Workforce issues are regional and today we are going to be joined by Beth Weisbrod, the Vice President of Talent and Workforce at the Chamber of Commerce in Richmond, Virginia, known as Chamber RVA. We’ll be talking about challenges and opportunities to build a more resilient workforce.
0:01 Pieta Blakely
Workforce issues are regional. Today, we’re talking about the director of workforce initiatives at the Chamber of Commerce Richmond, Virginia known as Chamber RVA. And we’re going to be talking about some of their innovative strategies to build a more resilient regional workforce.
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0:45 Pieta Blakely
Good morning and welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds, a 30-minute conversation with and for leaders of mission-based organizations about leading through uncertain times. Over the last few weeks we have been talking about workforce issues. There’s been a lot of change in this area and today we are talking to Beth Weisbrod. She is the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce in Richmond, Virginia and she directs workforce initiatives there. She’s a non-profit leader with experience in managing complex partnerships and multi-sector alliances, and we’re going to be talking about some of the Innovative strategies that she’s employing here in Richmond. Good morning, Beth.
1:26 Beth Weisbrod
Good morning, Pieta.
1:28 Pieta Blakely
Good to see you. How are you?
1:31 Beth Weisbrod
I’m doing well. It’s nice to see you, too.
1:33 Pieta Blakely
So, the chamber has been particularly focused on retaining workers in the region. Talk a little bit about that. Why is that important?
1:44 Beth Weisbrod
Sure. So, as most folks know, a chamber of commerce is in the business of creating a healthy business environment for its region and its members and to the extent that a robust talent pipeline and a healthy workforce is the very basic building blocks of that. We have gone in heavily into ensuring that the Richmond region has both of those things.
2:17 Pieta Blakely
And so, one of your strategies is particularly around the colleges that are in the area and we should say Richmond is a little bit of a college town. There are four I think, universities right here.
2:29 Beth Weisbrod
Well, you know, we have four major universities but we have 10 higher ed institutions. So, that includes community colleges, nursing schools, things like that, for a total population 74,000 college students. And trying to retain them once they’ve finished those programs in the region is a big, big focus of what we do. Around the country talent retention has become a game of winners and losers; and so, Richmond is very serious about its goals in being one of the winners.
3:09 Pieta Blakely
And what do you do to make that happen?
3:12 Beth Weisbrod
So, we do a number of things and we started with a lot of research into perceptions of Richmond and particularly with the gen’s ears. We want to make sure that those who graduate stay here for that first job because once we think they do that then they’re going to be hooked, or they get handed off to another chamber program to ensure that they get hooked and that their trajectories include staying in Richmond.
But what we found in this research in perceptions of the region is one, is that we’re still just a tobacco town and for those of you that know anything about Richmond, Virginia, that was very much our history. Philip Morris was a big tobacco company that for years was a leader in manufacturing cigarettes and other tobacco products, and put Richmond on the map quite frankly early on. And what’s happened since then obviously, cigarettes are not really an industry that any region wants to hang their future around.
So, Philip Morris has become Altria. They are still a Fortune 500 company and very active in the chamber and as a corporate citizen they do really amazing things here. But we’ve also been able to diversify our economy quite well and so, now we have a lot of Health Care sort of anchor institutions, biotech, still manufacturing; but a lot of finance insurance. And that is one of the assets of Richmond, I think, that we don’t have the boom and buzz of those regions that are kind of dependent on singular…
5:04 Pieta Blakely
Focused on a singular industry. Yeah and this is… I would call it a mid-sized city 250 000 people I think in the city of Richmond.
5:16 Beth Wesibrod
So, in the city, right. Around the region though we kind of consider the Richmond region to include counties all around at least –I mean there are seven of them in the chamber’s footprint but, quite a few more that are in our metropolitan statistical area. But 1.3 million is sort of what we go on as our population.
5:38 Pieta Blakely
Yeah. And so, tell me some of the things that you found out that young people were looking for in a city to live in.
5:46 Beth Weisbrod
Well… so, that is really where I think our research was most valuable. Gen Z-ers look at the world quite differently than say, Boomers and gen X-ers, in that the influences that they encountered growing up they’re the first generation that always had smartphones in their world. So, obviously we’ve seen it but the phone plays an outsized role in their socialization and their overall world view for sure.
