Workforce development is a rewarding, multifaceted profession, Bridget Brown says. But because of all the complexities and nuances of the workforce development world, it’s also a hard job to explain.
Brown, the Executive Director of the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals (NAWDP), sat down with us to go over the intricacies of the workforce system and how workforce professionals help businesses—now their primary customer under WIOA, she says—find skilled talent and help jobseekers find and keep good jobs.
Here’s a rundown of some of the topics we cover in the Q&A:
Brown will be one of the speakers next week at the 2016 Emsi Conference in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and a featured guest at our inaugural workforce summit the day after the conference (Oct. 20) in Moscow, Idaho.
Emsi: Can you give a synopsis of your background?
Bridget Brown: I have been at NAWDP since January of 2007, and I came into workforce development through career and technical education. I was a government relations professional/lobbyist for what was then American Vocational Association, is now Association for Career and Technical Education. So I saw the rebranding of the career and tech ed system. From that I went into manufacturing and worked on the business end of workforce development, taking a look at what it was that front-line through first-line supervisors in manufacturing needed to know and be able to do to ensure that their employer was productive. I did a short stint with Department of Labor, looking at skill standards. But, I missed the career development portion, so I went back into career development a little bit more taking a look at career information, employment statistics, labor market information, and then landed at NAWDP in ’07. So I have worked on the youth side, the adult side, the business side, and the data side.
Emsi: Has that all been centered around the D.C. area?
Brown: I have been headquartered in the D.C. area. Manufacturing, I was on the road most of the time, wherever the manufacturers were. But yes, by and large, I have been in the Washington, D.C. area.
“Workforce professionals do one of two things. They either work with businesses to help them on their talent pipeline—that is, making sure that they have the skilled talent that they need in order to be productive, or they may work on the jobseeker’s side, whereby they help a jobseeker identify, obtain, and maintain employment.”
Emsi: So, obviously, a lot of things have changed since then, including the original WIA legislation in ’98.
Brown: Yes. I was around when JTPA turned into WIA and when WIA turn into WIOA. I was also around for the development of the TANF legislation as well, looking at the workforce approach to individuals on public assistance.
Emsi: In your words, what does the workforce development system entail and if you had to quickly summarize what workforce professionals do, how would you do that?
Brown: I would answer those two questions differently, so let me do the easier one first. Workforce professionals do one of two things. They either work with businesses to help them on their talent pipeline—that is, making sure that they have the skilled talent that they need in order to be productive, or they may work on the jobseeker’s side, whereby they help a jobseeker identify, obtain, and maintain employment. Of course, there are a variety of different ways that we do that, but, in short, we’re either working on the business side, on the talent pipeline, on the supply or the demand side. But it all involves making sure our local businesses have talented employees, skilled employees that they need in order to take their business to the next level. And of course we work on the jobseekers’ side to make sure that they have family-sustaining wages, they have a career pathway, and that they’re working in a safe environment.
That’s what a workforce professional does. Now what the workforce system does is serve at the intersection where the supply and demand actually meet. That is, what do employers need, what do local businesses need, versus what is the supply of talented skill that is out in the labor market itself. When there is that disconnect, which is 100% of the time, our job is to prepare the supply side to meet the demand side. So we do that through job training, we do that through work-based learning, we do that by working with job training entities, community colleges, apprenticeship programs, whatever it might be, in order to identify what the skills are that businesses really need and to help the education world translate that into a training program. And do the forecasting along with it like Emsi does as well, but if we know in five years we’re going to need a jump in, let’s say qualified tool and die makers, then we need to get that apprenticeship program up and running now, not in five years, because we know how long it takes to become a skilled tool and die maker. It’s not something you do in a six-week certification course.
Emsi: Who would you say a workforce development professional or workforce development board, who do they primarily serve?
Brown: Employers. They serve the local business community, and I really should be using the word “business” and not “employers.” Businesses are not in business to hire jobseekers, right? They’re in business to make or service widgets, whatever their core business. So our primary customer is local business. Our product is the jobseeker—a highly skilled, talented jobseeker.
Emsi: That’s an important distinction to make, it seems.
Brown: It is. It has shifted over the years. Through JTPA and quite honestly the first part of WIA, our primary customer was the jobseeker. It was making the jobseeker productive, it was making the jobseeker skilled. That’s whether we were working under WIA or TANF or SNAP E&T or a myriad of any national, state, or local workforce programs. But when you take a look at the economics of it, businesses will only hire individuals if it’s in their best interest (i.e., competitiveness) to do so.
