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George Wright of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership: Guiding the Future with Impactful Workforce Leadership



George Wright

CEO

Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership

At the forefront of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, George Wright merges early values of integrity and hard work with visionary leadership. His focus is clear: to spearhead strategic, impactful workforce initiatives and drive sustainable progress and community empowerment. George's approach goes beyond meeting needs; it's about shaping a future where meaningful employment fuels lasting societal growth.


What age were you when you first worked for pay?


At 14, my grandmother's praise for my honesty and reliability landed me a stock boy position at a local five-and-dime.


Tell me about your educational path. Did it mirror that of your family, or did you strike out in new directions?


I was the first in my family to graduate college. I played sports in high school, which led me to the University of Miami for football. I returned to Chicago because of my father’s passing and completed my studies at a small Jesuit school in Indiana. I started working and never got to finish grad school. The rest, as they say, is history.

Remembering that no man is an island has helped me throughout my career.

What was your first full-time job after college?


Post-college, I juggled two full-time jobs. One was a night shift at a Children and Family Services group home from 11 to 7, which aligned with my grad school studies. The other was a daytime position running a youth program at a YMCA


Who have been your primary mentors as you progressed in your career?


My dad, my first mentor, instilled in me the values of hard work, being on time, and integrity. He urged me to set my standards higher than anyone would set for me. His lessons resonate with me even all these years later. I was also fortunate to have exceptional bosses who shaped my understanding of leadership, accountability, and striving for excellence, not just for personal gain but for the collective good.


What obstacles have you had to overcome in your career progression?


In my career, I often found myself as a trailblazer. I was the first African-American loan officer at Citibank for the southwest suburbs on the south side of Chicago. I played a key role in starting what you know today as Ally Bank, and was the first to hold several important roles at different banks. Each “first” brought its own set of challenges, as I was not just doing my job but also paving the way for others to follow. The recognition I've received reflects the obstacles I've navigated and highlights my journey of setting precedents and leading the way in my field.


What would you say have been keys to your success?


Remembering that no man is an island has helped me throughout my career. I've made it a point to team up with really smart, hard-working people. I don't need to be the smartest in the room, but I aim to be the most effective. Welcoming smarter minds around me has really driven my success. It's all about getting the right people on board.


Tell me what it's like to lead the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. What makes it special or unique?


I’ve been CEO of The Partnership since June of 2023, and it has offered a unique perspective. As co-chair of the board since 2015, I've seen it through different lenses and I find that exciting. From the board's view, it's about governance and oversight. As a CEO, I’m immersed in day-to-day operations, ensuring efficiency, placing the right people, and being diligent stewards of our finances. Essentially, the board's role is to survey the landscape from above, while the CEO navigates from inside the landscape.


Can you tell me a little bit about what The Partnership is hoping to achieve in the next few years?


The Partnership has two main goals. First, we're spreading out to help where it's needed most, working with job centers and over a hundred community-based organizations (CBO’s). We're checking our progress and fine-tuning our approach to reach places that lack help. 


Secondly, our commitment goes beyond just numbers with our upcoming “Outcomes to Impacts” initiative. To clarify the difference, getting a college degree is an outcome, but the real measure is its impact, for example how it boosts your career prospects. 


How do you measure outcomes and impact? 


Since our inception in 2012, we've seen remarkable outcomes. We've placed approximately 100,000 individuals in permanent employment and collaborated with over 2,000 employers. Our funding from WIOA targets achievements such as credential acquisition. 


We are now rethinking and going beyond those measures. We're striving for more profound, life-changing impacts. We're dedicated to ensuring our actions have a significant, positive effect, and we're proactive in course correcting to achieve the impactful results we envision. It's about the life-changing effects, beyond just securing a job or a new skill. We're venturing into new territory, a significant shift that could redefine workforce evaluation, not just in this system but nationally.


What significant challenges is The Partnership facing at this juncture?


The main challenge we're facing is shifting mindsets from the usual “if it's not broken, don't fix it” approach. As we scan our current state and focus on outcomes versus impacts, we're essentially introducing a new perspective. It's not about fixing what isn't broken or being a solution in search of a problem. The real challenge is convincing others of the importance of these initiatives, ensuring their cooperation and collaboration to successfully execute this shift. It involves a lot of relationship building and effective execution.


