By BECKY GILLETTE
Valencia Williamson has overseen the creation of innovative new programs including those designed to improve the work-force preparedness of high school graduates since she was hired six years ago to head the Area Development Partnership Chamber of Commerce Division as executive vice president.
“Valencia is a leading minority executive in Greater Hattiesburg and serves as a shining star for women in the workplace,” said ADP President Chad Newell. “She is a loyal leader with a wonderful array of skills. Valencia has developed numerous programs during her tenure at the ADP, including a multi-pronged K-12 initiative that encompasses JumpStart, Mission Possible, and Teachers in the Workplace. JumpStart is an interactive Career Fair for 9th graders, Mission Possible teaches various soft skills for juniors and seniors including how to dress for success, cover letter and resume writing, interviewing skills, etc. Teachers in the Workplace exposes teachers to workplace realities in order to help guide their classroom initiatives. This is a team effort with Daniel Jayroe, our community development director.”
Newell said Williamson has also recently helped launch diversity programs in an effort to encourage women and minorities to become even more engaged in the chamber and give them an opportunity network for success.
The Chamber of Commerce Division encompasses membership recruitment and retention, membership development, marketing/communications, retiree and physician recruitment, leadership programs, and education initiatives. Their education programs are designed to help connect K-12 students to workplace realities, thus preparing them for post-graduate success.
“A few years ago we commissioned a study to show us where the gaps were with regards to K-12 schools and meeting the needs of the business community. What we found is while there are great programs at the K-12 level, there is a disconnect between students making choices that best suit their plans for the future regarding their path after high school. We discovered that students often didn’t know all of the available options.”
Williamson said it is important to have education and business communities working in synergy.
One effort to address that issue is the JumpStart to Success program for 9th graders that exposes students to various opportunities available to them in the region with regards to needs of the workforce. Thirteen business sectors ranging from health care to manufacturing are represented in the program that involves doing hands-on activities with students.
“We want to better prepare students to make the right choices based on what is best for them,” she said. “There are many options out there in addition to attending a two-year college or a four-year university. One of the things we found through this study is voc-tech programs have gotten a bad rap for being the alternative school, and that is not the case. Those programs help prepare students and give them an idea what they want to do. If a student is really good at a certain skill, and has an interest in something offered on the vocation level, they can get certification and go into the work force after graduation.”
The 11th grade program called Mission Possible that started with 50 students participating is now up to 500 students. It is done in partnership with the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University, with students spending one day on each campus.
A newer program is Launching Diversity in Business, a series of opportunities for business professionals to bridge gender and ethnicity gaps in leadership.
“ADP’s leadership brought it to our attention that we need to diversity the board as there are not as many women or minorities as we would like to see,” Williamson said. “One of the challenges we quickly discovered is there aren’t a lot of women and\or minorities in high level executive leadership positions. We are trying to identify potential leaders who have talent. Our role at ADP to connect them to the resources they need. Recently we partnered with the First, a National Banking Association, and Hattiesburg Tourism and Convention Commission on a diversity exchange to bring folks together to build relationships and share referrals.”
She also tries to build overall chamber membership.
“Chambers nationally face the challenge of innovating and remaining relevant, especially in the new age of technology and convenience,” she said. “I once heard someone use the phrase, ‘innovate or die’ with regards to longevity amongst chambers. Long gone are the days when the local chamber could simply conduct a ribbon cutting and provide a business with its first dollar. Today, members require value-added proposition. Advocating, educating, informing, recruiting and retaining are just a few of the benefits a chamber must offer to maintain its relevancy. The ADP is unique in that through the resources of public and private sector investors, we’re able to continuously find ways to evolve and withstand the ever-changing climate of the business community, and as a result we’ve set ourselves apart as the premier regional chamber of commerce and economic development organization in South Mississippi.
The ADP has long been considered to have one of the state’s best retiree recruitment programs. Greater Hattiesburg was recently named as a top retirement destination, and one of eight tax-friendly towns in the nation by Where to Retire Magazine in its January issue.
“We’re continuing that momentum by partnering with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USM to host a Creative Retirement Exploratory Weekend for adults 50 plus who are planning for the next phase of their lives,” Williamson said. “With great partners and a product that essentially sells itself, Hattiesburg is poised for a boon.”
With two major hospitals and the largest multi-specialty clinic in the state, Hattiesburg’s health-care community directly accounts for more than 9,000 employees. As part of their economic development action plan, ADP works alongside healthcare providers and universities to help recruit the best and brightest talent.
“Our role at the ADP is to support these efforts by providing resources that help them succeed,” she said.
Membership recruitment takes a concerted effort across both divisions.
“We have a membership team dedicated to managing membership recruitment and retention as part of their primary responsibilities,” she said. “However the job doesn’t stop with them. Everyone on the staff is plugged-in to membership, and actively helps recruit new businesses; it’s a part of our culture. Last year we added an investor relations coordinator position which has helped to broaden our reach. We’re now focused on providing value-added services and benefits to our members, by connecting their specific needs to the various resources we offer. The results have been phenomenal.”