Removing obstacles & targeted solutions are key to developing tribal workforces

Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation’s construction trainees set up bank accounts and receive credit counseling during their 10-month training program. (Photo: Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation)

Op-ed Series: Building the human capacity to rebuild tribal nations

NCAI PTG

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: removing obstacles and targeted solutions.

Removing Obstacles

One tribal nation recently launched a new approach to developing its workforce in several fields where its labor needs are greatest. However, its excitement was soon tempered by a high dropout rate among its initial training program participants. Its analysis revealed that 68 percent of them did not possess the baseline academic competencies their training programs required. In response, the nation initiated “Coaching,” an intensive approach to case management in which program staff members work one-on-one with participants to develop and implement individualized plans to raise their proficiency levels to those necessary to tackle the programs’ academic demands. It also added tutoring to help participants master the course content and learn how to study. In addition, it took another, extraordinary step: it assigned staff to take the same courses as their clients to “get a bird’s eye view of what is going on,” specifically what caused failure and keyed success.

This story is indicative of what NCAI has observed among effective workforce development approaches: tribal nations doing whatever it takes to help their people overcome the challenges that hamper their ability to complete training, get and keep a job, and build a career. However, designing such “outside the box” strategies requires that tribal nations do their due diligence to understand precisely how pervasive these obstacles are among their people, how they manifest themselves in each client’s life, and how programming can be tasked to attack them.

It also demands that tribal nations not get distracted by the symptoms these obstacles produce, but instead target their root causes. For example, if a program client is routinely late for training or work, it may not be the result of poor work ethic. Instead, it may be due to a lack of reliable transportation, child care, or any number of other factors. Each person’s story and set of challenges is different, which requires a customized solution that empowers that person to overcome them. Consequently, tribal nations must develop flexible workforce development approaches that provide their people multiple pathways to reach their chosen career destinations at a pace they can handle. These approaches must acknowledge that for many, the challenge is not just learning how to do a specific job, but how to work – and how to live. As one workforce development practitioner explains, ultimately it’s about “helping people get healthy to deal with opportunity.”

When fashioning creative solutions that neutralize the root causes of the obstacles tribal citizens face, a tribal nation should start small with whatever resources it can scrounge together internally and through its partnerships, deepen its learned experience, and build a track record of success. This will enable it to garner additional resources from within the nation and elsewhere to grow that success.

Targeted Solutions

Wrestling with a high dropout rate among its high school students that hampered their ability to enter and thrive in the workforce later in life, one tribal nation in the Pacific Northwest decided to make a preemptive move. It created a summer “pre-employment” training program for tribal youth ages 13-15 that promotes the development of personal accountability, work ethic, and “pride in community.” This “hands-on” initiative encourages participants to stay in school by teaching them a “multitude of transferable skills they can apply to later employment” for the nation or elsewhere. A growing number of participants are doing so, with many moving on to pursue higher education.

This nation is among many who are realizing that if they want to develop their human capacity in order to create brighter futures of their own design, then they need to start young. Taking action, they are developing “first-chance” academic and workforce preparedness programs that target youth at an early age and provide them chances to: explore different careers (and the hard work involved with building them); cultivate their desire, confidence, and ability to pursue them; and deepen their appreciation of their role as citizens of their nations – and contributors to their nations’ futures. These initiatives (internships, fellowships, summer camps, job shadowing, etc.) help raise tribal nations’ expectations of their young people, heighten young people’s expectations of themselves, and support young people as they strive to meet those expectations.

If the federal government’s design of workforce development programs has taught us anything, it’s that one-size-fits-all approaches don’t work well for tribal nations given their distinct challenges and objectives. Tribal nations are finding success when they take the reins and develop targeted solutions customized to their needs and their people, from youth to mid-career professionals to aspiring citizen entrepreneurs. These solutions take many forms and serve many purposes, but NCAI’s research illuminates three trends – targeted solutions that: (1) serve particular groups (youth, single mothers, former felons, etc.) by neutralizing the specific workforce challenges that impact them in certain ways; (2) build particular skills and expertise among the nation’s citizenry that address its critical needs and advance its long-range priorities; and (3) identify the trouble spots that inhibit workforce development/growth and design structural interventions to tackle them. NCAI’s research also reveals that a nation’s ability to forge such solutions hinges on its creation of a comprehensive workforce development approach that flows from its assessment-informed understanding of its people, their needs and aspirations, the nation’s needs and priorities, and how its approach will deliberately target and address those things.

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

In part seven of this op-ed series, NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance explores two more strategic considerations for tribal workforce development: closing the loop and advancement.

This essay is the sixth 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 24-27) produced by NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance.

Op-ed Series:

The following two op-eds will each 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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