S2,E11 - Aimee Durfee

Posted on June 12, 2024

Talk CNY - Season 2, Episode 11 - Aimee Durfee

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. CenterState CEO's unique position as both a chamber of commerce and economic development organization allows us to implement holistic strategies as we reach our goal of being a region where businesses thrive and all people prosper. We go beyond the traditional economic development and chamber work. One example of this is our workforce development team. They're bringing together regional employers, educational institutions, members of the community, and many other partners, all to find creative solutions to one of the region's most pressing challenges to growth, building a skilled workforce for the jobs currently open in Central New York and those soon to come. Leading this work is Vice President of Workforce Innovation at CenterState CEO, Aimee Durfee. Aimee joins me today on Talk CNY. Aimee, thank you so much for being here today to talk with us.

Thank you for having me.

So before you came to CenterState CEO, you've been here about five years now, right? What were you doing? How did you kind of find your way into this position?

So my family and I moved here from California. I've been in anti-poverty work for most of my many years in the working world, and immediately before coming here, I was the chief program officer at an organization in San Francisco called Jewish Vocational Service; nd we were running probably about 15 different workforce development programs for youth and adults all over the Bay Area. So for me, coming here was an incredible opportunity to be in a place where they're in an organization where economic development and workforce and equity are all combined, and especially in a place like Central New York that's so diverse, where the challenges are so entrenched, the workforce development ecosystem is ready for change. And so that's why I ended up here.

So workforce development, you are leading our efforts on that front largely. Can you explain a little bit what workforce development means and why it's so important for an organization like CenterState CEO to be involved in this work?

Yeah, it can be kind of a topic that everyone sees it, but it seems easier to do than it actually is. So workforce development is really about getting people into employment and the way that we do it here and that many people do this all over the country, we are not the first ones to do this kind of work. The way that we do it is really about opening up opportunities for people. So we're looking for those occupational categories where the barrier to entry is relatively low or we can make it lower. Those jobs are good career opportunities, there's a good pathway, and we're also looking at opportunities where we can bring in more diverse talent. We're working in manufacturing, in tech and construction and in transportation. These fields are very white and very male right now, and we want to be able to bring in new talent, especially as we're looking at this incredible growth and demand that's going to happen. The work that we do here is under the umbrella of inclusive growth. So as growth and economic activity is happening, we want to make sure that those opportunities are available to as many people as possible and keep that door as wide open as we possibly can.

As you hinted at, and as many people know, I mean I think we've said it every episode of this podcast, there is a lot of growth on our horizon. We're already feeling the beginnings of it now, but we need a skilled workforce in order to make sure we take full advantage of all of the growth that's coming our way. So can you give us a little bit of a picture of what our workforce needs are currently and what they will be in the next five, 10 years?

So obviously Micron is the catalyst for a lot of this growth, but we also have growth that's already been happening here in manufacturing, in transportation, in construction. Interstate 81 is the largest highway project in New York state history. Now we have Micron, the largest economic development project, not only in New York history, but in America coming our way. So in that with Micron, we know there will be thousands of construction jobs that will continue not only for the building of the facilities, but also into the maintenance of the facilities and thousands and thousands of permanent jobs. Where we're focusing is on the entry into construction for a number of different trades and the technician jobs inside of these facilities. So we know that these are high volume manufacturing facilities, so there will be a variety of levels of technician jobs. We're still learning a lot about what those requirements are, what those skills are, but that's really where we're headed.

And in order to meet that, not only that direct demand, but also the thousands of supply chain jobs that are going to pop up, the restaurants, the municipal jobs that are going to be a part of that, the healthcare, the childcare, all of these pieces that are going to have to grow also at a similar rate. All of those pieces are going to have to expand. And so in order to meet that demand, we need to be able to find people who have not been working and find ways to bring them back into the workforce. But the other piece is also on the requirements for employment. So sometimes employers will say, well, the minimum for this job is a high school diploma or a college degree, or five to 10 years of experience. And the work that we do with companies is to really dig into that a little bit and say, well, what do you really mean when you say you need a high school diploma?

