Putting the work and force into the workforce center: After 16 years of bringing things together, administrator leaving

Sue Tuffin has served as administrator of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction since the facility opened in 1998. Tuffin plans to step down at the end of September to work for the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that conducts research on and advocates for work force development, focusing especially on low-income populations. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)
Sue Tuffin has served as administrator of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction since the facility opened in 1998. Tuffin plans to step down at the end of September to work for the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that conducts research on and advocates for work force development, focusing especially on low-income populations. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Sue Tuffin has made a career out of bringing things together, in particular the myriad services offered at the Mesa County Workforce Center she’s run since the center opened in 1998.

The center provides a range of services to people looking for employment, not to mention businesses looking for employees. But realizing the same people who need help finding a job also are likely to require assistance with such necessities as food, housing and child care, Tuffin has helped to develop over the years what she describes as a one-stop shop to efficiently meet all those needs.

In the process, Tuffin has brought other things together as well, including a staff she considers a family she both challenges and nurtures. Suzie Miller, business services manager at the center, puts it this way: “She’s as ornery as she is loving.”

But after 16 years of putting the work and force into the workforce center, Tuffin plans to step down at the end of September to make way for changes there and in her own life. “I feel that it’s time,” she says.

Tuffin says she’s leaving the center in the hands of a capable management team that will bring new energy and ideas to the operation. Moreover, the center moved earlier this year into newly constructed facility that brought all of the facilities, services and employees previously housed in six buildings into a single new building.

Meanwhile, her own long and varied career will change once again with a new position with the Center for Law and Social Policy, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that conducts research on and advocates for work force development, focusing especially on the needs of low-income populations.  Tuffin says she’ll work on a contract basis for the organization, likely including projects that assess how well states implement the very types of efforts she’s overseen at the workforce center.

Mark Fugere, director of the jobs program at the workforce center, has worked with Tuffin since the center opened. Fugere says Tuffin leaves behind a legacy of solving difficult problems. “She’s fearless. She’s not afraid to tackle the most difficult issues.”

And Grand Valley, is better for it, he says. “She’s been a champion of this community.”

Tuffin acknowledges a tenacity she credits to her upbringing as a coal miner’s daughter who traveled with her family from job to job in Western Colorado and the western United States. She eventually returned, though, to her native Delta County and graduated from Delta High School.

Tuffin went on to attend Southern Colorado State University in Pueblo, completing four years of course work in two years even as she raised a son as single mother.

After working for  her way from a receptionist to a supervisor with wihat was at the time the Manpower federal employment training program, Tuffin returned to Delta to help care for her parents.

She went to work for the Delta County Department of Human Services in several positions, evetually becoming director of a combined health and human services department.

Tuffin subsequently spent a decade working for the state government on welfare reform, including efforts to obtain waivers from the federal government to offer different programs. Those efforts included a pilot program in Mesa County. Colorado received the waivers, but Congress enacted legislation eliminating them, she says.

Tuffin resigned from her position as executive director of the division of self-sufficiency under the Colorado Department of Human Services. She says she initially planned to live in Mesa County and grow garlic.

That was when Tuffin was approached to administer a workforce center that would combine the state unemployment office, a work force development program operated by Hilltop Community Resources and other human services in a one-stop shop. “They actively reached out to me,” she recalls. “I wasn’t even looking for the job.”

But Tuffin says she was immediately excited about the potential. “The idea of creating this shop invigorated all of us.”

The Mesa County Workforce Center opened in February 1998 in what formerly was a church near the intersection of North Avenue and 29 Road. Tuffin says she still remembers the sanctuary and placing masking tape on the floor to figure out where to install cubicles.

The goal from the beginning, she says, has been to provide in one place the variety of services people need, including not only help to find a job, but also the assistance with housing, transportation and child care. “It’s a variety of things these folks need to help them focus on becoming employable.”

Tuffin cites as one example a young mother with two children who leaves an abusive relationship. She receives counseling on her career options and becomes a certified nursing assistant at a long-term care facility. She discovers she enjoys the work and completes further training that allows her to earn higher wages and pursue a career. In the meantime, the woman also needs assistance with food and medical care.

Tuffin cites as another example another young woman with an engineering degree who’s lost her job in the energy sector and nearly exhausted her resources. She receives assistance so she can stay in her home while she searches for another job.

“We do that on a daily basis,” Tuffin says.

At the same time, the Mesa County Workforce Center also offers a range of services to businesses, posting job orders, organizing hiring events and screening applicants. Assistance also is available to train employees, and a variety of computer classes are offered as well.

Staff was able to make what Tuffin calls the “old tin shack” on North Avenue work. But relocating the workforce center to a newly constructed building on 29 1/2 Road brought all the facilities and services under one roof in a far more efficient venue, she says.

Moreover, the new facility offers ample space for hiring events, training sessions and meetings, she adds. “Employers, businesses love that space.”

Tuffin attributes the success of the workforce center to a staff she considers members of an extended family she constantly challenges to excel. “I see myself as a sparkplug, an activator, a mentor. I am a challenger. I challenge a lot of things, even myself.”

But Tuffin also nourishes them figuratively — and literally, through frequent potluck meals and picnics. Miller says she warns new employees they should expect to gain weight.

“It really is a family, and she built it,” Miller says.

Even as Tuffin has worked over the past 16 years to bring programs and staff together at the workforce center, she’s had to contend with a changing labor market. “It’s like a roller coaster.”

During the natural gas development boom in Western Colorado that preceded the recession, the labor pool was too shallow to accomodate the rapid growth. Tuffin remembers trying to recruit more employees from California and Nevada. “We could not get enough workers.”

But when the energy sector and overall economy slowed during the recession, unemployment rates soared and people moved out of the area to find work, Tuffin says The ensuing recovery has been painfully slow, she adds. “It’s taken much longer to get out of this.”

While more jobs are becoming available, many are for part-time positions or pay low wages, she says.

More manufacturing and construction jobs that pay higher wages are needed to help bolster the economy, Tuffin says. She believes there could be opportunities to open facilities that make the parts and other products local manufacturers need rather than bringing those products in from other areas.

She also believes there could be opportunities for Mesa County to cater to an aging population interested in living in an area with a mild climate and good health care facilities.

 Tuffin also looks ahead to the coming opportunities in her own life — not only her work with the Center for Law and Social Policy, but also the chance to go fishing and camping.

And she looks back fondly tothe past 16 years at the Mesa County Workforce Center. “What a pleasure this has been. What a delight.”