Jan McKeel, executive director at South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance (SCTWA), is a speaker at the fifth annual National EMSI Conference in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, September 21-23. Below is an interview we conducted with Jan on her work, her inspiration, and her vision for how workforce boards can succeed as regional leaders.
1. Why workforce development? What made you feel called to your job?
Workforce development was never the career goal for me, yet every job—every academic pursuit—led me to this career path. And I cannot imagine doing anything else professionally.
I’ve worked in the private sector as a financial analyst; I’ve taught business and accounting courses at a number of colleges; and along the way I’ve worked as a consultant. The common theme throughout has been the thrill I get from seeing students, jobseekers, or entrepreneurs determine the path needed to get the career they want, then figure out how to complete that path to a paycheck.
“Connecting employers with educators and economic development to the benefit of our community is what I do, and I absolutely love it!”
Once I became part of the workforce development community, I got the additional thrill of assisting employers (new or existing) establish and grow their workforce. Connecting employers with educators and economic development to the benefit of our community is what I do, and I absolutely love it!
2. As we highlighted in our case study of the Northfield Project, both SCTWA and you, personally, have taken a proactive role in your region. What are the keys for a workforce board to be at the table for such discussions and to be a regional leader generally?
There are a number of very basic principles; none of these items sound like great “ahas.” They are the things we all look for in any partner that you want at the table when trying to land a big project or reach a successful conclusion.
First, the workforce board must be recognized as having a product that’s needed—a reason to be at the table. We must have a great product, a solid connection to a viable, skilled workforce, and we must be able to deliver that product.
Second, workforce boards must be trusted. We must be reliable, competent, and able to produce deliverables in a timely manner. We can’t promise applicants if we don’t have skilled applicants. And we can’t deliver skilled applicants if we aren’t in touch with LMI and trends in employment; the pipeline can be long and we must drive jobseekers to the skills we need and will need in the future.
“We can’t deliver skilled applicants if we aren’t in touch with LMI and trends in employment.”
Third, and most importantly, we must be creative in the solutions that we offer. That might mean not knowing exactly what our product needs to be when we sit down with partners, but working with the partnership to create the product together. Bottom line, we must produce what we say we can produce and be trusted that we can deliver!
3. How much, in your mind, is workforce development tied to economic development and education? Do players from all three have to be involved to make a region like yours flourish?
Absolutely! We are all joined at the hip. Workforce development cannot work in a silo without education or economic development, just as neither of those partners can successfully work without workforce development. Synergy results in a better product.
4. What has been your favorite/most successful project? Can you narrow it down to just one?
My most favorite is always the one I’m currently working on. I work with multiple economic development partners, but recently we successfully landed an Italian tile producer after a two-year courtship. With over $100 million investment in South Central Tennessee, they have hired a consultant and their first two local staff—all professionals and recommended by our organization, with many more to be hired in the fourth quarter of 2015. What a rush to see folks going to work in dream careers that allow them to better care for their families! And to work with employers who become great corporate citizens and premier employers! I could go on and on….
5. Tell us about your adventure with Firehouse Subs Restaurants. What interested you in owning restaurants? Any cool stories?
The restaurants are my husband’s and son’s babies! My name is on the franchise but I’m better at greeting customers and cleaning tables, believe me—I did that all through my college years. We operate four restaurants in Kentucky and Tennessee. Probably what I’ve enjoyed the most is getting reacquainted with the basics of great customer service, which is applicable to workforce boards as well!
I absolutely love that we’ve jumped in up to our necks and are reaping the success of our efforts. I’ve said for years that everyone should have to meet a weekly payroll during their lifetime. It makes you appreciate business owners (large and small) when you have that constant pressure. At least I already know what retirement will someday hold for me…back where I started in the restaurant business!
6. Can you give a sneak peek at what you’ll be talking about at the EMSI Conference?
“EMSI data enables us to ensure that our customers reach the appropriate level of training.”
First, I’ll talk about how we use data from the standpoint of improving our workforce development efforts. Sometimes that is tied to education in determining programs we choose to fund, and growing the pipeline of skilled workers for in-demand occupations. EMSI data enables us to ensure that our customers reach the appropriate level of training whether at a community college, at a technical college, or in a certification program. If not, the data gives us the information needed to work with our education providers to create or tweak programs in order to meet demand.
Second, I’ll focus on how employment is related to economic development—our usage of EMSI data when working with prospective employers or existing employers who are trying to expand. We can evaluate availability of appropriately skilled labor: Do we have the workforce to fill the prospective jobs? Is training required? Are there any project gaps? Do we need to recruit individuals to specific occupations within the industry? We can use data to plan and to ease the minds of employers that our plan will meet their needs.
Finally, I’ll pull it all together to talk a bit about the project of a lifetime that you mentioned earlier—our Workforce Development and Conference Center at Northfield. It is the absolute embodiment of partnerships and is also a public/private venture. Amazing what can happen when you have a dream that is understandable and articulated. I’ve learned to never say “never”!