Marques makes workforce her priority

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Traci Marques finds herself faced with a paradox. The better the job market, the closer she is to putting herself out of work. And these days, unemployment is near a two-decade low.

“When I first started in 2012, the joke was we were going to work ourselves out of a job,” said Marques, executive director and CEO of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. “We never anticipated unemployment being so low. But we have people who never finished eighth grade to people with multiple Ph.D.s come in and use our resources.”

Even with a full-bore economy, the workforce center still serves more than 100 people a day, Marques said.

The Indiana native began her career in Indianapolis as a marketer in the consumer electronics industry. As a former military spouse, Marques also worked in real estate and in financial services before moving to Colorado Springs (for the third time) in 2008.

This week, Marques talks about her path to leading workforce development in the city she’s called home for a fragmented 16 years.

You’ve moved around a lot. Does this feel like home?

Completely. I love it. There are the usual factors that have led me to stay — the outdoors, hiking, the climate and environment. This city allows for connections and lots of opportunities. It’s a big town with a small-town feel and it’s about the people and networking. And everyone is extremely friendly.

What has your progression at PPWFC looked like?

I started out in business services as a business specialist in the business relations department. That entailed talking to businesses about what their needs and workforce issues are and bringing that information back to the staff. …

I developed my next position, which was team lead for the business relations department. I made sure everyone was on the same page and that we had a vision as to where to go with businesses and outreach.

From there, a director position opened. I moved into a customer service and community outreach director position for three years. That entailed working with our military liaison and engaging with installations. I [introduced] more services in our satellite offices and tried to get word out as to what the workforce center is and what we can do.

At that time, our legislation was the Workforce Innovation Act and we were unable to outwardly market. It was against federal regulations to market the workforce center, so outreach has been extremely important.

Then, last summer, I moved into the deputy director position for seven months. In November I was named interim executive director and, in March, executive director.

The team has grown me. It gave me the roots of knowing what the day-to-day work with customers and clients is like.

Did you always want to be executive director?

Ironically, no. I was in the financial services industry and loved it, but thought this would be a great opportunity to really get involved and engaged in the community. My goal was to work here two years. But then the promotions were happening and I was seeing the work the workforce center did and the ability I had to change things. I really knew I was helping people every day — it really tugged at my heart.

Talk about what the workforce center does.

We are federally funded, regulated and congressionally mandated. Every county in the United States is required to be associated with a workforce center.

We report to the [U.S.] Department of Labor, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and we cover El Paso and Teller counties, so we report to those commissioners too.

What we do is connect job seekers with businesses and businesses with job seekers.

We have funding attached to different mechanisms — to help a job seeker find a career pathway, help them find a job and provide wraparound services. With businesses, we sit down and listen to their needs and let them know what resources are available. We are not the right answer for everyone, but we try and put together the best avenue for them.

What are your responsibilities?

To have a strategic vision and be a convener and relay the information I gather in the community and communicate it to the staff that does the work. Our team is at the center and does the day-to-day — gather info to help our customers, like which businesses are hiring, what skill sets are needed and how we can collaborate with community partners.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act means there are partners we’re required to work with. Economic development is really important to us — K-through-12 education, higher-education institutions, the community colleges, vocational rehabilitation for those with disabilities — we’re really able to connect all those resources.

How big is the staff?

We have 46 paid staff and 10 additional veteran staff paid by Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment. We also have a volunteer branch of about 12 that works one-on-one with resumé writing or sitting down to help people learn to use a computer. We average between 110 to 125 people a day here at the main office.

What are the most challenged populations?

Our mission is to help hard-to-serve populations. Those are the homeless, those who are basic-skills-deficient or underemployed, those who are on public assistance. If you’re on public assistance and living in poverty, we try to figure out what the most important thing to you is at that moment. … The challenge is dealing with individuals with barriers to employment and meet them where they’re at, not where we think they should be.

Are there similarities between your previous careers and this one?

There is a similarity between my work in financial services and workforce development. In financial services, we worked on financial plans and goals. Those goals weren’t attainable right away and you had to paint a vision of what those could possibly be and how you’re going to get to the end result. …

If you look at workforce development, it’s very similar because it’s not tangible. What you want is not necessarily right there for you and you have to work on your career pathway. Maybe that’s stackable credentials to get to that cybersecurity field, but there are steps along the way. This is about creating that plan. Whether it’s a financial plan or a career pathway, it’s about guiding and directing people.

What does the center focus on when unemployment is low?

One focus we have now is on businesses and looking at the skills they need. We have a skills gap and we’re missing a lot of people for those middle-skill jobs, so we’re working with businesses to help upscale existing employees to get them to those middle-skill jobs. Then we help fill the entry-level positions those people vacated. We talk to businesses about their hiring practices and their company culture. If they’re having retention issues, let’s figure out why.

We also have businesses look at job descriptions. Are they outdated? Have they been updated since 2012?

We’re also focusing more, as a state, on skills-based hiring. Do you really need a four-year degree to do this job?

We’re also coordinating with the city and the [Colorado Springs] Chamber of Commerce & EDC and other workforce institutions to make sure we put businesses in the middle and surround them with all of our different resources.

In the past, we would tell businesses what they need. The shift we’ve made as an organization is to listen to what businesses need and adapting to their needs.

Because unemployment is so low, the job seekers we see are harder to serve and require additional one-on-one assistance. We are spending more staff time with these individuals than we would have in 2012.

Looking at the underemployed means you’re working two to three jobs but want one that makes a decent wage. What skill sets and certifications can we assist with to get those jobs?

It’s more of a tailored approach now than in the past.

How are you preparing for a rapidly changing workforce?

Our mandate is to focus on high-demand occupations. Each year we submit a strategic plan to the state about future occupations we are going to help fill.

So we look at transferable skills. We no longer have elevator operators. So what skills did they have? They had great customer service skills. They probably had some logistical and technical skills. So what do those transfer to? History is just repeating itself. People will go into a different position, we just have to identify those transferable skills.

Talk about sector partnerships.

This is an opportunity we have for businesses. It’s a national initiative we’re doing and Colorado leads the nation in sector partnerships. Businesses have needs, so this is where they can come to a table and speak openly and honestly about what their needs are.

We’re just one spoke in the workforce development wheel. There’s K-through-12 education, community colleges, you have the military and higher education. We’re around the table to listen to business needs and we come together to help fill those needs.

For instance, [Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Association] South is a sector partnership in advanced manufacturing. We’re working on a health care sector partnership, which is unique, because industries that are actually competitors needs to sit down and talk to one another. It actually works. CAMA has some great success stories. We as a workforce center fit in because we’re a neutral third party.