Chamber leads brainstorming on workforce

Dee Schafer doesn't pretend to know the answers to the workforce issues that challenge employers in Reno and Sparks.

But Schafer, the new chair of the Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, knows that the answers are likely to come only after employers, school officials and representatives of other public agencies get to the same table for some serious talk.

And she figures that the chamber might act as a catalyst to get some movement on an issue that its members repeatedly identify as one of the two most difficult they face. (The other is cost of health coverage.)

A think tank spearheaded by the chamber's board has brought educators from the Washoe County schools, Truckee Meadows Community College and the University of Nevada, Reno, together with representatives of business groups and agencies such as Nevadaworks, which is responsible for workforce development.

Among the goals of the task force, Schafer says, is an inventory of the efforts that are under way to make sure that employers can find skilled workers.

And that doesn't necessarily mean college-educated workers with highly polished skills.

"To be successful, we have to provide a wide range of workers at all different levels," says Schafer.

That approach is supported by the county's school district, which continues to pay close attention to the skills of its graduates who go immediately into the workforce.

"Not all of our kids leave here and go to college," says Steve Mulvenon, a spokesman for Washoe County School District. "We've got to have feedback from the people who are hiring. This is an absolutely good thing."

TMCC officials, too, see strong potential in the chamber's effort.

"Because TMCC prepares students to enter the northern Nevada workforce, we're pleased to be part of the chamber's planning effort and believe the chamber will play an important role in meeting the evolving needs of local employers," says Philip M. Ringle, TMCC president.

But what form might the answers take?

"I don't have preconceived ideas," says Schafer. "Any direction it takes us will help."

If nothing else, she says the initiative will help chamber members understand the issues surrounding workforce development and point out ways in which individual business executives can play a role.

"Everybody wants to work together for a solution," Schafer says. "I strongly believe that. Everyone is willing to put aside turf considerations for the greater good."

Another likely benefit of the initiative, she says, is a growing awareness that businesses and schools have a shared interest in developing a skilled workforce as well as better communication about the ways it can be accomplished.

It's not accident, Schafer says, that Michael Pennington, the chamber's public policy director, is the staff member assigned to the workforce initiative. It's possible that the task force will need to talk with state officials about changes in Nevada law as a result of their discussions.

And she says the effort dovetails with work such as the Target 2010 project of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, an economic plan that seeks to combine a growing economy with protection of the region's quality of life.

"We're doing this because it is so important to the community from a quality-of-life standpoint," Schafer says. "If we don't grow our workforce, what happens to our quality of life?"


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