And sometimes they'll say, well, we want the person to demonstrate they've completed something. So what else do, oh, there's some basic math and basic English. But sometimes when you really try to pull that apart, an employer could be attracting a whole other pool of talent by changing their employment requirements. And so that's the other piece of the work is not just training, but it's also working with employers to change some of those requirements. Sometimes it's things like, can people apply for your job on a phone? Do you have to prepare a resume? What are the ways you could open up access to your job? So the question was about demand, and I kind of went into the solution, but I think there's, when we really face some of these large numbers, I think oftentimes people are like, oh, well, how are we going to find people? Are there really going to be jobs for people who live here? Absolutely. But it's going to require shifting how we all do things.

Yeah. I mean, I want to kind of hit on that employer piece a little bit harder here. That is a big part of your work is having the employers be a part of not only the training programming and curriculum, but also the application process and the hiring procedures. Why is that such an important part? Because it's a lot of work to have to go back and look through your hiring practices and make a curriculum for a training program on top of running a company. But it's important, right?

Yeah, I would say we work both with employers and we also work with building trades unions and apprenticeship programs. This does not work without their input, without their leadership. Not only do we have employers who will first tell us what the demand is, we have to really understand what is it that you're looking for? What are the skills that you're looking for? We have had employers who help design programs, who co-teach in programs, and ultimately these are employers - the end result of these programs is that employers hire people who go through these trainings. So they have to be involved at every stage in the process. Some employers are not available to do that kind of work. Some are. So we work with employers who can see they have a long-term need, this type of investment is essential for their long-term strategy. And that's where we found a lot of success. We've had programs where employers have been deeply engaged and been able to hire most of the class coming out of the program, like the Surge


Program, the Surge Defense Program, or Pathways to Apprenticeship Program. The places where we have a high level of engagement is proven to have better outcomes, but the other reason is that people coming into the program, they know where they're going. They can see, oh, this program is going to, if I do everything in this program and I finish it, there's a very high likelihood that I will end up at this employer or at this group of trade unions. It's not a sort of general training where then it's not as clear.

You have to figure out again, which job you want or where you're going after the training.

And we've learned a lot through the process of what type of model works best. And I think if we are working towards a place where we can be much more systematic with employers in learning in a clearer way what their demand is going to be, being able to standardize skill options across occupations. There's lots of employers that have similar occupations, but maybe in very different industries, pulling out those similarities and then being able to customize training in a much clearer way for maybe a smaller group of companies off of a standardized list of what are the 10 skills that you need people to be able to learn. So really we're doing that now, but we've got to get to a point where our sector is more nimble, we are more able to respond. Sometimes doing this process takes a really long time, and we've got to shorten that and make it more responsive not only to employers, but also to job seekers. So

I want to talk a little bit about the participants in these programs as well. Like you said, we are often asked, will there be opportunities for the people who are right here, right now? And the answer is yes, but a lot of the time, there's just confusion around language between job listings and current skills. So can you talk a little bit about the people who might be on the sidelines right now, but will be a great fit for some of the roles that are opening up in this community?

So one of the things that we've learned is that this, we call it advanced manufacturing because of the techniques that are used in that sector. It's more roboticized. It's more technological, but that works for an audience that is primarily industry sector leaders. Individuals in the community have told us when they hear the words advanced manufacturing, they think, oh, well, I need to have advanced skills. I need to have an advanced degree. And that's not actually true. There are so many jobs in advanced manufacturing that really don't require any degree at all. So the programs that we've piloted with our training partners have been trying to boil it down to what are those essential skills that are needed for the job and quickly getting people into those jobs. So I think those are the types of techniques that we want to keep doing more and more of so that people are, the jobs are more accessible to people, and those barriers are just not as high.