In terms of funding, how does The Partnership sustain such large-scale operations?


Our journey has been one of strategic growth and diversification. Beyond our initial $30 million budget, we've managed to administer over $471 million in both federal and philanthropic funds. This financial backbone enables us to sustain our initiatives and, importantly, support 7,000 to 10,000 residents in securing permanent employment each year.


How is the labor market in Cook County doing? What statistics do you look at to gauge the status and health of the labor market?


We have a dedicated team of researchers analyzing labor market trends, identifying “hot” jobs, and sectors with rapid growth. We're seeing a consistent mismatch between supply and demand in the job market, especially in three main industries. Healthcare and IT are the expected frontrunners, but manufacturing is the surprising third, evolving from the traditional, dusty factory image to a high-tech forefront. Our challenge is to recalibrate the balance between supply and demand in these sectors, adapting our workforce to meet the modern demands of these rapidly transforming industries.


What challenges do employers face when finding applicants for these jobs?


Employers face two main challenges: acquisition and retention of employees. Hiring gets expensive, especially when there aren't enough trained people available, like in healthcare. Employers have to then invest more in retaining these employees because every dollar spent on hiring is lost if the employee leaves prematurely. 



In today's market, where supply and demand are imbalanced, focusing on both acquisition and retention costs is very important. They need workers who are ready to go right away, not in a couple of months. The Partnership makes sure employers get the skilled workers they need fast by speeding up the training, basically stacking the deck with a ready-to-go workforce.


What in your opinion should employers be doing more of, or less of, to hire and retain talent in these types of jobs?


Employers should first lower acquisition costs by leveraging WIOA and The Partnership, which provides pre-trained individuals ready for the workforce and avoids expensive staffing agencies. Once team members are on board, employers must then invest in their employees' development, education, and work-life balance, whether it’s through hybrid work models or other supportive measures. The savings from reduced acquisition costs shouldn't just be sent to the bottom line, but instead back into the bucket, where it says that we will actually invest in you as an employee.  


Has your organization calculated the return on investment or any other measure of the benefits of engaging with the workforce system?


We're focusing on turning our “outcomes to impacts” approach into a practical tool. It's about finding smart ways to show the value of our services in acquisition and retention and ensuring this value is clear and measurable. We also have a lot of data from running one of the country's biggest workforce investments. We need to use this data better, showing employers how it can help them, as they're essentially paying for it. We are currently working this into our strategy, but there's much more to do to make these benefits clear and valuable.


Why and under what circumstances should employers engage with the Cook County workforce ecosystem and The Partnership in particular? 


Employers should partner with us to leverage pre-allocated Department of Labor funds designed for their hiring and development needs. One hundred percent of employers should understand the public workforce system, especially The Partnership's role as the main access point to these supportive funds. Just working with community-based organizations isn't enough to access all these benefits. Knowing how we operate and joining our meetings can really pay off. Missing out on The Partnership means missing out on a lot of money that could help your business.


As for how to collaborate with us, it's about finding what fits best. We don't believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. Whether you want to tap into our research, need help hiring and training employees, or want to promote your company to potential hires, we're here to tailor our services to your needs. 


How do you recommend an employer get started engaging with The Partnership? 


Employers have multiple pathways to engage with The Partnership. One effective route is through American Job Centers (AJCs), offering a variety of services and support. Our Level Up campaign is another avenue, designed to increase visibility and accessibility to our services, ensuring we're not a “best kept secret.” 

Being flexible and strategic isn't just helpful—it's essential for growth and keeping a diverse, dynamic team.

What factors should an employer consider when selecting a workforce partner or program?


They should first reflect on their workforce dynamics and needs: What are your goals and your resulting strategies? Consider whether you're seeking a diverse mix of skilled workers, aiming to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion, or addressing workforce turnover, especially with retiring employees. 


Understanding your company's position within the workforce ecosystem is very important. It helps in making informed, strategic decisions about which partnership or program aligns best with your objectives. Remember, the right choice varies with each company's unique goals and challenges—it's not a one-size-fits-all decision.


Do employers generally start with something small, like hiring a single employee? Is that recommended? What are the benefits and drawbacks of that approach?


