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The next big thing: build the workforce and reduce poverty

On Business
Rochester Business Journal
May 16, 2014

How often do we get the chance to improve our bottom line while also significantly and positively changing the life of another person? Filling a job opening at your organization with a recommended student, adult learner or veteran can give you an excellent, productive, dependable employee and improve your bottom line.

The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, of which I am a member, is offering employers this win-win proposition. Its education and workforce development committee has worked to connect employers with reliable workers since last August and already has commitments for 315 jobs.

So how did this wonderful initiative come about? Over the last nine years, Rochester Business Alliance has brought together many business and community leaders who have addressed wellness and health care issues. We have a health care CEO group that meets four times a year. A committee of experts and representatives of this CEO group meets each week at RBA to execute our various programs. Our goal is to be the healthiest community in America, and we are well on our way. We have had great success that has received both local and national recognition.

As chairman of our health care CEO group and co-chairman of the FLREDC, Danny Wegman asked Monroe Community College president Anne Kress to speak to the CEO group last year about things she and MCC were working on. Kress chose to speak about MCC’s work related to middle-skills jobs, which require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree, and she provided a wealth of data.

One of her most important points was that over the next five years, 16,000 middle-skills jobs in our region will not be filled because we do not have the trained workforce graduating from our high schools and community colleges. Further, studies have shown that the aging workforce of people in middle-skills jobs is not being replaced by younger workers.

Kress outlined the top five categories of jobs available—health care, advanced manufacturing, building trades, information technology and culinary arts. Among people who attended, her presentation created excitement and a passion to help.

Wegman saw this as a major economic development opportunity. He asked Paul Speranza, vice chairman of Wegmans Food Markets Inc., who also leads the weekly RBA health care group, to create a new education and workforce development group patterned after the very successful and collaborative health care group. This group meets once a week at Wegmans’ main offices and has already seen some excellent results.

The group has 28 high-level, experienced members who are passionate about helping our children and adult learners with job opportunities. They are representatives of businesses in the five categories of need mentioned above, as well as organized labor, government, school districts, community colleges, colleges and universities and civic organizations. Speranza, Kress, and Augie Melendez of Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection are co-leaders of the group.

One of its goals is to use all means available to change the mindset of students, parents, guidance counselors and everyone else in our community about the attractiveness of well-paying, available middle-skills jobs.

Another goal is to create multiple pathways to success and to make these jobs relevant, fun and lucrative. Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection is an important part of this initiative. HWSC helps economically disadvantaged students who are at risk of dropping out of high school and gives them the tools they need to succeed. Those tools include mentors, tutors, training and youth advocates; adults offer support to each student at school, at home and—once a student gets a job—at the worksite. Currently, 2,400 Hillside students are in the Rochester City School District.

In 2012, the RCSD graduation rate was 48 percent. That same year, Hillside students, when employed with a business partner like Wegmans or the University of Rochester, had a graduation rate of 93 percent. The need is extremely great, because only 5 percent of students graduate from city public schools with adequate preparation for college or a vocation.

If you choose to hire an employee or an intern from Hillside or other programs connected to the education and workforce development group, we assure you that involved students can learn the skills needed to truly help your business. In many cases, they may come to you already trained.

This pathway-to-success strategy can help break the cycle of poverty for that new employee. Since an average family in our community has three members, the 315 jobs already committed through the education and workforce development group help 1,000 people. 

We believe nothing in our community will have a larger and longer-lasting economic and social impact than this initiative. That is why we think this school-to-work initiative is indeed the next big thing for our community. If you’re interested in helping even one person break the cycle of poverty while helping your own business and its bottom line, please contact Joe Wesley of Wegmans at (585) 328-2550 or

Sandra Parker is president and CEO of Rochester Business Alliance Inc. Contact her at

5/16/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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