Cover Story

Career Moves

Tim Sneed Charts a New, More Entrepreneurial Course at MCDI
Cover 11/10/08

Cover 11/10/08

Earlier this decade, the Mass Career Development Institute and the acronym MCDI became almost synonymous with the mismanagement and corruption that plagued Springfield. Work to stabilize and refocus the institute began with now-former Director James Morton, and it continues with his successor, Tim Sneed, who is also developing a new strategic plan while also building awareness and transitioning the nonprofit workforce-training entity away from its partial subsidy from the city. ‘Transition’ is a word you hear often with regard to this agency, which Sneed is giving a more-entrepreneurial character as it strives to be an even-more-pivotal force in regionwide economic development efforts.

Tim Sneed was winding up his tour of the many facilities at the Mass. Career Development Institute (MCDI) with a quick stop in the expanded metal shop area. He stopped at a trash barrel in the making, quickly recognizable as the same model seen on many streets in downtown Springfield.

The unit features several iron rods twisted and welded into a somewhat artistic yet obviously functional shape as part of the training that individuals involved in this particular program gain as they look to enter or re-enter the workforce in one of many sectors that are struggling to find qualified help. As he looked over the nearly finished product, Sneed, MCDI’s executive director since early 2007, mused about an already-existing inventory and opportunities to make and sell more of the units, and said with a chuckle, “I’ve got 20 of these to sell; I want to be the trash barrel vendor of choice in this region.”

He would use such phraseology early and often as he talked with BusinessWest, and offered the rubbish-receptacle-manufacturing work as one very small but nonetheless significant and symbolic example of what he wants to do at and with MCDI. His mission is to do some shaping of his own — in this case transforming the once-troubled agency that became symbolic of the corruption and mismanagement that plagued Springfield earlier this decade (more on that later) into a major player in the revitalization of the city — and improvement of the economic health and well-being of the region as a whole.

He wants the nearly 40-year-old institute, now located in a former box-making plant on Wilbraham Avenue, to be a learning and training facility of choice, and he’s already taken some significant strides in that direction.

Indeed, the former financial management executive at Solutia (formerly Monsanto) and MassMutual, working in concert with a revamped, committed board of directors, is positioning the institute, which provides training in areas ranging from computer programming to culinary arts to that aforementioned welding and machinery, to be an integral player in workforce-development efforts in the region.

And this commitment comes at a time when workforce development has been identified as the most critical economic-development issue facing the region.

In many ways, Sneed is continuing the work started by now-former MCDI Director James Morton, who, before moving on to become director of the YMCA of Greater Springfield, commenced the often-difficult work of stabilizing the agency after a scandal involving previous Director Gerry Phillips tarnished its name. But Sneed told BusinessWest that the image-restoration efforts are now mostly in the rear-view mirror.

The task at hand has several components, he said, starting with awareness-building efforts and development of a new, comprehensive strategic plan that will evaluate specific programs and identify ways to strengthen and grow them. Meanwhile, the nonprofit agency is also transitioning itself away from its partial subsidy from the city in an agreement forged with the Finance Control Board.

To successfully handle all of the above, MCDI must become, in a word, far more entrepreneurial, said Sneed, noting that this means everything from program development to trash-barrel production and sales.

In this issue, BusinessWest talks at length with Sneed about his plans for MCDI and how he intends to make that vision reality.

Work in Progress

Sneed told BusinessWest that when he first came to Springfield and Monsanto, the expectation would be that the stay would be only a few years in duration, as it had been been with other stops while working for that company.

But more than two decades later, he’s still working in the region and with several of its nonprofit groups, such as the Martin Luther King Center, where he served as chairman of the board for two terms, and the Community Music School, among others. Such involvement helped create what Sneed called a mid-life crisis of sorts regarding his own career.

“I always said that if I had the opportunity to become the exec of a nonprofit agency, I’d try to take advantage of that,” he explained. “Lo and behold, a year and a half ago, this position opened up.

“I didn’t know anything about MCDI at the time,” he continued. “Someone referred my name to (former) Mayor (Charles) Ryan; he called me in, we talked, and three weeks later I was hired. I see this as an opportunity to really contribute directly to the community.”

Since arriving at MCDI, Sneed said he has focused his energies on improving visibility, especially within the business community, developing a strategic plan, recruiting a strong board of directors to provide better oversight, and instilling that more-entrepreneurial character he talked about. Add it all up, and it translates into work to make MCDI run more like a business itself than the quasi-public entity, or city department, that it has been.

“There’s probably a notion that MCDI is some sort of social-service organization,” he said. “I am of the notion that I don’t want to be a social-service agency — I want to be a training facility. And that’s the direction we’re taking.”

Such an attitude will be necessary as MCDI transitions itself away from its city subsidy, which is about 20% of a roughly $5 million annual budget also funded with help from state and federal allocations. Specifically, MCDI receives funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban development, the federal Workforce Investment Act, the Employment Board of Hampden County, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and the Commonwealth Corp., among other sources.

Separation from the city will occur over the next four years, said Sneed, adding that this period of transition will allow MCDI to cultivate other funding sources and become more-entrepreneurial in its operations. And when asked where and how, he said, “everywhere and with everything.”

