By Kathy Ames Carr, Crain Content Studio-Cleveland
ConxusNEO is working with the Akron Public Schools to help nurture talent for high-demand, high-wage career pathways. (PHOTOS PROVIDED BY COLLEGE CAREER ACADEMIES OF AKRON)
A talent system that works for everyone.
That was the goal three years ago when Summit Workforce Solutions was reimagined.
Now known as ConxusNEO, the nonprofit serves as the spine of Summit County’s workforce development system, feeding intentional efforts to promote economic growth by cultivating a high-performing talent system.
Since its inception, the organization has mobilized cooperation from business leaders, schools and colleges, workforce and economic development officials, and community leaders, working directly with public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit organizations.
The starting point?
ConxusNEO began by working through the needs of companies.
"ConxusNEO is a really unique public-private partnership,” said Gregg Cramer, vice president of economic development at the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce. “The No. 1 concern I hear from employers is not about incentives or deals, but the talent shortage. ConxusNEO has successfully worked with some of the largest employers in Summit County to identify what the workforce development needs are today and tomorrow.”
Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro echoed Cramer's sentiment. “Collaboration is the foundation of the exciting economic development projects currently under way in Summit County and it is crucial to the development that will occur in the future,” she said. “ConxusNEO is the link that connects stakeholders in business, government, education and workforce development so they can work together to improve our community.”
Indeed, the collaborative and actionable nature of the community-focused organization is being regarded throughout Northeast Ohio as a model for sustainable, inclusive regional growth, its stakeholders say, with a similar network underway in Cuyahoga County, through its nascent Workforce Connect.
“We are thrilled to have other partners in this space,” said ConxusNEO President Sue Lacy. “We are constantly looking for ways to align and coordinate our work with others to advance regional and statewide economic growth.”
For example, ConxusNEO connected with MAGNET, via a relationship with the Fund for Our Economic Future (Fund), to help that Northeast Ohio manufacturing advocacy organization establish a deeper presence within the Akron market. The Regional Information Technology Engagement (RITE) board, a regional information technology (IT) workforce alliance, is another partner with which ConxusNEO works closely to address the workforce needs of Northeast Ohio.
With an approach that’s echoed by the Fund’s The Two Tomorrows report, ConxusNEO’s strategy is to focus on talent, aiming to build capacity and improve the system as a whole by focusing on three economic growth sectors — manufacturing, IT and health care.
It identifies talent deficiencies and opportunities in these sectors by:
- Defining demand by analyzing local and regional labor market data;
- Developing and implementing strategies to meet demand, through collaborations with employers, educators, and community and economic development leaders;
- Embedding equity and inclusion to ensure that all populations participate in the region’s prosperity; and
- Measuring outcomes.
“We embrace the concept of the talent supply chain,” Lacy said. “Our model coordinates activities to best serve the end user, which is the company. We’re making steady progress by engaging with companies at a deep level to cultivate a talent ecosystem that works for everyone.”As of 2019, all Akron district high schools will assume a wall-to-wall college and career academy model, in which students will have the choice of 57 different career pathways to pursue within the various school academies. (PHOTOS PROVIDED BY COLLEGE CAREER ACADEMIES OF AKRON)
The employment picture in Northeast Ohio is not adequately portrayed by its historically low unemployment numbers and a demand for highly skilled workers, Lacy points out. Wages are declining for workers without college degrees — and even for some who have bachelor’s degrees.
Marginalized populations are being left out, which is a major threat to economic competitiveness and growth, Lacy said. Meanwhile, employers are in a persistent struggle to find talent, a problem likely to be exacerbated as baby boomers retire and high-skilled positions drive demand.
For every college graduate in Northeast Ohio, there are anywhere between three and 10 IT job ads, according to the “IT Skills Gap” report coordinated by ConxusNEO and the RITE board. Those entry-level IT positions — which include software developers, computer support specialists, systems analysts, and network administrators — represent a good chunk of the region’s high-demand, high-wage careers through the next decade.
ConxusNEO data show that between 2018 and 2028, projected demand for high-wage careers in Northeast Ohio will be in the following areas:
- Business and Financial, including Office, Sales and Management
- Health care
Specific occupations in these areas can be found HERE.
These occupations are projected to have a median wage of at least $15 per hour or higher and have at least 1,000 anticipated job openings.
After deep discussions with economic development officials, schools, and community and business leaders about the talent supply-demand disconnect, ConxusNEO spearheaded a recalibration of Summit County’s workforce development strategy.