But anyway, one of the things we found out is that they didn’t realize that we have eight Fortune 500s and we have a diverse set of career pathways that it’s really simple for us to get to include that in our message. The challenge for us is getting that message out constantly. But there’s that. Then there’s the perception you know, recently, like a lot of cities around the country we had a lot of problems with social unrest and social justice issues in 2020 that made national headlines. So, we’re trying to very quickly and in a way that gen Z’s find authentic is to let them know that we are not the capital of the confederacy anymore.
We have a very rich cultural fabric and a very diverse cultural fabric and there are a lot of ways that young people can be part of our evolving history. So, we try to get out the quality of life the diversity of life, as well as the quality of career opportunities here.
7:29 Pieta Blakely
I think one of the things that we have heard from so many different sources is people’s attitudes to where their career fits in their life are different now than they were pre-pandemic.
I think we had a woman on two weeks ago who said our eyes were opened in the pandemic. We had more time. We were separated from the rushy-rushy of our routines and we clarified our values. And there are a lot of ways in which people are not going back. So, I imagine there’s some appeal to a city like Richmond; like lower cost of living, tons of outdoor space. Those are some of the things that I think are probably like valued, like more central in people’s decision making than they were a few years ago.
8:27 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah and I’m glad you mentioned that, Pieta, because during the pandemic and that chapter where everybody was remote, we were the lucky recipients of a lot of young professionals who left more expensive cities to come and set up shop in one that their paycheck went a little bit farther, and that is something we lead with when we talk to students about the quality of life here in addition to not having the same stresses of a larger city.
So, even in a hybrid setup where maybe you commute two or three days a week and you get Mondays and Fridays at home, commuting in Richmond is not a thing. You know, the average time is so small and traffic is not an issue. That too, you know, in our analysis we know that most of the talent that leaves here goes up to bigger sexier cities. So, ashington DC, New York City; great cities, tons of cultural amenities and all of those things. But also, some of the problems that right now Richmond doesn’t have.
9:42 Pieta Blakely
Yeah. So, what are the partnerships? Who’s involved in this and what’s working?
9:50 Beth Weisbrod
Well, you know that’s another great question, Pieta, because the the chamber sees itself as a convener, and while we do hire people, we’re a small organization. We depend on employers to tell us what their recruitment challenges are, to tell us what are the obstacles to offering work-based learning opportunities? Because those are a huge lever in talent retention. If a student does an internship here in Richmond, the chances of them coming back for that first time full-time job is so much higher.
So, we listen very closely to what the business community is telling us. And the other piece which is kind of you know “a-ha, how did we not know this a long time ago,” is getting higher ed to the table when employers are talking about these issues. What I have learned in those conversations have been… they have gone straight to our success and understanding how we can help employers and higher ed on both sides of this equation.
11:01 Pieta Blakely
That is you know, like traditionally such a disconnect. The colleges are off doing one thing. If there is a connection at all, it’s in the internship office.
11:15 Beth Weisbrod
Right and there are parts of the pie that are are quite robust relative to collaboration between higher ed and employers, but what we’ve discovered is that’s just small slivers. So, if let’s say the business school at Virginia Commonwealth University which is the largest one in Richmond with an enrollment of about 28 000 students…
11:37 Pieta Blakely
11:38 Beth Weisbrod
They talk all the time with the region’s largest employers. But does the art school or does… you know, some of the other programs who send students straight to New York City, do they have as much of a collaborative relationship with these employers as other parts of the college does? So, when we find these these gaps we do what we can to bring them all together and say let’s at least let your students know all the facts before they decide they need to go somewhere else to fulfill what they want you know, their pathway to be.
And that’s been a lot of fun to see the improvements in those pipelines, those communication pipelines come together.
12:31 Pieta Blakely
And you’ve got some innovative and unusual things like casual networking events, a picnic event… talk a little bit about that.
12:43 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah. So, one of the things we found out in at least our focus groups within Richmond is that students don’t get off campus…
12:52 Pieta Blakely
12:53 Beth Weisbrod
–for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t have a car or they’ve heard that it’s dangerous which is one of the misperceptions we’re working hard to dispel. We do what we can to get them off campus as early as possible and plug them into some of the more cool destinations around the region.
So, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has something that every student seems to enjoy once they get there.
13:18 Pieta Blakely
Which is literally a mile from — but I know when I was an undergrad, I would not ever have made that track.
13:24 Beth Weisbrod
Well, it’s funny you say that because I did talk with a Junior at VCU in in our last VMFA Meetup and she said, “Yeah, this is my first time here. I didn’t know it was a here,” and as you know, we have the most beautiful sculpture garden where you can just spread out a blanket and enjoy a beautiful day and it’s free and safe and all the things.
And I said, “Why haven’t you discovered this? I need to know.” And she said, “We have everything on campus that we need and so, we don’t have to to go to a grocery store that’s far away. We have restaurants. We have you know, other retail right there.” Yeah and that was interesting to me because that’s something we’ve got to to work really hard to do. But one of the things we recently did was try this thing called College Jam where we invited students from all of our higher ed institutions – all 74 000 of them to come to the riverfront for a career fair. And then after a couple hours we had a band and we had cornhole and Jenga and food trucks. So, we were trying to merge this fun party social thing with making connections with employers and it went quite well for sure, except we made a tactical error and we got a really loud band. So, once the band started off, all the networking sort of stopped.
14:53 Pieta Blakely
Well, you know that’s a that’s a lesson for next time.
14:57 Beth Weisbrod
We can always improve. But conceptually speaking, you know, employers loved it because there was good student attendance and students loved it because they hadn’t largely seen that part of Richmond and they it was a productive use of their time for sure.
15:12 Pieta Blakely
Yeah and I think it reflects some of the ways people think differently about picking a job.
15:20 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah, we want it to be fun and not stressful. We pretty much said leave your resumes at home. Do not wear business clothing. The employers were happy about that too because yeah you know it’s sometimes a bit of a schlog to get through you know four hours of a career fair. So, yeah, it was good.
15:40 Pieta Blakely
Yeah outside in the heat, yeah. Yeah and you know people are reluctant to spend eight hours a day with people that they don’t like.
15:52 Beth Weisbrod
Or don’t know… especially students. You know, human interaction face-to-face is out of their comfort zone for the most part. I talked to higher ed you know, at the professor level and they they talk a lot about that that it’s right now a very scary thing that they’re seeing; is that students will shy away from face-to-face type events.
16:20 Pieta Blakely
16:21 Beth Weisbrod
And we’ve got to get them back.
16:25 Pieta Blakely
Two years is a long time.
16.27 Beth Weisbrod.
16:28 Pieta Blakely
There’s so many skills that we just didn’t practice for two years.
16:30 Beth Weisbrod
Yes and for those of us who had a lot of years of practicing them, you know, coming back feels kind of good. But for those who were in the beginning of developing those skills, it doesn’t feel good.
16:44 Pieta Blakely
And then you add on a layer of… like doing it in a strange environment and all that. It’s very uncomfortable.
16:53 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah, so I’m hoping that our programming you know, will be instrumental in them realizing it doesn’t have to be scary and even if they don’t have networking skills, it doesn’t matter. Networking is really just talking.
17:10 Pieta Blakely
Yeah, yeah. So, what are you seeing coming out of that?
17:16 Beth Weisbrod
Well, a little bit of history. Our program started two weeks before the pandemic did. So, the first two years were all virtual and the way to track our effectiveness at that point was how many people were coming to our Zoom, how many students email addresses were we able to get and sort of tracked the digital effectiveness of our program. And since the in-person piece—and that’s only really been since the spring of 2022—colleges were sort of the last people to open up as far as allowing us on campus.
And then you know summer happened and now it’s fall. So, have we created you know this nice hockey stick trend of students? Suddenly you’re like oh, I’ve got to stay here because Richmond’s great.
18:14 Pieta Blakely
18:15 Beth Weisbrod
We can’t say that, but what I’ve been able to discern at least at this point is the Gen Z population has gone from declining to increasing in the last three-ish years. Again, probably heavily influenced by COVID. But it’s definitely encouraging.
