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A five-year employee with the city of Springfield, Ericka Schmeeckle is interim director of the Department of Workforce Development.
Heather Mosley | SBJ
A five-year employee with the city of Springfield, Ericka Schmeeckle is interim director of the Department of Workforce Development.

Executive Insider: Ericka Schmeeckle

City’s workforce development leader says search for federal grants is paying off

Posted online

Becoming the interim director of the city of Springfield’s Department of Workforce Development wasn’t in Ericka Schmeeckle’s plans for 2022, but she says she was ready.

Taking on the leadership role in October following the sudden resignation of predecessor Sally Payne, Schmeeckle notes nearly two years as the department’s assistant director prepared her as much as possible.

“Taking over as interim was a shift from being the assistant. I wouldn’t say a major shift to here within this department, as the director and assistant have worked very well hand in hand,” she says.

Payne had held the interim director title for more than 20 months before becoming the permanent leader of the department in August 2021. She claimed retaliation by city officials after she questioned a city finance department employee’s use of workers’ compensation as a reason for her sudden exit. She succeeded Mary Ann Rojas, who retired in 2019.

Schmeeckle says Payne’s departure was at a “very busy time” for the department, which came on the heels of it receiving a $17.5 million federal grant to be used toward industry-led workforce training partnerships. Springfield was one of only 32 recipients – and the lone awardee in Missouri – of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s grant, which also was one of the largest in the city’s history. The grant is expected to support 51 Missouri counties and train close to 3,000 people over three years.

“We were like full steam ahead. Let’s go. Let’s plan,” Schmeeckle says. “We had a whole brand-new team starting on the grant.”

Grant writing is “a fun part” of the job, she says, adding there’s a constant pursuit to find funding, particularly on the federal level. Schmeeckle, who started with the city department in 2018 as supervisor of the Aspire Youth Services program, says she approached Payne and Rojas a few years ago about her interest in grant writing and her desire to take courses to learn more about the process. Both were extremely supportive, she adds.

“I find it exciting. We meet with partners. We just met with (Springfield Public Schools) and (Ozarks Technical Community College),” she says, noting department officials talked with the employers about workforce needs. “That’s what we want to be as a department. So, really the focus has been for the past few years to not only follow [Springfield] City Council priorities but to meet with the people coming in with employers and training providers and say, ‘What’s missing in our community right now? And how can we be the help that we need to be?’”

Federal grant money has been flowing into the city over the past couple of years. The EDA grant was preceded last year by $3 million awarded to the city to bolster registered apprenticeships in southwest Missouri. The city was one of 39 agencies awarded part of $121 million in Apprenticeship Building America grants allocated by the U.S. Department of Labor. That followed another $3 million grant – this one from the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration – to conduct job training and career readiness programs for incarcerated individuals awaiting release into the southern Missouri area.

Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency late last year awarded the Department of Workforce Development a $500,000 grant for the city to continue and expand its Green for Greene environmental job training program.

Amanda Ohlensehlen, the city’s director of Economic Vitality, says Schmeeckle exemplifies a leader who empowers her staff to have a big vision.

“She’s very helpful as we think about working within all of our departments of how we can apply for and administer these competitive grants,” Ohlensehlen says. “There’s really a lot of ways she looks for cross-discipline support, as well as encouraging and supporting her staff as subject-matter experts to really present and tell that story to both our community members and those who are participating in various programs.”

A graduate of Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, Schmeeckle is a native of the Bluegrass State. She received her bachelor’s degree in human services and a master’s degree in clinical counseling, both from the private liberal arts college. Her early professional roles included working in a children’s crisis unit with the plan to become a licensed professional counselor. She left Kentucky for Springfield around 2015 to pursue love, noting the Queen City was where her future wife, Cassia Schmeeckle, lived. The two, who have known each other since they were children, have been married for nearly two years, Ericka says.

Schmeeckle credits her wife, who previously worked for the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, for getting her to apply for a city job. She thought counseling was her career path but then discovered most of the frontline positions in Workforce Development require a degree such as human services or counseling.

“We’re there to assist individuals out of possibly a really hard time in their life and to a new career path,” she says. “So (the city is) looking for people with that background.”

The work was an instant attraction, Schmeeckle says.

“I liked this more and I wanted to stay. It kind of felt more, like what I had planned for my career,” she says.

Schmeeckle also had plans to be a mom, leading her and Cassia to become foster parents. Little did they know what was in store for them last year.

“We have an 18-month-old and an 8-month-old that we are in our final steps of adopting,” she says, noting both children were unexpected. “So, we have a lot going on.”

While the couple was open to a large age range for fostering, Schmeeckle says they thought it would be older children based on what they had heard and read of the foster system. The average age of a child in care is 9 years old, according to nonprofit FosterAdopt Connect Inc.

“We prepared and we had like coloring books and crayons and a queen-size bed and all of this stuff, then they called and said, ‘Can you get this 2-day-old infant from the hospital?” she says with a laugh. “We had no diapers or cribs or any of that stuff because we never thought that they would call on a baby.

“As it turns out, finding child care is so hard right now, especially for infants,” she says. “That was an interesting transition and unexpected. It has so drastically changed us as people, drastically changed our life in ways that you never even imagine changing. I speak for both of us in saying we’re extremely blessed to have these two little ones in our life.”

Schmeeckle says they hope to have both adopted before year’s end.

As for getting to maybe shed the interim director title in the near future, Schmeeckle says she’s not approaching it as a certainty. City spokesperson Cora Scott there currently is no timetable for selecting a permanent director.

“I don’t expect that they would direct promote. I do think it’ll be competitive, but I haven’t asked about it,” she says, adding she’d want to be a candidate.

“I don’t think I grew up and was like, ‘I want to do workforce development.’ But once I started it, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it. I like it.’ I would feel very fortunate to stay here.”

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