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Grasso settling in as Workforce Investment executive director

PLATTSBURGH After nearly a month on the job, Paul A. Grasso Jr. speaks of his role as executive director of the North Country Workforce Investment Board as if hes been there forever. Thats probably because the position he took on Sept. 27 isnt much unlike his previous one. Mr. Grasso came to the North Country from San Diego, Calif., where he served as vice president and chief operating officer of the San Diego Workforce Partnership, an organization not unlike the local Workforce Investment Board. Serving Clinton, Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties, the mission of the North Country Workforce Investment Board, said Mr. Grasso, is to develop and sustain an effective and efficient workforce development system that meets the needs and expectations of those we serve. Simply put, a collaboration the WIB has with private business, organized labor, government and community-based organizations is the driving factor to improve the quality of the local workforce. Through partnerships with and funding assistance to organizations such as OneWorkSource, which assists people in finding new or different occupations and employers find qualified employees, the WIB seeks to assure employees are matching the needs of employers. Training programs are not unlike a manufacturing process, said Mr. Grasso. If you look at the clients we serve, theyre really the raw material. The training programs are the manufacturing process and at the end of that, we turn out a widget-maker, for example. Well, if we havent trained that widget-maker to the standards that Widgets of America is going to hire, the employer is not going to buy the product any more than you or I would buy a defective product in a store. So, what we need to understand is what the person at the end of the line wants and needs what they consider to be a qualified employee, added Mr. Grasso. In experience gained at his previous position in San Diego, Mr. Grasso recalled a shipbuilding firm hiring on a routine basis. The firm had several sizable government contracts. That workforce partnership hosted several welding training programs, but had trouble placing a welder with the company, leaving the partnership to question what was syncing. We finally went out and talked to the shipbuilder and he told us with the work there, you needed to be able to weld upside-down, under water, explained Mr. Grasso. None of our training programs provided that training. That realization demonstrated a key point to the San Diego Workforce Partnership training is only as good as its effectiveness in the job market. Prior to training even beginning, Mr. Grasso said its important to get a sense of what businesses want and need from the training programs the WIB can subsidize, then translate that for the training providers. My job is to get involved at the beginning of the process talk to employers, get an understanding of what they need, translate that back and see that it gets incorporated into their training programs, said Mr. Grasso. In addition to OneWorkSource, the WIB works closely with the state Department of Labor, state Education Department office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities and learning institutions such as Champlain Valley Educational Services and Clinton Community College. One of the great things about the Workforce Investment Board is that our outcomes are set by federal standards our employment rates, salaries, skills attainment, Mr. Grasso said. The real thing the board can do, is be the conveners. We can bring education together and business together because we dont have a vested interest in the outcome other than we improve the system. If we can get business and education talking to one another, solving problems and creating a better system, thats terrific. Communication is key, he added, saying the board also needs to be in constant contact with leaders at the state and federal levels to communicate the needs of organizations it works with in developing a highly-skilled workforce through essential services and programs. Coordinating with local chambers of commerce and economic development agencies in strategic planning is also a necessity to reaching that goal, he said. Economic development and workforce development are opposite sides of the same coin, said Mr. Grasso. We need to understand what businesses are coming into the area, what the occupations are that are going to be growing in the area, what the qualifications for them are going to be so we can meet their needs. While Mr. Grasso hails from an area with a considerably more dense population where San Diego and Clinton counties have four million and 180,000 people, respectively many of the issues facing both areas are the same, said Mr. Grasso. Youve got border issues, said he said, which are obviously much more contentious in southern California than they are here in upstate New York. And theres brain drain, where many of your young intelligent individuals believe there arent opportunities here, and are going off to more metropolitan areas. One of the ways the workforce and its quality can be increased is by the retention of those young minds the millennial generation, as Mr. Grasso referred to them. Its matching the interest of the young people to the jobs that are available, said Mr. Grasso. Hospitals are looking for nurses. If you want to become a nurse and you want to stay in the region, you can do that here. You dont need to go somewhere else. Most employers will say, Give me an employee whos enthusiastic, has a passion for the work, will show up on time, will come back from lunch, can work in teams and has problem-solving skills that dont involve automatic weapons, and I can teach them to do just about anything, said Mr. Grasso. A key component to training future employees is what Mr. Grasso calls work-based learning. Work-based learning is very successful. Its getting young people into the workplace to understand why certain things are important. Teaching people in isolation doesnt really work that well, he said. A prime example of just that, Mr. Grasso said, is something he witnessed at a public safety academy in California, where police officers and firefighters learn skills they need to be able to do their jobs effectively in an on-the-job sort of atmosphere. It was there a frustrated student questioned the head of the firefighters union why math was so important in his particular line of work as a firefighter. The union head returned the question with one of his own, asking students what they believed their job would entail when connecting a hose to a fire hydrant. Theres a lot more than twisting the wrench, Mr. Grasso explained. Your real job is to make sure the pressure in the hose is sufficient to fight the fire, but not so high that the firefighter is fighting the hose. You do that by adjusting the pressure based on the distance from the hydrant to the fire, whether the hose is running uphill or downhill, whether its winter or summers, factor in the friction in the hose. He told them they had about 90 seconds and no calculator. Mr. Grasso said the man then asked the students if they understood why math was so important. Suddenly, it was like a light when on for these kids, said Mr. Grasso. So, they went back with a different understanding why something like math is so important. Not only does realizing something such as that early in the game help a person hone their job skills, said Mr. Grasso, it also helps them determine whether or not they are in the right career field. Its very important to know what you want to do, and sometimes, its very important to know what you dont want to do, said Mr. Grasso.

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