And then attendance at our events, our brand recognition has gone way up, and that is the piece that will yield some pretty strong results going forward. And the other piece, too, Pieta, which I find interesting is talent retention and attraction programs around the country are kind of having the same challenge in deciding what the metrics are for effective programming. And obviously it is well, can’t you compare how many students are staying right after graduation versus before? But this whole thing about first destination tracking, that’s kind of new and a lot of times colleges don’t want to share that. And and that is the one metric that will tell us how we’re doing.
So, I can look at population trends and I can look at talent gaps and see if they’re closing and where it’s going, and assume it’s because of our work. But there’s so many factors.
19:40 Pieta Blakely
Well, I mean you know that’s my favorite kind of problem. And I suspect the colleges might not really know.
19:49 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah, it’s hard because they don’t attend on surveys and perhaps these students don’t answer the surveys.
19:59 Pieta Blakely
Yeah, they probably don’t. They probably don’t even have a reliable way to get in touch with the students if they’ve always been emailing them at a student email address. They probably would have a hard time reaching them a year later.
20:12 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah, but the the nice thing I think for us is that this is a super competitive time throughout the country in grabbing talent. There are shortages in all kinds of occupations, so if we don’t have a focused message to our college students, they will go somewhere else because someone else absolutely will be reaching them. And that’s what drives us. So, yeah.
20:36 Pieta Blakely
Right. I mean especially like these big universities and more prestigious universities have recruiters from all over the country and all over the world coming and talking to these students.
20:47 Beth Weisbrod
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. But you know, back to what they value, Gen Z-ers, being a part of making the world a better place is really high on their list. And the nice thing about Richmond is that we have so many opportunities to do that, and we’re small enough for them to feel like they matter.
21:08 Pieta Blakely
21:09 Beth Weisbrod
And that’s nice. I think Richmond is very well positioned to speak to those values that Gen Z-ers carrying with them.
21:19 Pieta Blakely
And what’s with the reaction of the employers to these kinds of opportunities?
21:26 Beth Weisbrod
You know, it’s been fantastic. So, small, medium, large and non-profits – their resources for recruiting are all stretched. So, we’ve been able to add value to that. We go to career fairs. We can represent opportunities that certain employers are offering. And we’re the ones with the consistent message about how great Richmond is. We did a Sizzle reel where we got a videographer who’s so talented… Myles… I’ll think of his last name. I’d love to give him a shout out.
22:07 Pieta Blakely
We’ll give him a shout out after the show.
22:08 Beth Weisbrod
Okay, good. When we launched that video we were inundated with emails from employers that said, “Can we use this?” “Can we use it on our website”” “Can we take it with us,” because we were able to capture the lifestyle that Richmond offers in a way that they were super excited about. Yeah, employers, they get it. They know they need this.
22:35 Pieta Blakely
Yeah, they need this. And another important part of this, too is we have to work on this together. The employers are partnering here and saying like we’re all better off when we have a better workforce. Particularly, these young people may not still be with us in 20 years right but we all benefit if they’re in this area.
22:59 Beth Weisbrod
Yes and one of the things we we’ve started doing a little more recently is really focusing on internships and how we can match up internship ready students with employers who have quality programs. That’s the key. Paid internships are really a bigger issue than just…
23:23 Pieta Blakely
Paid internships are a huge issue. I could do a whole other show on it.
23:28 Beth Weisbrod
Yes, balancing the playing field for those students who have to work part-time if they’re going to get an internship that doesn’t pay. You can’t do that to a student.
23:36 Pieta Blakely
23:37 Beth Weisbrod
So, we’ve been very hands-on and somewhat aggressive in getting the message out that if you offer internships and they’re unpaid, you’re kind of part of the problem. So, we’re we’re creating orientations to help—and largely this is an issue for mid to smaller size employers. Obviously, the big guys have a very robust internships that are competitive to get into. They get the best of the best and off you go. But for those that have either economic limitations or human resource limitations, they perceive it as a drain and not a boost. So, we’re doing what we can to eliminate those barriers for the smaller.