So that involves work with employers, work with training providers, identify where these opportunities are and what training partners are in a position to try something new. That's really what we're trying to do is look at the system level and go, where are there opportunities we can shorten the training, pay people for their time and training, do it in a different neighborhood, do it with a tighter connection to an employer. Those are the types of things that we pilot. And then when they are successful, then we try to make sure that they're continuously funded. And so that's really the path to making sure that these opportunities are available to people who live here. The other piece is building a bridge into training. So we are piloting the summer, a Bridge to Manufacturing careers program in Syracuse with a group of community organizations. And the purpose of this program is to help people prepare to succeed in community college in the programs that will prepare them for jobs in the semiconductor industry.

So that means brushing up on math, brushing up on English, getting your childcare figured out, understanding what is a semiconductor, what are the opportunities. That's really the first challenge is construction. People generally know what construction is. You might not understand some of the specific trades, but working in a semiconductor facility is a learning curve for people to just even understand - what is this industry? What are the opportunities? So, that's our work with our partners is to break that down and once people see it and understand it, we've done focus groups with folks in the community. Sometimes the response is like, yeah, that looks great. I could definitely see myself doing that. Other times responses are, oh, do I need specialized skills to do that? What do I really need? That seems really different. So we've got to break that down and make those pathways really clear for people.

We talked a little bit about it before, but I do want to dig in a little bit more dig in on construction because we have had a lot of success with the current programming that we've kind of piloted out of that being Pathways to Apprenticeship. So can you tell me a little bit about the industry partnerships formed there, how that is going, and how that's changing the workforce ecosystem around the construction industry?

So we were lucky enough to be able to work with the mayor's office to incubate and launch Syracuse Build as an initiative to focus on bringing more diverse talent into the construction industry. Women, people of color, un and underemployed people. Since that initiative launched a couple of years ago, we've had just over 200 folks go into careers in construction through a variety of different programs, mostly people of color and women, all Syracuse residents, and many of those folks are going into union apprenticeships. So our industry partnership is focusing on building partnerships with the building trades unions and their apprenticeship programs, because that is a very clear process to get into a building trades career. We're right now working with about a dozen unions and apprenticeship programs. We've created Pathways to Apprenticeship, which is a program that's 11 weeks. Students are paid for every hour they're in the program, and it exposes them to a variety of trades so they can figure out, well, which trade is really right for me? Do I want to be an ironworker? Do I want to be an operating engineer, electrician, a carpenter, and they come out of the program with some priorities about the trades that they want to pursue, and then go through the process of getting into the apprenticeship and going into that career field. So we're still growing and learning and changing. We've built this program with many, many partners in Syracuse, and now we're getting ready to expand it into counties and regions outside of the Syracuse area.

We're going to take a quick break here. We'll have more with Aimee in just a moment. But stay with us from a word from our presenting sponsor, NBT Bank.

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Welcome back to Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank. I'm Katie Zilcosky, director of communications at CenterState CEO, and your host for Talk CNY. I'm joined today by Aimee Durfee, CenterState CEO's, Vice President of Workforce Innovation. Aimee, thank you for being here.

Thank you.

Right before the break, we were talking about expanding workforce options, scaling up a big project coming down the pipe for us right now is the ON-RAMP project from Governor Hochul's budget. A flagship facility here in Syracuse. For those who don't know about it, can you explain a little bit about what it is, how this project came to be and where we are in the process?

Yeah, it's so incredibly exciting. So we knew that all of this demand was coming. We needed to have a physical location that brought all of our partners together, all of our best practices together in one place, and realized that we had a great example of this just down the highway in Buffalo, the Northland Training Center, which has got incredible outcomes, incredible success in bringing community college programs into the neighborhood, being able to provide people with supportive services like childcare and transportation, right in one place, bringing employers into the picture in one place. So it's sort of a one place where employers and job seekers can come together. And this came about as we were starting to figure out our planning for Micron and figured out that this would be an incredible way to actually dramatically accelerate our partner's progress and ability to expand. The ON-RAMP center in Syracuse will be a new organization, a freestanding organization.

