Nanette Robertson has seen the workforce development system from just about every perspective—as a participant who needed help finding a job, as a workforce professional navigating changes in federal workforce legislation, and as the director of a regional workforce board.
After 20 years of working in employment and training programs, Robertson is now the co-founder of Strategic Workforce Concepts, LLC, a new consulting firm based in Oklahoma. She’s also on the board of directors for the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals (NAWDP) and the chair of NAWDP’s certification committee.
Because September is Workforce Development Professionals month, we asked Robertson to help describe what workforce professionals do on a daily basis, what challenges they face, and what skills they need to have.
Emsi: What’s your background?
Nanette Robertson: My background actually started with me being a participant in workforce development. I was a youth program participant in the CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] youth program in the ’70s. Then in the ’80s, I was in the adult dislocated worker program when I was laid off from a job, so I went through the on-the-job training process and all kinds of things like that. I eventually went back to work in the private sector and then back to public sector. Then I received a call one day to come for an interview with workforce when it was called the JTPA [Job Training Partnership Act] under the Private Industry Councils in 1996.
I was hired for the job and I actually just celebrated my 20-year anniversary with workforce in June of this year. So I evolved from being a participant to working in a career center to helping clients with their needs and on into the administrative part of operations in workforce and ending as the director.
I was the director for the past 11½ years, but I was there for 20. Actually I am no longer with [Eastern Oklahoma WIB]. A former co-worker and I started our own workforce consulting business. I am excited about that opportunity.
Emsi: So you have a lot of different perspectives about the workforce system and how it operates, how it’s evolved over the years from JTPA to WIA and now to WIOA. How do you describe what a workforce professional does to a friend who doesn’t know anything about the system?
“Many jobseekers have barriers, and some of them have multiple barriers. They need someone to listen to them, give them hope, and help them along their way toward self-sufficiency.”
Robertson: Basically what they do is evaluate their customers’ needs and determine what’s best for them. And really, at the end of the day, what they do is help to change people’s lives for the better. Everyone is not cookie-cutter and that’s what is so important about being a workforce development professional. I know that some of the jobseeker customers are referred directly to to the colleges so they can get their skills and credentials up, but so many of them have barriers, and some of them have multiple barriers. They need someone to listen to them, give them hope, and help them along their way toward self-sufficiency.
Emsi: So who would you say the primary customer for a workforce professional is?
Robertson: You know that’s hard for me to answer because I know that the businesses are the primary customer, but then so are the jobseekers. I think they are equally important! I know a lot of people say that businesses are the primary customer, but without workers, there wouldn’t be any businesses. And of course then without the businesses, the jobseekers wouldn’t have a way to become self-sufficient. I think they’re both important. I know the trend now as we get more into economic development with workforce is that businesses are the primary customer, so I wouldn’t disagree with that. But I think that jobseekers are just as important.
Emsi: In your mind, what are the common misperceptions about workforce professionals or just the workforce system?
Robertson: Kind of what I just alluded to as far as we are not just a bank and people come in and get a check or voucher. We actually help to develop that person and try to direct their needs as much as we can. I think some of the some of the other entities maybe don’t do that “extra” with counseling and things like that, that some of the people need.
We’ve had people tell us before that they didn’t know what they were going to do and that they just needed someone to talk to and kind of guide them along their way, because people walking into a center don’t necessarily know what services we have. We have to be there to assess them and address their needs, because they’ll walk in and a lot of people still think that the workforce centers are the employment offices and actually they call them the “unemployment office.” And it was never the unemployment office; it was the employment office. They think they can go in there and file for their unemployment and get a check and maybe go to school, and that’s it. But we treat the whole person. It’s like the holistic approach that workforce development professionals bring to the table as far as their barriers, their family, transportation issues—some people don’t have a way to work, they don’t have work clothes, work boots. We’ve had people before almost not get a job because they couldn’t afford their work boots. We offer those supportive services that are very important; you know, we do the wraparound services that people need when they come in. And I think that’s a big misperception! I think a lot of people don’t realize that we treat the whole person and not just that one part of it.
“Just knowing that you have the ability to help someone and positively change their lives—for me, that’s what kept me going and I think that’s what keeps the workforce professionals going.”
Emsi: What are some of the most important skills workforce professionals need?
Robertson: I think being able to identify the needs of their customer, but also being able to address the needs of business. And I think that’s probably what some of the old-school professionals maybe didn’t look at as much as we do now since it’s in the legislation as far as being able to train and guide someone into what a demand occupation is—getting their necessary skills up to apply for a job or to go to school or just to address their needs. Not just someone coming in saying, “I want to go to school to be this.” This professional is going to have to know how to navigate through what their communities’ needs, and their state’s needs are and help that person so that they can become employed long-term, not put them into a temporary job that’s going to go away in a few months and they’re right back at square one. And so I think workforce professionals need to have what we call requisite skills, knowledge, and abilities. Not only to direct those types of needs but also having the empathy to work with their customers as well.