So when we take a look at switching who our primary customer is and focus on the need of that local business, we do a better job of matching the needed skills at that local business with who in our jobseeker pool, supply if you will, has those skills. And helping that local business forecast what they’re going to need in three years. Technology changes, production changes, the economy itself changes. Now we’re taking a look at the Uber generation or the Lyft generation. How do we make sure that we’ve got people involved in that as well?
“I think what excites me and what has always excited me is the ability to transform a family and a community. We talk a lot about economic data, and my background, my training is as an economist. But at the end of the day, at the end of the data point is a person. A person who has a family. A person who has a family who lives in a community.”
Emsi: What are the biggest challenges for the workforce system?
Brown: Managing expectations. I would say that would be the No. 1 challenge that we have, because our goal is to make sure that the jobseeker portion of the system meets the needs of the local businesses, but many of our jobseekers are not at the skill level where we can put them directly on to an employer’s or business’s production line or in the hospital or wherever their workplace is. So we need to do training/skill enhancement because we are serving individuals with significant barriers. It may be English as a second language, it may be that they’re working at really low literacy or numeracy rates. Many times we cannot even put them directly into training because they won’t succeed, and it’s not a good use of public money. So then we need to partner with whomever it is we need to partner. In most cases it might be the adult basic education portion of the system, to make sure that we’re enhancing their language, reading, numeracy skills at the same time we’re training them on technical skills and employability skills. But businesses think that you can snap a finger on Tuesday and I can have seven TIG welders at their door by Thursday. That just isn’t the case.
So it’s managing expectations. It’s also managing budgets. Our funding is dependent, by and large, on federal funding, which has not exactly been plentiful in recent years. And it’s really difficult to forecast the funding that you’re going to have and to make promises either to the local businesses or to your jobseekers about what type of training and what type of skill is coming out of that training. It becomes a bit of a challenge at times.
Emsi: Is it fair to say one of the challenges is making sure that local businesses know what the workforce board can do for them?
Brown: Well, the workforce board isn’t necessarily going to do X, Y, or Z. Many times, it’s going to be the workforce professional in the service delivery portion of the system. So let’s make a distinction between what a workforce board does versus what a service provider does. Many times, those are two different entities.
The workforce board tends to be very strategic in its nature. They tend to be the ones taking the lead on forecasting, labor market information, a lot of the partnerships, working with eligible training providers, identifying good training providers and managing that process. The boards also have to keep on eye out for the performance of the service delivery portion.
While boards may be in the role of service providers, many times they are not. It is the service providers who are working one on one with the jobseekers. So there’s two different entities there, and that line has never been clearer than it has been under WIOA.
Emsi: So when you say service provider, are you talking about front-line staff, specifically?
Brown: You can have front-line staff anywhere. I’m talking about what may be two different organizations, but definitely two different functions. Both important, but there are some differences. An example of a service provider would be a One-Stop operator or a community-based organization. This is the actual place or entity where the ex-offenders go, the individuals with disabilities go, the individuals who are not employed go. They don’t normally go to the offices of the workforce investment board. They go to the service delivery provider.
Where it gets really gray—and that line moves depending on where you are—is who works with the local businesses. Technically they both do, although I would say that probably the workforce investment board takes more of a lead. But the service providers also work with local businesses, particularly around placement and identification of opportunities. So there’s some crossover there, but the two entities have two different functions that work together. You need one working more on the operations and one working more on the strategy with a longer view and a longer strategic vision.
Emsi: Thanks for making that distinction.
Brown: Sure. It is a big system and every entity has a critical role to play. Many times, the work of the service provider is overlooked.
Emsi: Right. So in terms of the membership of NAWDP, both of those groups are included?
Brown: Both of them and more. And a lot of our members may not have a dime of WIOA money, so it’s even broader than that. We also represent the breadth of workforce development, which includes the SCSEP program (i.e., the program that is for seniors 55 and above with extremely low income). We have SNAP E&T, which is the food stamp program. We have got TANF/HHS welfare under us as well. But to us, that’s just the funding stream. We look more at what you do, not how are you funded. Funding comes and goes but the work remains.
Emsi: So you mentioned partnerships earlier. Can you elaborate who do the boards and service providers typically partner with?
Brown: There’s a variety. If you’ve seen one partnership, you’ve seen one partnership. It is hard to make a generalization. It really depends on the need of the local entities. But common ones include public libraries, faith-based organizations—and faith-based becomes very important, particularly around the ex-offender community, because the ex-offenders are going to go where they feel most comfortable, which many times are the religious institutions. We work with organizations that primarily serve individuals with disabilities. We work a lot with the adult basic ed community, and they really are a lot of the unsung heroes, because they work with individuals with low literacy and numeracy skills—the skills that we have to get up at the same time that we’re doing the technical training.
