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Pikes Peak Workforce Center CEO wants to help underemployed Colorado Springs residents

August 5, 2017 Updated: August 5, 2017 at 1:07 pm
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Lisa Rice, a Colorado Springs native and former Florida employment official, is the new executive director of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. Thursday, August 3, 2017.(Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Lisa Rice grew up in Colorado Springs and tried for years while in Florida to return to the area. She moved back in July 2016 and took an executive job with a Wisconsin- based workforce training, consulting, management and administrative services firm that allowed her to work from home.

She spent nine months in that job when she applied for and was hired as CEO and executive director of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. The federally funded organization helps job seekers find employment in El Paso and Teller counties through workshops, seminars, job fairs, career planning and other services.

"I came back for family and I miss the mountains. I have been trying to get back here for many years, but the timing never seemed to work out," said Rice, 56.

She had moved to the Springs with her parents at age 8 and completed a bachelor's degree in human resources at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs before marrying and moving with her military husband to England for 3½ years, then to an Air Force base in Florida. While there, she spent 28 years working as a legislative aide and lobbyist and in a management role in health care before joining an agency similar to the Workforce Center.

Rice said she hopes this will be her last full-time job.

She replaced Charlie Whelan, who retired this year after eight years heading the local center. Former El Paso County Commissioner Dennis Hisey served as interim executive director until Rice took over in June. Rice came to The Gazette for a 45-minute question-and-answer interview in July.

What attracted you to the job at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center?

The Pikes Peak Workforce Center is nationally respected. I knew about the outreach to veterans and the other good stuff happening here, and it was attractive to me to see how far we could push it forward. I look at it as a good situation that I can make even better. This is home to me. I was traveling three weeks out of every month in my previous job, and I wanted to be at home more. Because I had been in workforce development, I felt I could hit the ground running. I only would have to learn the nuances of the community.

What have you been doing in your first month or so on the job?

I feel like I have been running from meeting to meeting with the workforce board and county commission members and individuals at the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC. I have had meetings with community partners, including Pikes Peak Community College, about how we can work together more closely. I have also met with the (Colorado) Department of Corrections to see how we can connect more employers with inmates who are getting ready to be released. They get training in heating, ventilating and air conditioning, welding and culinary arts and are earning national certifications. I went on a tour and saw the training programs, so we have agreed to jointly staff the people being released and gather documentation on them. We do the final intake and the inmates are selected by employers, so we just hand them off for on-the-job training that we help subsidize.

What are your plans for the next six months?

I plan to still be meeting people in the community about what we need in the workforce system and where we can come together to move the needle. There are opportunities with the Department of Corrections and separating military. We are also developing strategies for sectors such as health care and information technology where the businesses tell us what they want to accomplish. We help them with logistics and the administrative details. We also are trying to start more apprenticeship programs beyond just the trades, such as in health care, information technology and hospitality.

What is your biggest concern?

We have a 50-person staff and are facing a budget cut of at least 10 percent and could be as high as 25 percent. I have seen budget cuts before. You need to prioritize services. Everything else comes after that. Some of our staff has moved to other jobs, some have been promoted and we have eliminated some positions through attrition. We also are looking for other areas where we can tighten up, such as delaying the purchase of office supplies and computers for up to a year. We also are looking at offering memberships and subscriptions to employers. We want to do so much with sector partnerships and apprenticeships, but budget cuts will limit what we can do. There is talk of even more cuts. We have to let people know that these services help people move into a better job and help employers fill openings. Those services will be drastically reduced under these budget cuts.

What opportunities does the Workforce Center have?

Private funding is our biggest opportunity. There are ways we can do job fairs as special programs. We have programs for young adults that have incentives built in. We have to find someone to pay for that. It's not a big-dollar item - a $20 gift card to Walmart, for example. We are looking for ways to get foundations and business to help. We also are making a bigger push for grants. Our biggest funder is the U.S. Department of Labor. We are looking for philanthropic funders such as the Coors and Gates foundations. We will have to start shaking the trees for funds. I have been in this situation before. We have to make a difference for local businesses.

With Colorado's unemployment rate at 2.3 percent, what is the Workforce Center doing to avert a labor shortage?

We have to work on workforce skills and talent development. I am happy that the chamber is taking on the talent attraction part of it. We all have a piece of this. We are a supporter in helping the chamber attract talent. All of us need to be an ambassador for Colorado Springs, telling people there are job opportunities here in every single industry. If we had unlimited funds, I dream of figuring out a way to pull all of the school districts together and have a career academy with dual enrollment in high school and college where students come out with at least an associate degree or a national certification. That is so important to the workforce pipeline. It would take millions (of dollars) and the will of everybody in education and the parents. That is where we need to go. We need students coming out with a degree or national certification, not just college credit. That could include career and technical education.

How do you plan to attract underemployed and discouraged workers back into the labor force?

The underemployed worker is the most difficult to help. They have to keep working to pay their bills. It is harder to increase their skills while they are still working. You have to find a way to fit education into their life. Some can't do online courses, so perhaps we give them apprenticeship opportunities. Discouraged workers are not as prevalent as they used to be. There is an older population that is discouraged because it is difficult to get another job if you are laid off and are over 50. We have to make sure their resumes are what businesses are looking for. Resumes are very personal. Older workers are reluctant to give up old habits, but they need to understand the new language of the workplace, how to network and how to interview. If you are out of work for 5-10 years, your skills get dull, so we put people through mock interviews, help rewrite their resumes and update their overall look. There are also people who want to do part-time jobs, many of them older, so we have to figure out a way to get them back into the workforce. That could be through job sharing; perhaps we should go back to that.

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Edited for clarity and brevity.

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