Chamber Executive Article Archive

Seven Chambers, One Big Goal

By Jessie Azrilian and Analidia Blakely

Seven chambers received ACCE’s 2014-15 Lumina Award for Education Attainment, a one-time award of $40,000 to support established efforts to grow the number of individuals in their communities with degrees and other high quality credentials. The awards program elevates the best practices of chambers leading work to significantly raise post-secondary education attainment in their communities. Chamber executives from the seven winning chambers share insights into what they’re doing to ensure students have the skills needed for success and employers have the talented workforce they demand. 

Aurora (Ill.) Regional Chamber of Commerce

“You have to rely on that collaborative piece, especially when you’re a chamber with limited staff. There is nothing that we do that is 100 percent driven by the chamber, whether its programs, events, or advocacy,” says Joseph Henning, President & CEO of the Aurora Chamber. Situated 35 miles west of Chicago, the chamber serves as a catalyst for business development for the second largest community in Illinois. The chamber works with community partners to provide career exploration, awareness and development opportunities for students in grades 9-14 in the areas of information technology, health sciences and advanced manufacturing. A curriculum implemented in partnership with Pathways to Prosperity is designed to expose students to different careers, and allows them opportunities such as earning dual credit with local community colleges, industry certifications, and stackable credentials (meaning credentials that build upon one another), by the time they graduate. For example, students within the Health Sciences Pathway graduate prepped for CNA Certification. After graduation, they can build on that to earn a Registered Nurse certification. Stackable credentials are key. “Essentially, we’re designing these pathways and credentials in a way that teaches students to understand the value of adding education and certifications to their portfolio after graduation,” Henning says.

To address a growing skills gap, the Chamber signed an MOU with the City of Aurora, the community college, and four local school districts. “With that MOU, we have an official partnership, and each entity can now hold each other accountable.”

Joseph Henning, president & CEO,
Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce


Birmingham (Ala.) Business Alliance

The BBA is focused on building a dynamic 21st century workforce pipeline that supplies Birmingham employers with highly skilled, credentialed, educated and ready-to-work job candidates. To do this, the BBA has placed a focus on innovative programs in k12 classrooms (career themed academies), retention and attraction of young professional talent to fill high demand jobs (The Talent Recruitment Project and OnBoard Birmingham), and the alignment of two-year and four-year curriculum with the job needs of local industry (Alabama Workforce Training Center).

Much of the work that the BBA has done to this was inspired by the regions five-year strategic plan, Blueprint Birmingham, initiated in 2010.  “Now more than ever, it’s important for organizations like the BBA to place a high priority on increasing the level of post-secondary attainment within our community. As the availability of skilled talent continues to dominate the decision making process of where companies expand and relocate, it’s important that we continue playing an active role in this process. This includes communicating industries needs to educators at all levels, developing training programs that specifically meet the needs of industry, such as our newly opened Alabama Workforce Training Center for construction and manufacturing skills, and convening community stakeholders around a unified mission of growing our region’s economy.  Overall, we want to make sure the companies that invest in the BBA and in our region are able to find the talent they need to fill the highly skilled jobs of today and tomorrow.” says Waymond Jackson, V.P., Workforce Development.

A Strong Talent Pipeline Starts Early

BBA advocates for expansion of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K. As of 2012, only 4 percent of four-year-olds had access to one of the highest-rated pre-K programs in the country. Since BBA began advocating, along with a host of other organizations, access to pre-K has risen to 12 percent statewide; funding rose from $19.1 million to $38.5 million. “The data on pre-K shows that it works. For that reason, expanding access to high quality pre-K has been a priority of not only our organization, but of our regional and state leaders, as well,” says Waymond Jackson, V.P., Workforce Development


Metro South Chamber

The Metro South Chamber of Commerce serves one of Massachusetts’ fastest growing regions: 18 communities south of Boston. The 101-year-old chamber has been a longtime champion of workforce development. Two years ago, the chamber received a $250,000 Workforce Training Fund Consortium grant from the state, which provides funds to several businesses within an industry sector for employee-training activities. Healthcare, the region’s top industry, was the obvious choice. The chamber-led Careers in Health program targets entry- and advanced-level healthcare employees who seek career advancement but require higher education, certification, or licensure. To implement the program, the Chamber contracted with four area colleges to develop curriculum and conduct training. Then, chamber staff reached out to healthcare employers from area hospitals and nursing homes to garner buy-in for the program’s value in reducing turnover and increasing the supply of skilled workers.(A large component of the Workforce Training Consortium grant was tracking return on investment for participating businesses). Grant funds cover employees’ tuition and training. A matching contribution from employers covers employees’ salaries while they receive training. To date, more than 205 incumbent healthcare workers have pursued career growth opportunities and received training resulting in degrees or certifications.

“All of our education/workforce development initiatives are grounded in research conducted with employers and the broader community, and they are the result of a cumulative effort over years of listening to community needs.”

