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Workforce 'warrior' Sherry Kelley Marshall retires as Tri-State works to recover from COVID crisis

'It's a rough time to lose Sherry'
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Dec 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-31 18:55:59-05

CINCINNATI — Greater Cincinnati is losing a workforce “warrior.”

Sherry Kelley Marshall, the longtime president and CEO of the Southwest Ohio Region Workforce Investment Board, is retiring Thursday.

Although Marshall will be available for the next six months to consult with whoever replaces her, those who have worked with her over the past 20 years say she will be a tough act to follow.

“She is a tireless advocate for those that she was working for – those who were underserved – minorities, women. She’s like a lioness. She just fought and fought and fought,” said Jordan Vogel, executive director of Allied Construction Industries and a former executive with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. “She is a warrior.”

As CEO of the organization known as SWORWIB, Marshall led the implementation of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act law to increase job opportunities for people, specifically people with barriers to employment. SWORWIB also works to help people in low-wage jobs advance to careers that pay better and works with youth to promote hard work and educational paths that will help them become self-sufficient.

“Sherry is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, particularly around workforce development issues, because she has a wide range of experiences,” said Janice Urbanik, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions’ senior director for innovation and strategy.

Marshall started her career in 1975 at the Miami Purchase Association and later worked for the OKI Regional Council of Governments. She had a variety of jobs at the regional and national level over 14 years until the late John Williams, the former president of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, recruited her in late 2000 to build the region’s workforce development services efforts. She left that work in 2004 to become Cincinnati State Technical and Community College’s executive dean. She returned to SWORWIB in 2007 when the organization was at risk because of performance problems, audits and IRS filings.

She worked to return the board to solvency and has helped create partnerships that have attracted nearly $200 million for the development of workforce initiatives.

In doing all that, Marshall said, she hasn’t been afraid to ruffle some feathers.

“I know that there are people who still – 20 years later – think that Sherry Marshall’s push to do stuff all the time is a pain in somebody’s body parts,” Marshall said. “But sometimes you need that energy that comes from it.”

Investing in the community

When Marshall first began her work locally, the goal was to form a workforce investment board that included Butler, Clermont and Warren counties, too. But after the civil unrest in 2001 following a Cincinnati police officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, the other counties decided that Cincinnati and Hamilton County had different challenges and decided to form a separate board, Marshall said.

The 9/11 terror attacks came a few months later, and information technology became a more critical part of job training that has continued to evolve rapidly every year, she said.

“I remind everybody that workforce isn’t just the skill set. It’s the skill set on steroids,” Marshall said. “The new generations that are coming in and the working generation will have to accept the fact that however hard it is, they have to keep up with it. Otherwise they’d become unnecessary.”

Among Marshall’s most enduring impacts on the local workforce system was to make Hamilton County Job & Family Services the operator of the local OhioMeansJobs center instead of contracting with a for-profit business, said Kevin Holt, the director of OhioMeansJobs for Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

As a result, there is an additional $500,000 to be used each year to help pay for the training people need to get better jobs instead of covering overhead for a private, out-of-town business, he said.

“It really represents a long-term investment in the community,” Holt said.

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FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, a woman types on a keyboard in New York. Following the disclosure of a global cyberespionage campaign that penetrated multiple U.S. government agencies and private organizations, governments and major corporations worldwide are scrambling to see if they, too, were victims. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

SWORWIB also has worked closely with Hamilton County JFS to continue a program designed to help young people prepare for the workforce after growing up on public assistance, Marshall said. The part of the program that Marshall found most exciting was a “wage pathway,” where young people could get financial rewards for going back to earn a high school diploma, getting some extra training or sticking with a job. JFS found money to continue that part of the program locally, which is now called Avenues to Success.

The Avenues to Success program changes lives, she said, citing an example of a young man who had been homeless and couch-hopping for nearly five years. He followed a plan developed with help from the program and earned an Avenues to Success reward that allowed him to get his own apartment.

“It’s a travesty that in a country as big as this that that’s such a miracle,” Marshall said. “But we need literally thousands more of those kinds of miracles and these small rewards that really help young people recognize the correlation between steadfast employment and steadfast growth and steadfast healthier opportunity.”

Marshall also recognized that getting results required higher standards.

Under her leadership, SWORWIB has called for training programs to meet certain standards or the board won’t help pay for people to get training there. That means if someone wanted to attend a training program to become a truck driver, for example, the board wouldn’t help pay for that training unless the program could demonstrate that it helped most of its participants get ahead.

“She was putting pressure on the training programs to say, ‘Hey, why aren’t they passing the final credentialing test or getting jobs?’” Urbanik said.

‘It’s a rough time to lose Sherry’

As Holt put it: “Training is a great way to waste a lot of money if you’re funding the wrong training for the wrong people in the wrong time.”

“Sherry has really fought the state and feds on this because their attitude is to be just very open, let anybody choose what they want,” he said. “But Sherry and the board have done a great job of saying, no, we’re only going to fund training providers that graduate a certain percent of their students – so it’s 50 or 60 or 70% -- and get them jobs in the fields where they’re working.”

So does the COVID-19 economic crisis make this an especially difficult time to lose Marshall?

“Yes, it’s a rough time to lose Sherry,” Urbanik said. “Any time would be a rough time to lose Sherry, because workforce development is an ever-present challenge.”

Workforce development agencies across the country are working to provide training for people whose lives have been upended by the current economic crisis, Urbanik said, without repeating mistakes made after the Great Recession.

“The focus (then) was just train people and get them back to work,” Urbanik said. “It left out far too many people of color. And the people who were trained and put back to work got low-quality jobs. We need to be focused on racial equity and use the power of the funding and the power that role holds to change the quality of the jobs.”

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Sherry Kelley Marshall

Marshall said she hopes whoever replaces her at the workforce investment board will have the courage to stand up for what’s right even if it’s unpopular.

And while Marshall said she thinks everyone has done the best they can to get through the coronavirus pandemic, she believes the country could learn from this past year and do things differently the next time the nation faces a similar threat.

“I wish that we could have policy that says that if and when these things happen, the primary objective is to make sure that people are safe and that they’re fed and that they can sleep and not worry,” she said. “But also we need to say to them, if you weren’t working on some other kind of skill or advancing a skill that you already have into its next level, you need to do that while we’re publicly supporting you.”

The federal government could have done that, she said, adding that she hopes policymakers will consider that approach in the future.

“I don’t know what the drawback is for our policy or for us as individuals to recognize that things grow faster now,” Marshall said. “And you cannot rely on what you could do five years ago or 10 years ago.”

More information about the Southwest Ohio Region Workforce Investment Board and the programs it offers is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.