The Debrief: Rosalie Drago is a force for innovation

Rosalie Drago’s career path meandered through tourism and economic development then into workforce issues and from the Jersey Shore to Long Island – to LaunchPad Huntington, precisely, where she set up shot as regional director of the Workforce Development Institute in June. From there, the seasoned tourism pro – who earned a master’s degree in public administration from NYU – champions the Albany-based nonprofit’s mission of tracking workforce trends, identifying challenges and fostering innovative solutions. Her assessment of Long Island’s best economic hopes: 

LET’S DO LAUNCH: I actually started with the Workforce Development Institute in Mineola and my one-year anniversary was in November. I asked about moving the office to Huntington after we funded something in the LaunchPad. When I saw the space, I felt it had a tremendous energy. There were different kinds of businesses and people coming in and out and sharing ideas, and I thought it was a great place to be and the perfect place to address workforce issues.

LATEST DEVELOPMENTS: Workforce development is basically empowering people and companies by developing good practices. I’m focused on enhancing a company’s skills, so its workforce can grow and the company can compete and the individuals who live and work here can do better. If workers have greater skills, they can get more fulfillment and, hopefully, more compensation, and then the community does better.

MISSION POSSIBLE: Each regional director is very much boots on the ground, learning about their key industries and the barriers they face. We have almost complete autonomy to address those issues in each region, while we feed information to the home office, which assesses things on a state level.

CAPITAL THINKING: We fund various programs, but our grants aren’t hundreds of thousands of dollars. They’re small and targeted. They address issues immediately. What’s your challenge? What skills would help increase your workforce capability? Let’s work on developing some training for that and turning it around quickly. In my first year, WDI funded 27 Long Island companies with individual grants to help them address their challenges.

NOT TO PLAY FAVORITES, BUT: My favorite thing in 2015 was the Long Island Maker/National Manufacturing Day video and event (which the WDI sponsored in October at Suffolk County Community College). It brought together the best of what we’re trying to do on Long Island. My job is to go visit companies and tour their facilities and learn about their workforce challenges and see how we can help. This brought many of them together in one place, and allowed us to promote these businesses, showcase the investment happening in the regional workforce and show publicly that manufacturing is happening here, and it works.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: My other top highlight of 2015 has to be Spring to Market (a food-focused training seminar/product showcase sponsored by the WDI in May at Stony Brook University’s Calverton Business Incubator). We did a survey to find out what their barriers were and wound up training about 40 businesses on getting their products to market. Three of them got their products onto shelves in good stores. One of them graduated out of the incubator and opened their own space.

NEW MODEL: One of the things that surfaced last year is that there are a lot of common challenges among industries. To go from meeting to meeting and constantly hear about the same challenges in industry after industry was a little frustrating. In 2016, we’ll continue to give assistance specific to individual businesses, but this year, we’re also looking to develop more multi-employer programs.

CREATIVE SOLUTION: The manufacturing industry, for instance, seems to have a problem showing what “manufacturing” means today, that it’s about technology and high-skill jobs and real creativity. They have a problem with their image when it comes to recruiting young talent, so we’re working in partnership with Suffolk County Community College and Stony Brook University and various manufacturers on creating a manufacturing-readiness training program – a pilot program that will get young people work-ready.

AT THEIR SERVICE: We’re doing the same thing with hotels and restaurants, developing industry-driven hospitality training. We’re working with economic development people in Huntington and Long Beach and with St. Joseph’s College.

NOW HIRING: We picked these industries because there are tons of open jobs. I remember waiting tables in college and I thought hospitality was always a given, but Long Island hotels and restaurants are having trouble finding people. We’re focusing on industries where there are literally hundreds of jobs available and nobody to fill them. They’re importing workers from off Long Island.

DEFINING INNOVATION: I think “innovation economy” is used as a buzzword now. Every major industry is about innovation and technology. That’s one of our weaknesses – people who think technology is separate from other industries, like “I’m going into technology.” If you’re a line worker in a plant or you’re an engineer or you’re anything else, you’re using technology. You need those skills. The creative economy is everywhere, and it’s not just a buzzword. It’s a fact.

ISLAND GIRL: Investing in and cultivating these skills on Long Island is the only road to flourishing economically. The innovation economy is key. People need to realize there are jobs here – and understand that innovation and creativity are embedded in every industry.