Chris Cooney, CCE, CEO, Metro South Chamber


Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber

The words “collaborative partnerships” are often heard at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. Asked about the driving force behind the chamber’s education and workforce development efforts, Mary Stagaman, V.P., Regional Initiatives, said “Essentially, our chamber outsources workforce development. We rely heavily on our partner organizations to lead the way rather than duplicate their efforts within the chamber’s operations. We are partners not only in name; we are deeply invested in the work that they do… It is inherent that we align the work of many organizations, including our colleges, universities and other community partners, to make sure that together we are consistently moving the needle on education attainment.”

Data is another key component driving the chamber’s momentum in impacting education outcomes. “The use of consistent, credible data is critical to both knowing if you are making a difference and telling a story in a way that resonates and builds buy-in from different stakeholders,” Stagaman says. The chamber releases a biannual Regional Indicators Report, which 

evaluates the status of the Cincinnati region on 15 key indicators of economic health. What makes the data particularly valuable is seeing how Cincinnati performs compared to 11 other regions that it competes with for people and jobs. “The report has created a really valuable community conversation about how we are stacking up as a region. It created a sense of urgency to move the needle on the indicators that top-performing regions have in common,” Stagaman says.

“The Cincinnati Chamber’s strategic direction is pointing us toward aggressive efforts around talent attraction and retention.  Simultaneously, it’s essential that we support efforts to leverage the untapped potential of people in the region through aggressive education and training.”

Mary Stagaman, V.P., Regional Initiatives,
Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber


Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce

Not everything is Sunny in Sarasota. After the recession, employers in the city on Florida’s Gulf Coast faced several rounds of painful job cuts, yet still struggled to fill available jobs due to a lack of talent. To combat the skills gap, a community partnership led by the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce set an overarching goal of securing 30,000 new degrees by 2020. The Chamber’s Talent4Tomorrow Partnership is creating a comprehensive career pathways system, at both the high school and post-secondary level, which enhances students’ opportunities for career exploration, skills development and placement in high-demand, high-wage careers. With labor surveys showing a gap in manufacturing skills, a workforce development group called CareerEdge helped the school district create a curriculum called Precision Machining. The Sarasota County Technical Institute provided the space, local counties donated $330,000 for equipment, and local companies lined up to hire individuals who finished the course. Among other projects, the Talent4Tomorrow Partnership’s volunteer-led Manufacturing Action Team is working to bring the Manufacturing Skills Standards Certification into area high schools and has developed a community-wide career awareness campaign for high-demand careers in this industry.

“The most important factors involved having the right people at the table. In addition to private sector employers, our chamber’s board consists of the school superintendent, leaders from both city and county government, and four college presidents. During our board meetings and retreats, we have the necessary stakeholders listening to employers…”

Steve Queior, CCE, president,
Greater Sarasota Chamber


Greensboro (N.C.) Chamber of Commerce

The Greensboro Chamber of Commerce (est. 1877) joined the Greensboro Partnership when it was formed in 2005 to serve as the principal economic and community development organization in the city. As such, the partnership conducts regular workforce surveys to stay in tune with the demands of the labor market. After a 2012 workforce survey revealed 1,775 “difficult-to-fill” positions, Degrees Matters!, the Chamber and community partners set an ambitious goal to raise higher education attainment in their region to 51 percent by 2025. Together these partners are now focusing on adult college completion as part of this effort, specifically by engaging the 67,000 residents who have been to college but not received a degree. Their goal is ensuring at least 1,500 adults return to school, of which 1,000 complete their degrees by 2016. The 136 companies that responded to the workforce survey also revealed a critical need in the aviation industry for workers with aviation-related manufacturing and technical skills. The chamber collaborates on a marketing initiative called Aviation Triad that is funded by six community colleges, three cities, aerospace employers, a foundation, and the airport authority. Aviation Triad is now in its third year of filling available aviation jobs with qualified applicants. Through additional partnerships, they plan to expand the initiative to reconnect returning military personnel to aviation jobs.


Greater Omaha Chamber

“Making quality relationships a focus of your work and being that convener bringing people together is crucial,” says Sarah Moylan, director, Talent and Workforce, Greater Omaha Chamber. The Chamber leads a multi-pronged strategy to build a strong cradle-to-career system that ensures workforce partners are in alignment. “We convene partners to provide data on where jobs are and what skills they require, and then work on how to realign programs, such as those focused on Information Technology and STEM, to meet those industry needs,” Moylan says. Part of that strategy is expanding career awareness programs and marketing strategies focused on engaging students at a young age. One campaign taking place within schools exposes youth to IT and STEM careers, helps shift student perceptions about these careers, and directs them to outside opportunities to work alongside professionals. The Chamber also hosts teacher internships that help educators learn hands-on about STEM and IT careers and the kinds of skills needed to land those jobs. Participating teachers are paid for their time and are required to submit new lesson plans that incorporate what they learned from their internships into their curriculum.

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