Regional Competitiveness at the Heart of Workforce Development

May 11, 2011

MN State Capitol

“Whatever we are doing in workforce has got to be tied to regional competitiveness” says Kathy Sweeney, the Strategic Project Manager for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.  We spoke with Kathy recently about the most pressing issues and challenges facing workforce development leaders. “So we in Minnesota, have a very diverse economy” she explained.  “We have an agriculture economy that’s very, very big.  We have a forest economy, we have a Great Lakes economy, we have a metro-business center/corporate center economy, etc. So when we are looking at workforce development, it has to be in the context of what’s going on in the region.”

Partnerships Matter
How should leaders approach regional competitiveness? Well, partnerships are one key component. “Collaborative partnerships - I don’t think we can say enough about them,” Kathy stated and she should know. Kathy works closely with 47 workforce centers, a myriad of community colleges, and a range of other partners across the state to deliver workforce programs, secure competitive funding, and respond to fluctuations in Minnesota’s economy.  

But she is also the first to concede that she couldn’t manage these relationships
alone. She credits a supportive state-level infrastructure that facilitates collaboration.  “Every single day I am working with Minnesota state colleges and universities and with our adult basic education programs and with our TANF programs that are housed in other agencies.  We literally have a virtual team that is working on these competitive proposals and working on our services at the workforce center level all the time… We [also] have a workforce council association that is made up of the WIBs - I work closely with their director.”

To focus its workforce efforts on regional strengths, the state has streamlined information-sharing among regional leaders. In addition to appointing regional administrators, there are six individuals responsible for working across the regions. Explains Kathy, “They’re the ones that bring together the workforce service areas around regional issues. We have people that work in the Northeastern part of the state, in mining; and in the Great Lakes on natural resources and, of course, we have a metro person. These are the go-to people for me ... They’re the ones that go out and actually do the convening and round up all the characters and make sure everything’s getting done. We also have regional labor market analysts [economists], who work in the regions, and they are the people who pull together all the economic and workforce data so that the work that we do can be informed.”  Kathy also works with business reps who coordinate with private firms on workforce issues. “I have this incredible network of colleagues and local partners ... I’d say working with them makes my job possible ... That infrastructure is really important to get the kind of results we’re getting.”

Not Just “Business as Usual”
We asked Kathy how the state developed some of its most innovative ideas. The answer is simple: learning from other states. Kathy and other Minnesota workforce leaders credit the National Governor's Association academies as invaluable for networking with other states who are doing interesting work and tackling challenging issues.  “We learned a lot from our peers,” Kathy recalls. 

Kathy also lauded the competitive grant process as a gateway to innovation and collaboration.  A focus on applying for public and foundation funding has placed Minnesota in a very competitive position—a situation they don’t take for granted. As she stated “If you work hard and you work together I think you can do well competitively, but it takes a lot of organizing and a comprehensive approach.”   

In addition to the obvious monetary benefits, Kathy stressed that applying for grants can be a useful learning and collaborative tool. During our conversation she praised her interactions with workforce leaders from other states while working on Minnesota FastTRAC (a collaborative effort to help adult Minnesotans obtain credentials), funded through the Joyce Foundation. “Our ability to do that has been greatly enhanced by working with Joyce and with the other states that are in that project.  They’ve really helped us learn, for instance, from a state who is not in the project, Washington State, with their I-best program.  We’ve been out to visit and have had a lot of help from the state of Washington.  So those are some of things that have been above and beyond what we get from our normal routine of transactions.”