VersAbility Board Member Shawn Avery a Believer in Partnerships to Drive Economic Growth

Versability board member Shawn Avery

Here’s the thing about workforce development. It’s economic development, stresses Shawn Avery, President and CEO of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council and a volunteer member of VersAbility Resources’ Board of Directors.

Avery explains it this way. Growing the economy and ensuring a workforce with the desired skills is in place to move business forward supports the entire region and makes Hampton Roads a better place to live, work and play. The Council achieves that by developing programs and solutions, so employers succeed and by creating partnerships that benefit both parties.

VersAbility CEO and President Kasia Grzelkowski sits on the Council’s Board. Avery’s admiration of Grzelkowski and their shared benefits led to him joining the nonprofit’s Board.

“VersAbility’s mission is to connect people to the community and one of the ways they do that is through jobs,” Avery said. “Everybody should have an opportunity to work. I like the ability to provide a training opportunities to individuals who historically or even now don’t have those opportunities. I like that Kasia and VersAbility go above and beyond in doing that.”

Avery’s roots are all Hampton Roads. He’s never lived anywhere else, earning an undergraduate degree in business with a marketing focus from Christopher Newport University and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology. He was a fundraiser out of college for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and from there went to work in grants and fundraising for what is now Virginia Peninsula Community College.

Before joining the Council a decade ago, Avery held leadership positions with Opportunity Inc., and Peninsula Council for Workforce Development. The merger of those two organizations created the Council tasked with providing the talent employers need to grow the economy.

“I love my job,” Avery says. “One day we’re involved in veterans stuff, the next day we’re involved in community activities or working with the Navy, the shipyard and the government. Or going to the General Assembly. Often we work with educators.”

Under Avery, the Council’s budget has grown from $6 million to $37 million. The Council, initially, a small time player is today a driver of partnerships.

Two veterans employment centers have opened to support transitioning service members. The Council has aligned with the maritime industry to ensure that workforce is training for the demands of the future. The skills training includes a partnership between the Council and VersAbility aimed at preparing people with disabilities for careers.

“We are seen as a model for the state,” Avery said. “We’re not somebody that needs to be in the lead on everything. We’re really built on collaboration and supporting each other. When one wins, the other wins.”

Workforce development should not be confused with social service, Avery said. It includes positions of all scope, from entry level to doctorate level. “Social service is part of the ecosystem of workforce development, but it is not the driver,” Avery said. “Employers and the business community are the drivers.”

All the lessons the Council learned in maritime will be applied to new pathways in health care, information technology and cybersecurity. “We always want to stay on the cutting edge,” Avery said. “We’re looking at how to retain talent in the region.

In addition to the VersAbility Board, Avery serves on many others, including Hampton Roads Alliance, Future Hampton Roads and Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. He is a member of GO Virginia Regional Council, Virginia Business Roundtable for Early Education and Virginia Economic Developers Association.

Avery and his wife, Martinee, have been married 25 years. They are parents to two adult daughters, Taylor and Riley. They reside in Poquoson where Shawn actually enjoys regular yard work in addition to boating.

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