Elisabeth Buck is the Chief Community Impact Officer for United Way of Central Iowa and a member of National Skills Coalition’s (NSC) Leadership Council. Elisabeth has been actively involved with NSC for more than three years and was a member of the Iowa delegation that received the State of Action Award at NSC’s 2014 Skills Summit. In the interview below, she discusses her interest in the workforce development field, her leadership role with NSC and how her involvement has helped to advance both the NSC agenda and her work in Iowa.
Can you tell us a little about your professional background and why you decided to focus on workforce development?
My journey to the workforce development sector was more of an evolution. I started right out of college working on political campaigns in Iowa. In 1991 I joined the staff of the Iowa Attorney General Office where I spent eight years there focusing on child support recovery. In 1999 I moved to the State Capitol to work for Governor Tom Vilsack as his Deputy Chief of Staff for eight years, and then stayed on to work for Governor Culver’s administration.
At the time, there was a vacancy in the Directorship of Iowa Workforce Development so Governor Culver appointed me as director in 2007. I spent the first 100 days traveling around the state to 40 different workforce offices becoming familiar with the workers and the workforce challenges employers were facing. Six to nine months into my new job the recession hit, so the role of the workforce development office became even more important. Layoffs were occurring and many Iowans were not prepared to transition into other jobs. Most of them did not have high school diplomas and were not “work ready”, so we put together a lot of programs for people to get up-skilled and prepared for the jobs that were available then and in the future. I became passionate about workforce development through this work as I saw up close the faces of those who were personally affected by the recession.
I then transitioned to the United Way of Central Iowa in 2011 and continued to work in Des Moines. Here at United Way I work on pre-school to 12th grade educational issues. I also work on income issues involving workforce development, housing and health. I broadened my scope again, but workforce will always be central to my work.
Having worked for gubernatorial offices, what can you tell others about the impact that advocacy has on policy?
Through my work in the offices of two governors, I was able to see how important it is for individuals in our state to advocate for system changes. When you go to the Capitol it seems like all you see are groups of lobbyists, but I found that the legislators are really listening when they are connected with Iowans who are directly impacted by their legislation. The Iowa Skills2Compete Coalition brought employers to the table at the legislature, and they really listened because they knew they were hearing directly from those who were impacted by the skills gap.
I found that the importance of grassroots advocacy efforts is centered in having research and data to back up the stances you are making. It’s so important to do system change work because you can do a lot of things with training and other efforts, but when you do it at a system-level statewide it impacts a much broader base of people than just local efforts.
When did you first get involved with NSC, and why?
In 2009, I was in DC for a meeting with the Iowa delegation about the recession and someone suggested I stop by NSC and met with Andy Van Kleunen. I was then able to share with him some of the changes in Iowa’s delivery system. That was my first real step into NSC.
Steve Ovel, who is also an Iowan and works with the community colleges in the state, also encouraged me to get involved with NSC.
We have been fortunate here to have technical assistance from NSC around our Skills2Compete work. We are able to draw from your research on federal legislation to supplement what we’re doing here locally.
How has NSC’s connection helped to advance your work in Iowa?
There have been coalitions in Iowa around the skills gap for a number of years. In 2012, we really organized around sector-based work to form the Skills2Compete Coalition. We had numerous meetings with the Coalition, which included employers, community colleges, labor, nonprofits and community-based organizations. Back in 2012, we were one of the few states that did not have any state dollars for adult basic education and didn’t have enough funds for short-term training. We pushed the legislature for funds for short-term training opportunities and for navigators to assist Iowans going through training programs with how to best connect with work. We were awarded $10.5 million dollars last year for those initiatives which has helped us form what we are calling Workforce Training Academies around the state and to train a lot more Iowans for the jobs available.
We’ve continued that work this year and, though it’s been a tougher legislative session, we’ve had some gains coming out of this session as well.
It has been really impactful to have the technical assistance from NSC. We had the framework and ideas, needed to package it all together to make our case. NSC provided technical support by putting together white papers and information that helped us get in front of the legislature on these important issues.
Through our work with NSC, we became more aware of federal training dollars that Iowa was not fully utilizing around the SNAP Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) program. With the help of Rachel Gragg [NSC Federal Policy Director] and others, we’ve been able to inform our Department of Human Services about how they can utilize these dollars and request them from the Department of Agriculture, so we’re hoping to see in the next few months a more aggressive state plan to the Department of Agriculture for federal dollars for SNAP E&T. It’s exciting that we’re trying to utilize additional dollars to assist folks who are living in poverty and need training to get them out of poverty. Without NSC elevating that issue to us, we wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to go to our Department of Human Services and talk to them about underutilized dollars.
Why should other people in similar roles get more involved in advocating for a skills agenda?
United Ways around the country focus on income and increasing the number of individuals who are financially stable. This work is really important for communities and the nonprofit sector. We put a lot of money into basic needs, housing and other important pieces around self-sufficiency for individuals, but at the core of it, individuals needs to be trained – and in many cases up-skilled – for good paying jobs. This work is a strategic focus of our United Way, and this issue is central to the success of moving families out of poverty.
During the times that we [NSC members] come to DC and visit our congressional delegations, the structure and data that NSC provides helps us to be better advocates when we go to the Hill. The Iowa delegation is very appreciative of that support.