Chamber Foundation Host Workforce Symposium


In a borough as diverse as Queens, there are always challenges to attracting and retaining top talent for any company in the borough.

That’s why on November 16, the Queens Chamber of Commerce Foundation hosted a workplace symposium at the United Nations Federal Credit Union in Long Island City.

The event, which was sponsored by Verizon, featured two panels of experts who discussed best practices from both business and nonprofit provider perspectives.

Kenneth Adams, dean of workforce and economic development at Bronx Community College, and a board member at the Queens Chamber Foundation, moderated the first panel on finding and keeping qualified employees.

According to Adams, there are 1.2 million Queens people in the workforce. The unemployment rate, he said, is currently 3.5 percent, which is low and presents a challenge to employers.

“It’s a tight labor market,” he said. “It’s hard to find good people because they’re working.”

To find qualified staff, Shaheen Barrett, manager of HR Business Partners at Verizon, said he not only posts online on sites like Indeed, but also invites candidates to do “mock trials.” Demonstrating how an employee interacts with customers in person is telling, Barrett said.

BeniJayne Santiago, talent acquisition manager at Investors Bank, said they partner with nonprofit and community organizations, who sometimes offers candidates for consideration.

After conducting initial phone or video interviews, Santiago sets up an in-person interview. She noted that she “lays down all our cards” during these interviews, including setting expectations on language and travel requirements.

The panel also discussed the importance of diversity and inclusion. Nicole Leon, director of diversity and inclusion at Con Edison, said about half of her company’s employees are minorities.

While that’s good, Leon said it’s also important to create “the right environment” to respect and appreciate the diversity.

“You want to make sure your staff reflects your customers market,” she said. “Get to know your customers and their buying habits. Understand who they are and what their needs are.”

Recently, Con Edison hosted a job fair for entry-level jobs, and marketed the positions for women. Opportunities like that, Leon said, changes how the company sources talent.

Barrett, meanwhile, said because Verizon is such a large company, their goal is to make sure employees “connect to our culture” and know that they are part of the larger Verizon family.

The panel also touched on the significance of soft skills, which Leon said are sometimes the most difficult to acquire. She said that’s why mentoring is so key, particularly for younger employees.

Nine months ago, Barrett’s leadership team concluded that while they have strong technical skills, many members still lack soft skills, such as communication. However, he also offered a solution.

“Motivate your associates by connecting to them on a more emotional level,” he said.

The second panel, moderated by Jose Ortiz, Jr., executive director of the NYC Employment & Training Coalition, focused on nonprofits that connect people to jobs.

Sheree Ferguson-Cousins, vice president of workforce at Goodwill Industries of Greater NY and Northern NJ, said her organization works with people who have barriers to employment. Goodwill runs career advancement programs that train people who are either out of work or underemployed.

Ferguson-Cousins said they work with employers to create a curriculum, and partner with CUNY schools as well.

“We always have employers come to us because of the services we give them,” she said. “Our employees have high retention.”

Bryant Nichols, employment services manager at Urban Upbound, based in Long Island City, said his organization has two clients: the employers and the employees. Using a Jobs Plus model, Urban Upbound offers not just job training, but also services like career planning, tax returns and on-site financial counseling.

He said he connects with companies by becoming “a student of your employer” and knowing exactly what positions they want to fill and what skills they need.

Jane Schulman, executive director of adult and continuing education at LaGuardia Community College, said employer input typically comes first.

“We come to employers and say, ‘What do you need?’” she said. “We really want to stay in touch with the owners of businesses, big and small.”

Schulman said LaGuardia also works with larger employers like Weill-Cornell Medicine, which has its own specific system for employment.

Finally, Andre Ward, associate vice president of education and employment services at The Fortune Society, said his group supports people with criminal justice involvement.

Ward said it’s important to build trust and a strong relationship with employers to keep opportunities open.

“Based on our track record and integrity, employers stay with us,” he said. “They know they can count on us to send good candidates.”