Tomasine Oliphant is just learning the ropes as the new director of Ulster County’s federally funded office of employment and training. She’s now in her third week on the job. A social worker by profession, Oliphant’s most recent position was as student resource navigator at Dutchess Community College. ”DCC cares,” a school pamphlet assured needy students. “Support is within your reach!”
In an interview with me last Friday organized and attended by assistant deputy county executive Dan Torres, Oliphant described how warmly college officials there had praised the work she had done.
Oliphant was one of several applicants for the Ulster County position interviewed first by Lisa Berger, who was the position’s previous occupant, and by deputy county executive Marc Rider. Then she met with county executive Pat Ryan, who confirmed his subordinates’ view that she was the right person for the job.
Ryan’s press release, posted December 10, said he thought the county’s career center would be in great hands with Oliphant. “Workforce development is at the core of our strategy to drive equitable economic development,” wrote Ryan. “Tomasine’s passion to help people find employment and serve a wide array of people will set us up of success in this department.”
The rest of Ryan’s team — and a couple of folks in positions outside county government with whom I talked — offered similarly enthusiastic sentiments. Oliphant, in her thirties and the holder of a master’s degree in social work, is smart and dedicated, they said. And she brought a social worker’s fresh perspective to matching available positions and applicant skills.
Berger, previous holder of the position to which Oliphant had been named and recently confirmed as the county’s director of economic development, was one of the enthusiasts. She praised Oliphant’s skills set combining social work, community outreach and higher education. Oliphant’s helping underserved communities succeed at the college level while strengthening direct linkages with businesses was a good strategy for Ulster County, Berger said. She looked forward to working with Oliphant “to bring economic equity to all.”
Berger headed the office of county employment and training — and the closely related workforce development board — for the past five years. Before that, Berger was employed in the county tourism office for seven years and at the Cooperative Extension of Ulster County for nine. Many New Paltzonians know her as the daughter of the late Anthony Moriello, local farmer, orchard owner, political figure and athlete.
Oliphant grew up on Long Island and went to college and graduate school at Stony Brook University. She grew up in a low-income household where the helping hand of public benefits was not unknown. Her work experiences began at an early age. She went to college and graduate school at Stony Brook University. In 2014 she moved to the Hudson Valley. She said she has resided since her move mostly in Kingston but currently lives in Wappingers Falls. She has worked in programs for foster children in several local social-service agencies, including work for Family of Woodstock in Kingston, New Paltz and Ellenville.
“I’m a social worker,” Oliphant explained in the interview last Friday at the county office building attended by deputy county executive Dan Torres. “I connect with people…I help create and facilitate change.”
Professional social work, she explained, involves identifying the core problem people are having and working with them to solve that problem. It was virtually the same explanation I had heard articulated a few months ago by county social services commissioner Mike Iapoce. And there’s an identical message in Family of Woodstock’s longtime slogan, “Any Problem Under the Sun.”
Oliphant, who will head a staff of eight plus herself at the office of employment and training, has little supervisory experience. She will be heading an organization with a lot of federal rules and 100 percent funded by federal money, with considerable state involvement, and county governance. For dealing with this organizational thicket, she may be able to rely on her longtime deputy director Cynthia Baran, who is in her eighteenth year with the agency.
Oliphant will also head the 18-person advisory workforce development board composed of representatives from local businesses, not-for-profits and educational institutions. That group, which holds Tuesday afternoon meetings five times a year, is tasked by the feds with developing a strategic vision and goals for preparing an educated and skilled workforce.
As required, the current vision serves both youth and adult participants at different levels of skill, job preparation and educational attainment. Among other lofty goals. it’s supposed to “support the development of career pathways programs, research-based models…and services that result in employment advancement for students.”
Oliphant will be reporting in the hierarchy to deputy county executive Evelyn Wright, a Kingston resident who will herself begin working for Ulster County in mid-January.
Wright describes herself as a climate economist, energy analyst, meeting facilitator and longtime cooperative enthusiast. In a December 2019 piece on her Commonwealth Hudson Valley website, Wright supported a strategy of workforce development. “Many localities are now working with employers to develop and support customized training programs to meet employers’ skill needs, either instead of or in addition to tax incentive programs,” she wrote. Wright is a believer in investing in local business retention rather than attraction. “We do best by supporting what we have, investing in the businesses that are already here — and then reinvesting that capital locally,” her piece explained.
In his appointments, county executive Pat Ryan has been assembling an organizational mechanism capable of effectively pursuing economic development, the most complex of his Big Five goals. He sees workforce development as key to helping grow a more equitable, more sustainable economy.
Tomasine Oliphant’s appointment is an important one. In the creation of a goal-oriented Ulster County economic development team, it made a statement as well as filled a vacancy.