Workforce Development Month: A Q&A with CWA’s Bob Lanter

Bob LanterSeptember is Workforce Development Month, a time to raise awareness about the importance of workforce development boards (WDB) to a growing national economy.

A key person in this work statewide is Bob Lanter, executive director of the California Workforce Association. A Contra Costa County native and former director of the WDB of Contra Costa County (WDBCCC), Bob recently returned to his roots to attend our board retreat. We asked him for his take on the importance of WDBs and how the WDBCCC is living up to its mission of achieving equity for all.

WDBCCC: What do you feel is the power of workforce development boards?

Bob: I think that the work of WDBs is a bit underrated. Here’s why: The federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) establishes a program in which WDBs receive funding through the state. Therefore, the WDBs have fiscal accountability measures and program design responsibilities written into the federal law. However, WIOA also gives the WDBs the huge responsibility of serving as an intermediary and convener of key conversations and initiatives in their communities. What many people don’t know is that community development is a large portion of workforce development boards’ roles and responsibilities.

Their work has little to do with WIOA itself.

What we’re telling the 45 WDBs across the state is that the role of a WDB is really one of community development, an especially powerful role in a community like Contra Costa County. The people serving on the WDBs must be strategic-minded business and civic leaders who know and care about their communities. It’s not essential for board members to understand workforce development, but it is essential for them to know and be known in their communities.

A large part of a board member’s role is to capitalize and support economic opportunity to help solve social and economic challenges. While they may not understand the ins and outs of WIOA—and they don’t need to—board members certainly do understand that, for example, the county’s refining industry is an economic opportunity in terms of tax revenue. But the refining industry is struggling to find talent, and they’re importing labor from outside the state. That’s not good for Contra Costa County, particularly when we have populations of people who need family-sustaining jobs. How do we fix it?

We develop a pathway program from high school into the refineries that show young people or talent of all types that these are great, high-paying jobs. WDBs have people who can get the conversations going to start that career pathway. Additionally, a WDB can leverage funding and resources in support areas such as transportation and childcare.

In short, WDBs can begin to economically develop the community by helping individuals become more self-sufficient and helping industries find and retain the talent they need to be profitable.

WDBCCC: What do you think the Workforce Development Board of Contra Costa County is doing that’s innovative in helping to achieve equity?

Bob: It’s evident that what the people of Contra Costa County WDB are doing is indeed the power of the workforce board. Instead of having WIOA at the center of their goals, they focus on the good that WIOA can help achieve. At the recent board retreat, I saw four major priorities, all of which are connected to advancing race equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

One priority is helping businesses naturally incorporate race, equity, and diversity in their hiring practices. The WDBCCC is asking itself, when we work with business, how do we educate them on a skills-based hiring approach? How do we connect businesses to tax dollars that allow them to hire individuals who they may not have considered before as talent for their business?

The Contra Costa County WDB is also focusing on developing and uplifting the power of small, micro- and minority-owned businesses, which in Contra Costa County constitute big business. Contra Costa County’s economy isn’t driven by corporate giants but by many small- and medium-sized business. If you can uplift the small, minority and micro businesses, you truly diversify your economy, making it a richer and more vibrant place to live. And that’s good for everybody.

The WDBCCC is also focusing on earn-and-learn models. This is one of my favorites because earn-and-learn models like apprenticeship programs are really inequity busters. People who are economically challenged but want to get ahead live every day between two choices: Do I work in a job—or two—that barely helps me pay the rent and put food on my children’s plates? Or do I forego work and a paycheck so I can go to school to better myself and earn higher wages? It’s a gut-wrenching decision. However, an apprenticeship takes that decision away. With the earn-and-learn model, people can go to work and earn good wages while attending school and increasing their skill sets to move up a career pathway.

Contra Costa County WDB is focusing on several ways to embed paid internships that lead to apprenticeships. They’re trying to implement policies around mandatory earn-and-learn models for large companies. They’re identifying apprenticeship opportunities in non-traditional industries like healthcare, typically a field where people of color work at lower-wage jobs. They’re also out there talking to not only businesses, but to school districts, community colleges, and community-based organizations that have the cultural competencies to connect the dots around developing career pathways.

Lastly, the WDBCCC is helping those in vulnerable populations and communities transfer skills they already have into marketable skillsets for employers. How? By taking the services to them. The WDBCCC is getting rid of this notion that you must come to us in this lofty career center. They’re saying, we’ll go to you. We’ll go out to your communities. We’ll meet you where you are—in more ways than one. And we’ll then develop pathways so that you can find your way out of poverty and into economically self-sufficient jobs.

In addition, the WDBCCC is going after grants that specialize in helping vulnerable populations. They’re educating employers on how to overcome stereotypes and related hiring practices. They are also working on an alumni program where people who have succeeded return to their communities and tell residents that they can do this, too.

So much of what the Contra Costa County Workforce Development Board is focusing on is selling imagination and hope to these communities. Telling people that there’s opportunity here.

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