“Instead of shooting arrows back and forth, so many different partners have come together to work on a common problem — talent,” said board member Kirstin Toth, senior vice president of GAR Foundation, a ConxusNEO funder and a member of the Fund. “Companies that were once competitors became collaborators because they understand that we as a region can go further by working together.”
Those companies helped inform the career pathways on which ConxusNEO is focused, including skills and training needed, occupation descriptions and median wages.
In 2016, Akron Public Schools partnered with ConxusNEO to develop its master plan to adopt the Ford Next Generation Learning model, a community-driven approach aimed at transforming teaching and learning by linking academic subjects to career themes; redesigning high schools; and driving sustainable change through civic and business leadership.
ConxusNEO worked with the school system to develop 57 career pathways, which align with the community’s high-demand, high-wage occupations, said Ellen McWilliams-Woods, assistant superintendent. By the time a student graduates eighth grade, he or she will have identified three career pathways they are interested in pursuing in high school, and in ninth grade, students will be exposed to experiences and information that will help them choose a pathway.
By September 2019, Akron Public Schools will fully assume the wall-to-wall College Career Academies designation, which means 100% of its student population will be enrolled in a pathway, working closely with business partners that will have a presence in the school and offer off-site experiential learning opportunities. Stark State College, Kent State University and The University of Akron also have partnered to fully integrate post-secondary curricula into the partner high schools.
“Companies are moving from the mindset of simply consuming the product the education system produces, to investing in the success of the education system,” Lacy added.
David Sattler, owner of Sattler Companies — parent company of a Sharon Center-based family contract machine shop — lauds the efforts of ConxusNEO and the Akron Public Schools’ transformation. He says ConxusNEO, of which he is chair, is demonstrating purposeful headway. While well-intentioned, previous attempts to congeal area workforce development efforts were unsuccessful, he said, since they stalled in silos.
The need for creative and inclusive inroads into manufacturing is essential to addressing what he deems as a 10- to 20-year skills gap. “Sue (Lacy) convened manufacturers at a roundtable early on in this process to identify talent gaps and the demand-driven jobs in Summit County. We are working together for the common good of the industry,” he said. “The whole region will benefit as a result.”
An essential part of implementing this comprehensive talent growth effort hinges on community-wide, equitable and inclusive participation. One of ConxusNEO’s priorities in Akron is to promote adequate access to economic opportunities for all — particularly the city’s black population.
“ConxusNEO is supporting community leaders and organizations to connect with information and resources that increase access to better paying jobs and great career opportunities,” Lacy said. As a key partner helping to support the new Elevate Akron economic plan, ConxusNEO is developing strategies to increase opportunities in manufacturing, IT and health care.
At the onset of 2019, ConxusNEO board members will decide next steps for measuring the progress toward the goal of a high-performing talent system. “We’ll be examining the performance of the system at key points, including the participation of different segments of the population,” Lacy said.
ConxusNEO’s emerging partnership with the health care sector will be formalized this spring at its annual ALIGN event. The partnership includes exploring closer collaborations with Summa Health System, Akron Children’s Hospital and Cleveland Clinic Akron General to generate a shared, more robust talent pipeline, Lacy said. “We’re also working very closely with Stark State Akron to bring programs to that campus that will meet the workforce needs of the health care sector,” she said.
ALIGN is an annual event focused on solving talent system challenges. ConxusNEO will celebrate its progress, create new structures to scale up the work and develop key performance indicators to ensure sustained success.
This year’s theme is: Why is inclusion good for business and why is equity an essential component to regional talent and economic system success? The event is 8 a.m. to noon on April 11, at Hilton Akron/Fairlawn, 3180 W. Market St., Akron. For more information, visit conxusneo.jobs/align/.
Meanwhile, Cuyahoga County’s public-private partnership, Workforce Connect, will focus in January on identifying and supporting an intermediary organization in manufacturing, followed later in the year by IT and health care. The intermediary organizations in each sector will be charged with talent attraction and workforce development. The county is putting $1 million toward this effort, with up to $1.5 million of additional support coming from philanthropic sources.
“The outcome should be more businesses at the table saying what their needs are and more residents overcoming barriers to get on career pathways with family-sustaining wages,” said Deaconess Foundation President and CEO Deborah Vesy, chair of the initiative’s Workforce Funders Group, and leader of the Fund’s job preparation work.
ENVISIONING A BETTER TOMORROW SERIES
In partnership with Crain Content Studio-Cleveland, the Fund for Our Economic Future will illustrate through a series of custom reports published between November 2018 and April 2019 the positive momentum, benchmarks and work yet to be done as it relates to The Two Tomorrows report. All of the content will be available at www.CrainsCleveland.com/TwoTomorrows. New stories will be available the second Monday of each month through March, as well as on April 15.