“The obvious challenge for us is to replace that revenue we receive from the city,” he explained, adding that there were plans to begin transitioning MCDI away from city assistance roughly a year ago, but they were pushed back, in part to provide more time to cultivate a strategic plan for moving forward and closing that funding gap.

Such work boils down essentially to partnership-building, said Sneed, adding that this has been the blueprint for MCDI since its start back in 1970, but these efforts now take on an ever-more-critical nature.

And they represent a form of ongoing evolution at the institute, which has seen a number of changes since it was founded as the Hampden District Regional Skills Center. Now, as then, the mission has been to work with various challenged constituencies — the homeless, those on transitional assistance (formerly known as welfare), the unemployed and under-employed, those once incarcerated, and youths at risk among other groups, and, “graduate them into the economy,” as Sneed put it.

Over the years, technology and other changes in the workplace have presented new opportunities and challenges for the institute, which has, generally speaking, responded effectively to demands for both broader skill sets and qualified help in specific sectors of the economy. Since its inception, MCDI has transitioned more than 18,000 people into full-time employment, the majority of them women and minorities.

But the institute was rocked by scandal earlier this decade, with Phillips eventually removed from his position amid allegations ranging from creation of no-show jobs to inappropriate use of funds to improper relationships with students — sometimes in exchange for those no-show jobs.

Morton, a former attorney and long-time teacher in Springfield, succeeded in putting the institute back on solid ground, reaffirming its relevance within the region, and even gaining some positive headlines, said Sneed, adding that his role is to build on what’s been done and move MCDI forward through creation of more and better partnerships with area economic-development agencies.

Training Grounds

Sneed said MCDI has always been performance-based in its operations, but now, it will be even more so as it becomes more entrepreneurial in nature.

“The incentive was never to get people in the door, but to get them jobs, and that’s more true today than ever before,” he said, adding that this operating philosophy (and funding provision) dovetails nicely with a new sense of urgency within the community regarding workforce development.

Indeed, the Regional Employment Board, working in concert with a host of other agencies and institutions, has blueprinted something called Building a Better Workforce — Closing the Skills Gap on the Road to Economic Resurgence, and MCDI is already slated to play a role in one of its first initiatives.

It’s a project within the health care sector to increase pathways for lower-skilled incumbent workers by providing certified nursing assistant (CNA) and acute-care training. The program will eventually involve both current health care workers and those outside that sector and, essentially, provide an entranceway and then a clearer path to better-paying jobs in that industry, which is struggling to fill vacancies in many areas.

MCDI will join Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College in training efforts aimed at making participants ready to work in an acute-care setting.

Meanwhile, the institute is also playing a part in efforts to help bring more skilled individuals into the manufacturing sector, and, specifically, the precision-machining quadrant, said Sneed, adding that work to secure more contracts of this type will be the real key to closing the funding gap that will result from the transition away from city support.

And to get them, MCDI must improve its visibility, he explained, but also continuously prove to business owners, groups like the REB, and other partners and potential partners that it can produce results.

“We have to show people that we can deliver — just like any business must,” he said, adding that, to continuously gain those desired results, the institute must make sure its programs are relevant, up-to-date, and provide graduates with those skills that employers are demanding.

Thus, the institute uses advisory boards to review the needs of various business sectors and even specific businesses to help make sure the institute is graduating individuals who can meet those needs.

These include the so-called “soft skills,” he continued, referring to everything from punctuality to communication to proper attire — something the institute helps to address through the Dress for Success venture, which provides graduating women with clothes and shoes for interviews or their first day on the job.

“It’s always been our mission to have people be job-ready,” he explained. “And that’s why we have conversations with people, starting on day 1, about what it takes to be ready.”

As for visibility, or marketing, this is something on which MCDI has traditionally not focused much of its time, energy, or budget (as a look at its Web site will reveal), but this philosophy, like many other day-to-day operations, will change with the institute’s more businesslike approach.

“We have to market ourselves more aggressively, we know that,” said Sneed, who has gone so far as to hire a consultant to assist with such matters. “We have to get our message out; too many people still don’t know who we are, why we’re here, or how we can help them. ”

And the message to be sent, he said, is that this is no longer a ‘troubled’ agency with a dark cloud hanging over it. “We’ve managed to put that behind us; we’re focused on the future and being a key part in workforce-development efforts here.”

Moving forward, Sneed said his basic mission is simply to make the institute’s phone ring more often — make that much more often. Calls are traditionally from companies that need help, or a problem solver, he explained, adding that his level of success in making MCDI a thriving, independent entity will ultimately be measured by that volume of phone calls.

“We want to be this region’s training facility of choice — it’s as simple as that,” he said, using, again, words that he summoned often.

Trash Talking

As Sneed gave BusinessWest a tour of the institute’s many programs — stopping in the computer lab, one of the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) labs, the commercial kitchen, and the Dress for Success shop, among others — he moved quickly and purposefully. He wanted to provide a detailed look at what the institute does and how it does it, but he also had work to do.

MCDI is entering a new, intriguing, and very challenging phase of its existence, and Sneed is quite busy with the many aspects of partnership-building, strategic planning, and developing new and reliable sources of revenue. If it all sounds like the process of running a business, that’s because that is increasingly what this entity has become.

And Sneed just might be able to sell a few trash barrels while he’s at it.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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