Closing the loop and advancement are key to developing tribal workforces

Left to right: Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, Navajo medical student Shannon Zullo, and Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye at the University of Arizona, 2016. Zullo receives financial support from the Navajo Nation Future Physicians’ Scholarship Fund, which requires fund participants to return to the Nation to work for at least five years once they obtain their medical degrees. (Photo: Navajo Nation Scholarship & Financial Assistance Office)

A series of eight op-eds on tribal workforce development

In its multi-year project examining tribal workforce development approaches across the country, NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance (PTG) worked to identify and document key foundational strategies that empower tribal innovation and, in turn, workforce development success.

Distilling lessons learned from that endeavor, PTG identified 15 strategic considerations that tribal leaders, workforce development staff, and other decision-makers must tackle as they craft workforce development approaches capable of achieving their definition of what “success” looks like for tribal citizens and the nation as a whole. These mission critical aspects of workforce development have a direct bearing on the ability of tribal workforce development approaches to make a transformative, sustainable difference. The following explores two of those considerations: closing the loop and advancement.

Closing the Loop

Years ago, one tribal nation in the northeastern part of the United States established a higher education scholarship program to help its young people cover the costs of attending college. However, there was a catch – if they accepted a scholarship from the nation, they had to return to their reservation community to work for the nation for at least two years after obtaining their degrees. According to a leader of that nation, “Our underlying goal was that they would come home and during those two years they would find a sweetheart, start a family, settle down, and never leave. It’s working.”

This “scholarship for service” strategy is a growing Indian Country phenomenon. For example, one nation in the Southwest requires students to commit one year of service to its economic development corporation or one of its subsidiary businesses for each year of tribal financial support they receive. When not in school, the nation places students in paid internships to gain practical experience learning the business ropes. Meanwhile, another nation in the Upper Midwest has launched a highly selective program that annually supports three tribal citizens to obtain a master’s degree in tribal administration and governance on the condition that they work for the nation for two years for each year that they are in school. If they do not complete the three-year degree, then they must repay the nation in full for the tuition dollars they have received.

These and other strategies speak to the importance – not just financial, but more importantly economic, social, and cultural – of tribal nations making concerted efforts to get a significant “return” on the investments they are making to develop their people (whether through vocational training, scholarship funding, or in other ways). All things being equal, the majority of those people would prefer to work and live in their tribal communities. Tribal nations can “close this loop” by deploying strategies specifically designed to fully tap into the human capacity they are cultivating with the limited resources they have. For example, tribal nations can create a strong system of incentives (financial support for education, hiring preference, competitive wages, housing, etc.) aimed at keeping tribal citizens at home or attracting them back home. They can take it one targeted step further by supporting tribal citizens in obtaining degrees, certifications, and skills in critical fields, and then directly channeling those individuals into specific positions in tribal government or businesses where they apply what they’ve learned on their nations’ behalf. Doing so not only strengthens tribal nations’ ability to leverage their human capacity in targeted ways that address community needs and advance their nation-building priorities; it also enables more tribal citizens to participate in culture and community, enriching and strengthening them over time.

Advancement

For many tribal nations, the challenge of moving their people from the unemployed side of the ledger to the employed side feels like a Herculean task. They must contend with significant barriers to employment faced by their people, limited employment opportunities for those who overcome those barriers, and limited resources for the nation to work with. According to one tribal workforce development expert, for workers and would-be workers in those nations, the idea of building a successful career over the course of decades may feel “out of reach.”

Yet more and more tribal nations are making employment the first goal – not the end goal – of their workforce development approaches. Consciously moving from a “poverty mindset” to a “prosperity mindset,” tribal nations are working to seed a culture of advancement among their people and throughout tribal government and tribal businesses. They are doing so by not simply preaching its importance, but putting into place concrete mechanisms to incentivize it, nurture it, and create opportunities for it. For example, one nation in Alaska awards up to $1,000 per year to employees for specialized training related to their work, which represents not just an investment in them, but an investment “in the infrastructure and capacity of the tribe itself.” Another tribal nation pays most of the cost for education of employees who are pursuing master’s degrees in fields “deemed critical to community success.”

Creating such a culture of advancement is easier said than done. It requires fostering the mindset shift mentioned above in both subtle and direct ways, as well as:

· Developing roadmaps for advancement (i.e. “career ladders”) for existing and prospective employees to visualize the professional futures they desire and the clear steps they must take to achieve those futures;

· Setting high expectations and standards of accountability for professional development/continuing education and advancement in tribal government and business employment;

· Establishing and/or funding opportunities for committed employees to take advantage; and

· Defusing the “crabs in the bucket” dynamic that exists in some tribal communities.

Creating this culture benefits tribal citizens who follow these roadmaps as well as the nation as a whole by expanding the nation’s human capacity to do its work, create more jobs, and achieve the nation’s long-term goals. It strengthens tribal government and businesses because everyone knows what they need to do in their organizations to advance. Also, tribal citizens will be more likely to stick around because they know their commitment to working hard, performing well, and learning on the job will pay off. This, in turn, enhances the nation’s ability to grow the proficiency of its workforce over time.

For more information about how tribal nations are crafting innovative, self-governed approaches to workforce development, please click here.

In next week’s final installment of this op-ed series, NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance explores two more strategic considerations for tribal workforce development: partnerships and sustainability.

This essay is the seventh in a series of eight op-eds exploring the keys to success in – and the key strategic considerations for – tribal workforce development. It is drawn from a new tribal workforce development toolkit (see pages 28-31) produced by NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance.

Op-ed Series:

The final op-ed in this series will explore two other strategic considerations for tribal workforce development:

Op-ed #1: Tribal workforce development: Success starts with governance

Op-ed #2: Why strategic vision and integration matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #3: Why institutions and culture matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #4: Why leadership and funding matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #5: Why citizen engagement and assessment matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #6: Why removing obstacles and targeted solutions matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #7: Why closing the loop and advancement matter to developing a tribal workforce

Op-ed #8: Why partnerships and sustainability matter to developing a tribal workforce

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