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By Larry Robbin, Executive Director of Robbin and Associates
These days you cannot escape the ads and endless speeches of the politicians running for office. They talk about all kinds of things. But the one thing you do not hear them talking about is workforce development! I follow a lot of local and federal elections and I have not heard one candidate even use the term workforce development. How can that be? Our field is so important and makes so many contributions to job seekers and businesses, but most politicians do not know about us. As a result, when bills come up related to workforce development and funding they often vote based on very little information. If they have not heard about us, they assume we cannot be very important and this is one reason for the flurry of funding cuts we have to endure. It does not have to be this way. If we want their support, we have to get on their radar.
1. Get involved with a national workforce organization that represents things that you care about as part of workforce development. The Campaign for America’s Workforce has a list of their members that includes many national workforce organizations. Go to http://www.americasworkforce.org/who-we-are/our-members/ to see the list. This is by no means a complete list of national workforce organizations, but it is the longest list that I have seen. If you know of a longer list, please email me here. Google national workforce development organizations look up organizations that represent your area, population, type of program or the field. Search LinkedIn for workforce development groups. Ask leaders and others in our field what organizations they recommend. Do not just join these organizations, become active in them. Talk to the leaders and board members about your concerns. If the group has elected representatives, consider running for office.
While it is important to join all types of workforce organizations, if you want to see our funding increase and help us get better government policies, make sure you join an organization that works to educate and in some cases advocate with politicians about our field. Not all workforce organizations see educating politicians as part of their mission. But the organizations that do work at this level are on the front lines of building political support for our field and they need your input and support. Until we have a united front of strong national organizations in workforce development, we will still be relatively unknown at the federal level.
2. Do the same thing at local level. If the national organization has a local chapter join it and become an active member. If there are no local organizations that fill your needs, talk to some folks that share your interests and organize one. You could organize by geography, job titles, populations, program type or start an all encompassing workforce organization.
Once you have established this organization, make it a part of your activities to invite politicians and their staff to dialogue with you about workforce development. If you are a nonprofit, this does not jeopardize your tax status. You can educate politicians as part of your work. Lobbying is another thing. Make sure they know about the significant impact you have on their constituents and businesses. Invite some business people that use your services and some job seekers to the dialogue. If you have the resources, produce some economic data that shows the return-on-investment for our services. How much money do you save the government when you help one person with a reentry history stay out of prison? How much money do you save when you turn people who are not working into tax payers? How much money do you save by shortening the length of unemployment of a dislocated worker? How much money do you save businesses in the hiring and training process? Our field has a very high return-on-investment, but we rarely prove it. We tell anecdotal stories about how our services help people. These are good, but politicians also want to know if our field is worth the money the government spends on it. When we connect with politicians and their staff, we need to teach them about our field and prove the incredible return on investment we create. Then we are on our way to getting the political support we so deserve.
There is another thing we can do to get political support. I wish some local and national organizations would sponsor candidate debates on workforce development. You could work with a neutral organization like the League of Women Voters or some other group that does not endorse candidates. In one city where we sponsored a mayoral debate on workforce development, the candidates scurried frantically to learn about our field. We had a very spirited debate about many aspects of workforce development in front of several hundred unemployed job seekers who asked some great questions. A number of them registered to vote at the event. A fantastic outcome of the debate was that the winner of the election created a Director of Workforce Development position in city government, which helped to coordinate efforts, get additional funding and help with state and federal workforce policies. Every workforce organization, countless individuals and businesses were helped because of us collectively putting workforce development on the political agenda. Imagine what it would like to have the leading national and local candidates developing position papers and debating on workforce development! Can you imagine how this would engage unemployed people, under employed people, businesses and our other partners? We would finally get the attention, respect and funding that our field deserves.
This starts with you. What are you going to do to build the workforce field on the local and national level? If you are not going to do anything, then you should not complain the next time your funding is cut or we get laws that are barriers to employment. There are many thousands of people working in workforce development. Individually we may not get much attention, but collectively politicians will listen to us and come to appreciate the workforce development field. If this sounds too daunting, remember this quote from Margaret Mead. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it is only thing that ever has changed the world.” There are many ways to build the workforce development field into something that is connected with the politicians that govern and influence so much of what we do. Give it some thought, get involved and start playing your part today!