LIMERICK >> The TriCounty Area Chamber of Commerce put the focus on workforce development when it kicked off its new program year.

Specifically, the chamber shared a new way of approaching workforce development — Next Generation Sector Partnerships — which put business and industry at the center of the process and then build programs that meet specific needs.

Often, community organizations develop programs and then offer those programs to business leaders. It’s a model the chamber — and others — think can be improved.

At the chamber’s Sept. 7 membership breakfast, about 100 members heard from Michael Leister, director of partnership development for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry and Gwen Ross, director of workforce development Initiatives for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

“Workforce development continues to be a hot topic, especially for our region. We’re a little unique in the tri-county area because a lot of county services seem to be away from us,” said Eileen Dautrich, chamber president. “We wanted to organize our efforts and do what we can for the businesses in this community.”

Next Generation Sector Partnerships are regional business partnerships of business leaders in one industry who work together with public partners from economic development, workforce development, education and training and other community organizations to address shared workforce development and competitive needs of their industry.

It’s an idea Dautrich — and others — are working to bring to the region.

The idea of sector partnerships is not new in Pennsylvania, according to Leister, who said they have been in existence in the state since 2005.

“This is a shift in the way they operate. The difference here is business leaders are defining their agenda, collaborating with public partners to develop solutions and staying involved because they see results,” he said.

“This is an idea that just clicked for us when we saw it about 18 months ago,” said Ross. She added that every state and local agency has its own programming and wants to let businesses know about their programs.

“You just don’t have time to hear from all of us — through emails, surveys and phone calls. You don’t have time to serve on all our boards.”

She said the Next Generation Sector Partnerships can coordinate the efforts. They put the business leaders of specific industries at the center of any workforce development initiatives and puts the public partners into a support role.

The business leaders are asked what they need — what their priorities are — and the community organizations develop programs to meet the specific needs.

Dautrich and Holly Parker, executive director of TriCounty Community Network, began exploring Next Generation Sector Partnerships and whether it was something that would work in this area.

“Holly has the nonprofit organizations and those that have services they can provide to the businesses to help support their employees. We obviously have the business relationships with all of you, so we think with our two organizations and the impact we can have together, this is a great initiative moving forward,” Dautrich told members. She said the pair will work together as co-conveners of the process — bringing the business leaders and the community partners together.

“One of the biggest issues facing the organizations is duplication of services. This process reduces the duplication and lets the groups work more collaboratively and speak with one voice,” Parker said. “It allows organizations the opportunity to do what they do best.”

Several weeks ago, Dautrich and Parker hosted an information sharing meeting with several area community organizations. The first sector the group discussed as a possible partnership is healthcare.

Parker added that healthcare was seen as a good first sector for the initiative, because of the variety of types of healthcare and the range of workforce needs.

The next step in bringing Next Generation Sector Partnerships to the region, according to Parker and Dautrich, is a conference later this month in State College.

“We’ll be getting information on how it works — and whether it will be right for the area,” she said.

“I’m very excited — I’m looking forward to the opportunity to help all of you,” Dautrich told the gathering.

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