CenterState CEO will not be running this organization, but we are leading the planning process with dozens of community partners to give their feedback and input and leadership and point of view to what this should look like. We want this center to be an economic development project as well as a workforce training center, so that it's also a beacon for employers and development. It's one thing that we saw in Buffalo is that the Northland Center has actually been a way to attract manufacturing employers into that neighborhood because they have already made workforce solution right there. So we're learning a lot from Northland. We're spending a lot of time talking with them. We took a busload of people over to Buffalo to tour the facility and really understand why they've been so successful. It's an incredible program. So we're just really excited to be able to launch that and keep the process moving with our partners here.

You mentioned the trip to Northland and some of the things that you had taken away from it being that it was an economic development project that brought employers into the neighborhood. But can you share other key takeaways from that trip? What else did you see that you were like, we can adapt this for our project in Syracuse?

They have an incredible physical building and that it's just really, it gives a single location for people to be able to go. It's not confusing. The people seeking work can just walk in the door and start the process. And that's what I think is going to be so exciting for bringing all of our partners into the process as well, because not only does it increase access to students, it also, they've been able to provide all kinds of employment services. So people are getting placed in employment after their graduating, supportive services. They have a bank in the building. They have a cafe in the building. It's just in a space that is multi-use and that is welcoming. It's beautiful to have a space like that where partners, employers, job seekers, can start to experience the synergies and have an experience of getting into employment that is fast and effective.

Employers are getting what they need. Job seekers are getting employment. One thing that we are going to do differently than Northland is that we are going to have an additional focus on the construction trades. So this will be a place where Pathways to Apprenticeship is run out of. We're working with the building trades to be able to identify types of skills that are common across the trades, certifications that they need, things that construction workers will need to know to work on the Micron project. So we're going to be adding that in as well. But the other thing we know is that people going into manufacturing and people going into construction, sometimes there's an overlap there, and those skills can be transferable. So we're hoping that by combining those sectors will actually be able to attract a larger number of people and give them more options to be able to find their career path.

We're still in the early stages of planning out what exactly ON-RAMP will look like in Syracuse and everything that will go into this eventual building and new physical space for workforce development. So can you explain a little bit about how this will fit in the workforce development ecosystem? Because is it a training partner? Is it? So where does it fit and how do you see it aligning with what we already have?

Yeah. It's a training center that will bring our training partners together. So it's not designed to replace any organization at all. Our primary training partners in the Syracuse area have been with us in this process from the beginning in terms of designing it. And what we want to do is be able to have our partners be able to bring the best of what they already do and compliment that with other organizations. I think we have a really exciting opportunity right now to take a look at what are those core skills that not only are going to be needed for Micron, but are needed for other manufacturers in the field right now, and try to bring programs together in a different way so that there actually is connection between different programs, different institutions, high school to SUNY EOC, to BOCES to the community college, to OCC.

How can those programs be connected and actually create an on and off ramp kind of path for people as they move forward in their careers? So we want to bring together the training providers, but also our supportive services partners. Could we put a childcare center near this hub? Could we have vans that take people around to work, to take people to training that take people to job interviews? We could put our vehicle program into this building, get people access to cars, partners who offer all kinds of health services, mental health services. I mean, the way that we want to bring this together is to actually create an experience for the job seeker that makes it easier for them so they don't have to go through and find all these services in different places, but those services are coming to them and they're complimentary to a career path journey.

So this is all very exciting. So what can the public expect going forward in maybe the next few months or next year when it comes to ON-RAMP?

Yeah, so we are just starting our planning process with all of our community-based partners, training providers, employers, trying to make it as broad a group as possible. And over the summer we'll be developing the initial framework, which will then become a business plan. Also, still understanding the budget, pulling all the pieces together before we move into an implementation phase. So, that's all very exciting and I'm sure a lot of work for you and our entire inclusive growth team. The whole team, yes.

Many, many people, yes.

But we look forward to what comes of it. And thank you so much for joining us here today to talk about it all. Thank


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