24:25 Pieta Blakely
Well, they have to look at it as an investment, right. I mean there’s the maybe short-term return of you know, of having somebody work for you for free which is you know, problematic and should be illegal, versus the “hey, let’s spend a little bit of money here and a substantial amount of time to make a high quality paid internship um because that’s an investment in our next generation workforce.
24:56 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah. Well, I keep hoping the greater good is part of their calculus, but I don’t know that everyone is going to change their behavior for that reason. What we’re trying to help them understand is that it’s for their own recruitment needs as well. If they get someone in and they have a positive internship experience, they can compete with these bigger employers that are taking a lot of the talents.
25:23 Pieta Blakely
Oh, absolutely. I think most people will pick a job at a place that they know and they know they like it.
25:31 Beth Weisbrod
25:32 Pieta Blakely
Versus an unknown and a different city.
25:34 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah. Yeah, and you know, for those in the non-traditional pathways that’s a whole different set of issues that need to get solved, but you know, we have a big HVAC company at the chamber who cannot keep enough entry-level employees and they can’t get them in the door having been trained already on all of the skills they need to be productive. So, we are trying to look at sort of the high school student who isn’t headed to the four-year institution and how can we bring them into the workforce in a way that both provides them a sustainable lifestyle and helps close some of those gaps in the region. It’s a multi-layered problem as you know.
26:30 Pieta Blakely
Yeah. Yeah, HVAC is a great field.
26:33 Beth Weisbrod
It is and the more I learn about it the more it emerges as a really great option for students that may not absolutely choose against going to a four-year school.
26:50 Pieta Blakely
Yeah, absolutely, right. I mean it pays well, great job security; it cannot be offshored, right.
26:58 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah, and you know, like you and I have talked about before, the the shift in perception both at the parents level and the students level saying, “What do you mean you’re not going to go to college? That’s terrible.” That’s starting to happen, I think. You know, the diminishing returns of a four-year degree are written about all the time.
27:20 Pieta Blakely
Yeah, I mean we—and when I say we I mean the labor economists made a bad mistake. We misinterpreted the data. We made a bad mistake and the negative policy implications of that have been massive.
27:37 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah. Yeah, but I think…
27:38 Pieta Blakely
And we’re trying to figure it out, yeah.
27:40 Beth Weisbrod
There’s a shift happening and I think it’s going to be good.
27:43 Pieta Blakely
Yeah, so what’s the takeaway? If you were going to meet with somebody in your role at another city who said, “You know, we we just can’t get enough workers and we can’t get young people to stay here,” where do you think they should start?
28:01 Beth Weisbrod
The takeaway is you get your stakeholders at the table as soon as you possibly can. Get your arms around everything that kind of comes out of the house as far as how we can make this better. Then set up a list of priorities and off you go. But like I said at the beginning, people are really doing this quite well around the country, so there’s a lot at stake. Just start the work and get it done, yeah.
28:32 Pieta Blakely
Yeah, and this isn’t just a this-year problem. We’re you know, grabbing these students as they’re transitioning out of college and into careers where they settle in that first year and there’s a good chance they’ll be in five years and ten years, right. So, this is a this is an investment, a longer term investment.
28:55 Beth Weisbrod
Indeed. So, if you do have a talent retention program in your area, make sure you support it because it’s important work.
29:02 Pieta Blakely
Yeah, requires different thinking. I mean I think the colleges, too understand, if they are more and more and more being held accountable for what happens to people employment wise and income-wise after they pay for this degree…
29:17 Beth Weisbrod
Yeah, they’re very aware of the options now.
29:19 Pieta Blakely
Yeah, their willingness to come to the table is probably better than it has been.
29:22 Beth Weisbrod
I think so, yeah.
29:26 Pieta Blakely
Well, Beth thank you so much. This has been really helpful.
29:29 Beth Weisbrod
Pieta thanks for having me. I could talk all day about this stuff. I appreciate it.
29:34 Pieta Blakely
We will have you back to talk particularly about the evaluation plan because yeah, it’s running in the back of my mind you know, to figure out how we can understand that that is working.
29:46 Beth Weisbrod
Good, yeah. So much data. WE got to make it work for us for sure.
29:51 Pieta Blakely
Yeah. All right, thanks Beth. Thanks, everybody. Have a great weekend.