and so it's been, frankly, a career highlight. I'll absolutely say that. Because of the people that I've gotten to know better, there are many members of the committee that I had met before, some that were new, but I'm talking about the greater public. So that committee was created to do what we did. To go out and to conduct focus groups, to sit down and have even one-on-one conversations, large group conversations in school cafeterias and in the MOST, and then, like I said, tailored focused conversations with different segments of the population to try to hear really what we needed to hear, what needed to be said. And so it's been a phenomenal journey so far.

Can you tell me a little bit more about what was said? What were some of the things that came up through these meetings and conversations?

Absolutely. So the CNY Community Engagement Committee was charged really, like I was saying a minute ago, to do these focus groups, to do these listening tours, to then be able to through survey data as well that was collected from the public, understand the community priorities, and then work together to create a community priorities document with the help of the consulting firm and be able to soon make that public. And I would say when I was reflecting on today, really kind of an acronym came to mind, frankly, and I have to say NIH has a similar sounding acronym, but it's not the same. So lemme give that caveat, but I think of Heal data, but I mean by that is H for hear, L for listen, D for document, A for act, T for track, and then A again for assess. So that was really, we never said we're doing heal data right now, but that was really our process.

We heard, we took the time to hear, you can't hear if you don't show up. So we took the time to go to people, and people most importantly took the time to come. And so then we listened and we literally listened, and we all know this, but I think sometimes we all forget this, or at least I know I do. As soon as I think I know what someone's going to say, I put words in their mouth. I've stopped actually listening, right? I've stopped listening and I've started to assume, and I've started to listen to myself instead of their words. So we tried hard to hear, to be there, to listen to document. So again, document through, note taking through actual survey instruments, through old school paper and pen papers that we collected from the sessions, and then we took the time to act. And where we are with that action plan right now is really the drafting, and then soon the unveiling of the community priorities document, and then we need to take the time, once the money is starting to be released, to track how are those dollars being wisely spent?

What's the impact they're having? Is it achieving the goals that were set? Is it remaining in alignment with the community priorities and the needs of our community and as our state going forward? And then to know the answers to those questions, you have to assess, and then it's repeat, repeat, repeat, and you have to repeat all the way back to the hear, the listen, the document, the act, the track, the assess forever essentially. I mean, continuous improvement means that you're continuing to do those steps. You're continuing to care. I really believe that the Community Priorities document is going to be an accurate reflection, and when people read it, we'll see it as an accurate reflection of what we've all been told. And the CNY Community Engagement Committee members genuinely care. I'll go back to me saying, when I came to this state, picked it as my home state now for the rest of my life in 2006 and really came to this region about 2007, 2008.

Some of the people that I met right away just by becoming involved were people like Andy Breuer, Ben Walsh, before he became Mayor Walsh, Sharon Owens, then Mayor Stephanie Minor, Rob Simpson, Melanie Littlejohn, Meg Connell, then President Deborah Stanley. Why do I name these names? These are the people that I met organically. Literally some of them met Pamela Hunter, Assembly Member Hunter in coffee shops, just because I was in line and they were there too, not because we had a scheduled meeting. I met them because I saw them out and I was reading about the impact that they were having, or we were at same events. Why do I name them now? Because they're the leaders that continue to drive us forward and have been since I've been in this region, going back to, let's say 2008, I should say. And that matters when you have consistent ears listening and working together to take action and including others as they go.

Widening the circle, trying not to actually have a closed circle at all. You have great impact. We're seeing that now with Micron's Investment. You're seeing that with the housing studies that are underway. You're seeing that with the rezoning that's trying to be done. You see that with the commitment to remove lead from homes, and you see that with the investment in college scholarships, starting with the very local level at the Say Yes to Education model, which kind of helped paved the way for Excelsior Scholarship all the way to last week's announcement from Governor Hochul about historic investment in SUNY to provide more frankly, scholarship dollars and internship dollars for our state students who want to pursue careers and education pathways within our system. Well, Kristi, you are doing a lot right now, a lot of great work in

our community to address these challenges, so I thank you for that, and I thank you for being here today as well on the podcast.

Thanks for having me. It's wonderful to be able to talk with you.

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