HR Professional David Feinerman: “My Columbia MSW Was One of the Best Decisions of My Life”

August 29, 2019 @ 6:00 pm
By Joshua Cole, Communications

Working at the Columbia School of Social Work, one is presented with almost daily evidence of how social workers are found in almost every setting. For example, one does not automatically associate social work with the field of business, but in fact many social workers find jobs in human resources. Communications writer Joshua Cole recently caught up with one outstanding example of this, alumnus David Feinerman (MSW’08), and asked him to share the story of his success.

Hi, David. I understand you were a finalist in the Crain’s Cleveland Business HR Excellence Awards. Congratulations!

Thank you so much, Josh. I am pleased to say that I won the award at the Crain’s event on August 6 and was named HR Executive of the Year, which is super exciting.

That’s fantastic! I see that this isn’t the first time your work has been recognized.

The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program recognized a program I created, SkillUp, as a best practice. Another program I created, “Careers in Utilities,” was named a “Promising Workforce Practice” by the State of Ohio Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation. I’ve also been recognized for excellence in Talent Management by ERC Human Resources Consulting and the Cleveland Society for Human Resources Management.

You currently serve as head of workforce innovation at the Cuyahoga County Department of Development. Can you tell me what that entails?

Sure. I was hired in 2016 by the Department of Development in Cuyahoga County—for those who don’t know, it’s the county in Ohio that includes Cleveland—to serve as its very first head of workplace innovation. In that capacity, I lead the County’s efforts to achieve three of its regional workforce goals:

  • Support business growth and profitability.
  • Help residents advance on career and wage pathways.
  • Align programmatic funding and metrics from public, private and philanthropic agencies to reduce duplication and drive regional shared impact.

As part of working on these very ambitious goals, I created SkillUp, a first-of-its-kind free business advisory service. Too often, business leaders are afraid to try something new and in many cases under-value and under-resource strategic initiatives, including investing in training and upgrading the skills of their workers. But a fear-based leadership approach stunts business and economic growth while limiting career advancement for workers. SkillUp gives companies advice on how to invest in their business and their talent on the premise that the economy grows when employers invest time and money into solving business problems; whether it is reducing costs by accessing government subsidies or increasing productivity by providing workers with updated skills. Our ultimate goal is to grow the economy by helping companies increase revenue and create quality jobs and by helping all residents continuously increase wages and advance professionally.

What does your day-to-day look like?

I lead a team of 10 employees who deliver SkillUp business advisory services—ensuring that we are operating effectively and delivering value to employers. In addition, I have been put in charge of bringing together public, private and philanthropic workforce development funders to develop a coordinated workforce system for the County. This funders’ collaborative is tasked with establishing new or strengthening existing sector partnerships and intermediaries in specific growth industry sectors and occupations. We are currently implementing an initiative in the County’s top three industries: manufacturing, healthcare, and information technology. The collaborative created an aligned pool of $2,500,000 as startup capital for these three distinct yet interconnected areas—unprecedented in the Cleveland marketplace.

What exactly is a “sector partnership”?

A sector partnership is a collaboration among a group of employers from the region, typically from a particular industry sector or sub-sector, focused on strategies for responding to common issues and needs. Sector partnerships are the fundamental building blocks of effective regional workforce systems, creating reliable talent pipelines and reducing barriers to employment and career advancement.

And an “aligned pool”?

When philanthropic, private or governmental entities provide collective funding for a project to achieve a unified goal.

Many people may not know how widely applicable an MSW can be. Did yours help prepare you for the kind of work you’ve been telling us about? If so, how?

Getting my MSW from Columbia was one of the best decisions of my life. I enrolled in the two-year full-time program after spending six years in corporate human resources where various experiences pushed me to seek additional education. The education I received was stellar and provided me with a set of finely tuned skills that I continue to use every day. Specifically, I use the tools of program development and evaluation as well as the skills involved in navigating organizational dynamics, delivering client services, understanding safety net programs, and recommending modifications to policies and practices.

Are there certain aspects of the job that you think might have been harder without a social work education?

Without my Columbia MSW, I would not have the skills or knowledge required to traverse and align siloed efforts between human services and economic development organizations. My role is responsible for helping county leaders achieve regional economic growth and inclusion for all businesses and residents while maintaining compliance with the federal safety net program mandates.

Why is compliance important in this context?

Compliance mandates for federal programs are important because a county agency faces multi-million dollar fines if the average percentage of compliant benefits recipients drops below 50 percent. Additionally, residents who are non-compliant with their mandated work activity requirements are sanctioned by the county and lose benefits.

What attracted you to the MSW program in the first place?

In 2005, I was in a job where I faced quite a few complex employee relations issues, and it was clear to me I needed additional education and training. At that time, though, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. After reviewing my personality traits to see the best occupational fit, I went to a textbook library in lower Manhattan to examine the contents of textbooks for each potential career field. When I came to the social work textbooks, I could immediately see that the profession was a good fit for me.

What part of the program made the biggest impact on you?

My first-year [practicum] placement was amazing. I worked at a middle school in Harlem and my practicum instructor, Elise Sabatel, was an extraordinary teacher and mentor. I was trained to listen, ask questions, build relationships, and deliver services using techniques that before that time, I never knew existed. The advanced clinical practice theory and methods I learned from Professors Denise Burnette and Ada Mui helped me grow not only professionally but also personally. I work hard every day to pass this knowledge on to my team members.

What do you think the human resources practicum can learn from social work practitioners and researchers?

Active listening skills and evidence-based practice are so necessary in human resources. Employer practices, and the strength of the relationships between peers or supervisors, are the key to why some businesses thrive while others fail—why some people are hired and promoted and others marginalized. The ability to listen effectively, facilitate high-stakes conversations, and deliver evidence-based services in the workplace helps employees be more engaged and productive.

Anything else you would like to share with the School of Social Work community or those thinking about joining it?

I chose Columbia because it was my lifelong dream to attend the University. The alumni and staff support network in the School of Social Work and the broader university network is unparalleled. More than ten years later, I continue to reaffirm the decision every day.