And of course we work a lot with vocational rehabilitation, and those are sort of mandated under WIOA.
Some of the partnerships may be driven by the support that our customers need. It may not be workforce per se, though they may be what’s needed in supplemental services, the wraparound services, childcare. You can’t expect a single parent to go working if they don’t have childcare for their children.
“When you’re thinking of the workforce development system, it’s really more of a web than it is a straight line. And that’s why you see so many faith- and community-based organizations involved as well who fill in those niches for marginalized populations who may not be mainstream, who may not feel comfortable going into a traditional American Job Center/One-Stop, or who need specialized services.”
There are partnerships around transportation. Many of our jobseekers may not have reliable transportation. So we work a lot with local transportation boards, regional providers, even employers themselves to see what we can do—whether or not a business is on a bus line or whether there is something that we can do in terms of shuttle service.
Workforce organizations also work with more non-traditional partners too such as dress for success groups. Do our folks have the interviewing clothes even to go to an interview? If not, these types of organizations can be particularly helpful.
We work a lot with homeless shelters. In fact, some of our service providers have satellite offices in some of larger homeless shelters. Many of our citizens are literally one paycheck away from being on the street. When unemployment is high, they’ve missed that rent payment, they don’t have the ability to have first and last month’s rent, so many of them, even if they’re the working poor, are living in what you and I would consider a homeless shelter.
We do a lot of partnerships with prisons, jails, early release programs, juvenile justice. In some cases, particularly around juvenile offenders, they’ll have an alternative when they’re coming out or when they’re court-involved to participate more with the workforce system to get them back on a path to self-sufficiency and full citizenry.
We work with refugee resettlement programs as well when we’re taking a look at who’s coming in, watching of course the discussion around immigration reform and how that might impact the services we’re able to provide and the businesses with whom we’re working.
Emsi: So there are a lot of different things here, obviously.
Brown: That’s why it’s so complex. When you’re thinking of the workforce development system, it’s really more of a web than it is a straight line. And that’s why you see so many faith- and community-based organizations involved as well who fill in those niches for marginalized populations who may not be mainstream, who may not feel comfortable going into a traditional American Job Center/One-Stop, or who need specialized services.
Emsi: What most excites you about the workforce development profession and what direction would you like to see it go?
Brown: I think what excites me and what has always excited me is the ability to transform a family and a community. We talk a lot about economic data, and my background, my training is as an economist. But at the end of the day, at the end of the data point is a person. A person who has a family. A person who has a family who lives in a community. And when we take a look at things like recidivism rates for ex-offenders, we know the No. 1 anti-recidivism is going to be a job. So we know that we have the ability to transform whole communities when we’re able to meet the needs of the local business with a talent pool in that community. People will not be feeling hopeless, our young people will see adults who are active citizens are going to work every day, who are really great role models. We have the ability to make sure that a single parent has the ability to feed their children and have them in a safe environment. And nothing is more powerful than that. And I think that too often, some of our policy makers, both at the federal level, but also at the local level, lose track that we are an industry that transforms lives. Because we haven’t always told our story very well. We’re so busy doing, sometimes we forget to tell the world what it is that we’re doing.
Emsi: With the implementation of WIOA, is the direction of the workforce system headed where you’d like to see it go?
Bridget: I’m hopeful. In reality we were supposed to see a huge transformation from JTPA to WIA. But if WIOA is implemented the way that it was intended, silos will break down. There will be a more coordinated effort around serving both the business needs and the jobseeker needs, so that people and businesses don’t fall through the cracks. And, we’ll be able to leverage the strength of all of the different partnerships. Not everybody has to do everything. There simply isn’t enough money in the system for everyone to recreate the wheel. And it’s always preferable to partner with somebody who does something really, really well, and then let the other organization do what they do well and partner together to make sure that nobody falls through that safety net. But that takes time, that takes trust, and that take sharing a common vision for the system. And I’m really hopeful that WIOA can do that. I’m hopeful and I’m starting to see when we’re looking at performance measures that other parts of the system—remember, WIOA’s just one portion of the system, and it’s not even the largest portion—so, I’m starting to hopefully see more parts of the system have consistent performance so that the system is designed with a common vision rather than, it’s this vision in this column, and this vision in the middle, and that vision over here. And we all serve people. Our goal is self-sufficient employment and full capacity for our local businesses. And we all have to have that shared vision. How we get there might be a little different, but we all have to have that same vision.