Most employers prefer to test the waters before diving in. However, many are skipping crucial steps, essentially putting the cart before the horse and hiring without setting clear goals or a solid plan. This oversight might lead to hiring too many or too few employees, driven by the urgent need for staff. But remember the saying: "When skating on thin ice, speed is essential." Yes, acting quickly is important, but being strategic is equally crucial. Without a thoughtful approach, you risk spinning your wheels and facing the same hiring challenges repeatedly. It's about balancing immediate needs with a well-thought-out strategy for your workforce.


Are there other factors that contribute to a successful relationship with a provider? 


Adapting to today's changing workforce is key for any successful partnership. Companies need to understand that they're really teams of people with shared goals. Modern workers expect flexibility, good work-life balance, and a positive company culture. Staying ahead means being adaptable and aligning your business goals with the current values and needs of the workforce. Being flexible and strategic isn't just helpful—it's essential for growth and keeping a diverse, dynamic team.



What are a few challenges for employers trying to engage with the workforce system? 


A key challenge for employers engaging with the workforce system is overcoming misconceptions. It’s often viewed as merely a source of entry-level employees, dismissing its broader capabilities. The “Level Up” initiative aims to counter this view. It's about dispelling myths by showing that the system isn't just for unemployment or low-paying jobs. We want employers to see the real worth and variety the workforce system brings, and move past old stereotypes.


What advice do you have for employers who would like to engage with The Partnership?


My advice to employers struggling with recruitment or retention is straightforward: Prioritize your workforce. Recognize that your people are your most valuable asset, more crucial than any physical resources. 

For example, at Citibank, we looked beyond the usual top colleges and found great talent in community colleges. These were folks who needed a hand-up, not a handout. By offering that chance, we discovered a wealth of untapped potential.

Start by visiting www.levelupajc.org to learn about the support available. Dive deep into understanding how to support, attain, and retain your top talent. Just as you'd leave no stone unturned for your family, apply the same diligence to your employees. Invest time in discovering all the public workforce can offer, ensuring you're doing everything possible to support and retain your most important asset—your people.


How, if at all, do you believe Chicago and Suburban Cook County employers should contribute to addressing poverty and inequality in our region?


Fueling community development hinges on what I call “starting the engine.” While affordable housing and small businesses are valuable, the real catalyst is workforce development – fostering meaningful careers, not just jobs. Without viable income, even the most affordable houses lose their appeal. Without residents in stable, rewarding careers, small businesses struggle due to a lack of disposable income in the community. 


So, in shaping the ecosystem, our primary focus should be on securing substantial, lasting careers for people. That's the key to kick starting and sustaining community growth and relations.


What, if anything, should be done to support employers who hire entry level talent from Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods? 


Support should go beyond just single success stories, like the often-told tale of "Susie,” who pulled herself up by her bootstraps. It's about making real change, especially in hard-hit neighborhoods. Instead of just spotlighting one success like Susie's, we should create a system where many can thrive.


For example, at Citibank, we looked beyond the usual top colleges and found great talent in community colleges. These were folks who needed a hand-up, not a handout. By offering that chance, we discovered a wealth of untapped potential. This approach turns individual stories into a widespread pattern of success, giving people a chance and sparking a positive cycle of change. There are many more ”Susies” out there, ready to succeed.


Why is supporting workforce development in Chicago and Suburban Cook County important to you personally?


Supporting workforce development in Cook County hits close to home for me, given my roots in banking and community projects. I've seen lots of good efforts, like building affordable homes and supporting small businesses. But, I realized the real game-changer is investing in jobs. As The Partnership’s board chair and head of philanthropy, I've seen how powerful the right job initiatives can be.


Father Gregory Boyle said, "Nothing stops a bullet faster than a job." Tackling crime and other big issues starts with solid jobs. We're doing more than just offering work; we're making a real, positive difference in neighborhoods that need it most.


If an employer reading this interview walks away with one thing, what would you want it to be?


I would want employers to understand the importance of crafting a strategic plan focused on workforce goals and aspirations. In doing so, explore every support opportunity, particularly those offered by the workforce investment board and the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, to fully realize and enhance your organization’s potential.



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