Emsi: What most excites you about being a workforce development professional?
Robertson: Just being able to make a difference in people’s lives, because I was a recipient of workforce services as well and I know how important it is just to give people hope that they can do better: if they’re in a slump, they can get out of their slump or if they’re unemployed or underemployed, they can work towards becoming self-sufficient and take care of their family. We’ve had several people either call or stop by the office and say we changed their lives, how much we’ve helped them and everybody is just crying and all that good stuff! Just knowing that you have the ability to help someone and positively change their lives—for me, that’s what kept me going and I think that’s what keeps the workforce professionals going.
Emsi: What are the major challenges for the future of workforce development and where it’s going?
Robertson: Just keeping up with the legislation going from JPTA to WIA to WIOA. A lot of times it’s so hard to keep up with the paperwork and compliance that they don’t have time to do what they really need to do, and that’s to help their customers. But I think there needs to be some clear rules out there, and then they vary from state to state. Since I have been on the NAWDP board from a national perspective, it’s so different across the states and it’s even different within the state. Some like Oklahoma has eight workforce boards and some of the policies and rules are different. You can go to one and travel 50 miles another way and there’s some different rules.
I think those are some of the challenges, but of course you know we have to have policies and be compliant and all that stuff, but I think that’s a challenge for them and especially with people on the front lines. A lot of times they turn over maybe every two or three years, whenever there’s a new contract. Sometimes they can stay the same, but sometimes there’s a lot of turnover there. So there’s not a lot of consistency. And then as an employee, you know, you are always worried, Am I going to be working in two years or is this all going to be going away? I think that’s kind of a deterrent.
Emsi: You mentioned WIOA and the challenges there. In your role particularly with your consulting company and just in general what are some of the opportunities out there and what excites you the most about your new position?
Robertson: Well, I think just being able to help workforce professionals navigate through all that and stay abreast of all the changes. I have to read and reread the regulations—you know, it’s really lengthy. I think that we’ll be able to help people, especially new workforce professionals. Many of them are new and they don’t know what they don’t know. Basically, I think just being able to help them understand that this is how this goes or can go. You take it seriously, but not to the point where you are not serving your customers. If they can get the basic rules down and make sure there’s nothing illegal or unallowable then they will be okay. A lot of them just need to know how to navigate through the process.
Emsi: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you think should be top of mind for workforce professionals?
Robertson: I’m kind of pitching the certification from NAWDP [the Certified Workforce Development Professional program], but I’m doing that because I went through it. I always wanted to be a certified workforce development professional. I had no idea I would chair the committee that does this, but it helped me even going back a few years ago to assess my own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. It is a feeling of pride and accomplishment. You catalog all the things that you’ve done but then refresh that every three years for recertification. It’s just like a teacher—you make sure you stay on top of your game. To give the best quality service to your customers , you have to make sure that you have those necessary skills and abilities to do so.
And also with WIOA, there is a requirement that the board hires staff with those necessary skills. The worst thing a workforce professional can do is mislead or misguide a customer because they are already coming in there down and everything like that. We don’t want to make them feel worse when they leave than they did when they got there. Customer service is huge and workforce professionals should possess those necessary skills, knowledge and abilities.
Emsi: What are the primary tools of the trade? We obviously are a data company and we provide a lot of data and labor market information to workforce development professionals, but I know there is other types of tools as well out there. Can you go through that a little bit?
Robertson: Well, there are other tools out there, but I’m going to be selfish and plug Emsi because that’s what we use and I don’t know what we would have done without that tool. I started using whenever it was first introduced in Oklahoma; I was in that first group about 15 years ago. We started using that at the workforce board. I use it for everything—for local workforce information about our surrounding area (that’s the cities and the counties), for demographics, economic data, and of course we use it for demand occupations for the industry sectors. As a board director, I used it to look at the businesses across the region and get information on the business and kind of see who would best fit our board that also matched our demand industry clusters or sectors. We also provide an array of services to our business customers utilizing data. We use it for OJTs to identify skills gap and for career information, and I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to you. That’s what we do. And that’s been a huge benefit to us to have that tool to do our work
The most important thing a workforce professional can do is make an informed decision. Anytime you can have data to back it up, it makes it that much better.
To learn how Emsi helps workforce development professionals make informed decisions, click here or contact us. Sign up for our economic and workforce development-focused newsletter here. You can also follow Emsi on Twitter and LinkedIn.