Emsi: You mentioned the silos and barriers, breaking those down. What are the main ones that inhibit change or progress?
Brown: You have an individual jobseeker who may be in two different parts of the system, and one part of the system, if they’re funded, you have a performance measure of X and the other one is a performance measure of Y, and they’re totally different. You can’t necessarily serve two masters. You’ve got that issue. When you’re dealing with hard to serve populations, it’s easy not to see them and assume that another part of the system will be taking care of that person. I think that that’s part of it.
I also think that we can be doing a lot more regionally. People don’t necessarily live and work in a nice, neat geographic boundary. Take a look at the D.C. area. I live in Maryland. I work in D.C. and many times I’m in Virginia. So being able to share data across state lines is incredibly powerful so that when we’re taking a look at performance measures—because, at the end of the day, we also have to make sure that we are meeting the needs and the expectations of our funders, whoever that funder is. So we have to be able to measure progress and measure continuous improvement. So we all need to find a way to share in the success. That also requires having common definitions of data points and sharing those data points and understanding what the data means—that it’s not just collection because we have to (although yes, we do), but I think that many workforce development professionals at all levels need to understand the power of, not just labor market information, but economic data as well, and what does it really mean.
Emsi: So by economic information, you mean broader trends?
Brown: To me, it’s a broader set of tools and data points than just what does the labor market say. Oh, this occupation’s going up, down, or stable. OK, well, that’s good to know, but what are the other things that might influence it. Everything from a devaluation of the dollar, which may affect international trade, to what are the economic forecasts? Are we looking for huge capital investments by some of our employers or not? What are we seeing on the future path in terms of technology, and what impact will that have on the skills of our current workplace or incumbent workers? What do we need to be preparing for? What do we need to be looking for so that we’re not caught by surprise?
Emsi: Is there anything that you think we haven’t covered that would be good to include about what workforce professionals do?
Brown: I think the only thing that I would say when it goes back to the professional—because at the end of the day, NAWDP represents the professional, not an organization. Now is the time to take a look at who do we have working in the system. And this is a really difficult thing for many of us to do. The skills that we needed workforce professionals to have in 1999 are very different than the skills that we need workforce professionals to have today. The system has evolved, the profession has evolved, and we need to make sure that the individuals who are working in our system are able to enhance and expand their skills as well. And, when we’re taking a look at making sure that our jobseekers have the credentials that our business customers need, we need also to make sure that our workforce professionals have those credentials as well. And there are several different credentials that are out there for workforce professionals – NAWDP, of course, has one – but there are others as well,. But the bigger point is understanding that this is a profession and that there are specific skills, knowledge, and ability that a workforce professional must have in order to be successful. And it’s more than simply having a pulse and people skills. It’s understanding labor and economic data. It is understanding problem-solving and teamwork. It’s understanding program implementation and public policy and career development. It’s all of these things—plus five others—in order to be a successful professional. And be proud of the profession. It is a great profession, even if it is hard to explain some days.
Emsi: Which brings us full circle on why we wanted to do this interview. Can you describe what kind of new skills workforce professionals need today compared to what they needed in the 1990s?
Brown: I’ll give you an example, because I think that’s probably the easiest way to do it. We started our credential, the Certified Workforce Development Professional (the CWDP) in ’99, which is why I chose that date. And we had a list of competencies that everybody agreed an individual needed to have. We revalidated those competencies in 2013, and they’re dramatically different. What we saw were higher demands for, not just knowledge of, but use of labor market and economic data, a better understanding of economic development, stronger understanding of what career assessments work for which populations, more sensitivity around serving diverse populations and how do you adapt what processes and tools you already have to meet the needs of those special populations? Because we can’t afford to have them sitting on the sideline. We need to make sure that they are incorporated into the American workforce.
Communication actually came out higher, public speaking, the ability to communicate in writing. So much of what we do as a system, and areas where we may not have done as well as we should have, comes down to communication. What are we saying to our local businesses? How are we positioning our programs to meet the needs of that community? And how are we encouraging—in one case it may be out-of-school youth—to come back and get further education, get their high school diploma or their GED or credential, and get on that lifelong learning path? It’s all going to come down to: how do we communicate that to the different populations.
And, of course, really understanding the needs of businesses is a key component, whether you work directly with local businesses or jobseekers. We have to make sure that we are preparing our local businesses to be competitive now and in the future. To do that, their workforce has to have the skills necessary to meet those future challenges.
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