Jennifer Yazell isn't looking for a government handout to give job seekers a hand up with the new Eastern Jackson County Workforce Training Consortium.
"Everyone is in for their own success," Yazell said. "It's a great way to use people's talents and self-interest. I like it because it's not entitlement charity that doesn't have a larger, better good."
Yazell's stance meshes with the mission of the consortium, which she helps support as a training and performance consultant with the Business & Technology College of the Metropolitan Community Colleges.
The consortium, which characterizes itself as the largest such organization in Missouri, was established this year in response to reduced state financing for job training - $6 million a year from $22 million, said Jim Devine, CEO of the Lee's Summit Economic Development Council.
Devine gets credit for establishing the consortium, which serves 11 companies employing about 3,000 people in Eastern Jackson County. Shortly after Devine arrived in Lee's Summit three years ago, he met with officials of the city's manufacturers' council to assess their needs. One of their top priorities was to provide better training for supervisors and front-line employees.
This desire led to a pilot program, the Lee's Summit Management Training Academy, in the fall of 2000. Participants received five days of instruction and feedback on such topics as conflict resolution, employee development and leadership skills.
Devine said he quickly recognized how this education could help improve the business climate in Lee's Summit.
"Work force availability and skill set availability is the key driver to attract or retain companies," he said. "The economic development organization that can demonstrate to new or existing companies that requirement is being addressed and met on a long-term, committed basis will put the community ahead of the competition.
"It demonstrates our community understands the needs of employers and helps solve them and not just react."
Armed with the support of Longview Community College in Lee's Summit to provide worker training, Devine contacted Yazell in December. In February, the consortium was formed. "There's strength in numbers," Devine said. "Eastern Jackson County is trying to position itself as a force in the metropolitan area and in Jefferson City."
Other believers in this agenda include Ron Haughton, Polytainers Inc.'s plant manager in Lee's Summit. Polytainers is one of the consortium's charter members. In March, Haughton was elected as chairman of the group. Haughton said the consortium is breaking down barriers among its members. "We have overcome competition with each other," he said. "I have direct competitors in the consortium. We're sharing resources instead of trying to steal each other's people."
More than half of the consortium's members are from Lee's Summit. Also represented are companies from Blue Springs, Grandview and Independence.
Nancy Kujawski, human resources manager for Unilever Foods in Independence, said the consortium will more efficiently train Unilever's work force of about 290 people than the company could on its own by consolidating its resources with those of other employers and eliminating overlap.
Economic development groups in Eastern Jackson County provided initial financing for the consortium. Additional money came from member companies. The investments have been modest - no more than several thousand dollars apiece. The consortium also has sought money from the state.
Fran Owens, Blue Springs' economic development director, downplayed the need for this backing. The consortium's grass-roots approach can stand on its own, Owens said. "By crossing individual bridges, we have internally generated resources instead of being dependent on outside organizations," he said.
"There's a little bit of ingenuity, self-determination and interest in serving the common good."
The consortium's first program will begin in late August or early September. It will provide leadership training for front-line supervisors. Classes will meet once a week for six weeks. Other topics will be covered in later classes, which will take place at all hours. They'll meet on-site at consortium members' facilities and at the Business & Technology College.
The goal is to provide workers with a continuum of training that will take them from entry-level positions to management. Retaining employees reduces costly recruitment and retraining.
Devine in Lee's Summit said he hopes to expand the consortium by establishing a council of members' human resource directors and plant managers who will examine issues in addition to work force training.
This self-help strategy fulfills a range of best future economic development practices the Lee's Summit Economic Development Council has identified.
As well as promoting regional collaboration, the consortium fosters cooperation by establishing partnerships between the city, higher-education institutions and employers that will coordinate education with jobs.
Within two or three years, Devine said, this model for what he termed a customer-driven program will become a viable alternative to government entitlements that are plagued by bureaucracy.
The intent is to enable companies to better empower their employees with lifelong skills. Rather than replacing government aid, the program aims to enhance its value.
Devine and Yazell from the Business & Technology College will carry this message when they explain their methods in October at a work force training conference convened by Missouri Gov. Bob Holden.
"We want to create a public-private partnership that's self-supporting," Devine said. "All too often, government thinks it knows what business needs and devises programs that fit those needs. The consortium feeds on itself and will feed its own needs."
The Kansas City Business Journal, Jim Davis, August 2002.