Leadership Spotlight: Brenda Dann-Messier

December 19, 2014

In the following interview, new NSC board member and former Assistant Secretary for Career, Technical and Adult Education Brenda Dann-Messier shares her recommendations for keeping workforce development in the national spotlight and the importance of building partnerships and alliances.

With the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Administration’s Job-Driven Training Action Plan, workforce development appears to be having a moment in the national spotlight. How do you recommend keeping this momentum going so that states, regions and localities have the resources they need for implementation?

I strongly agree that we are in a moment of opportunity and one way we can seize it is by engaging folks to actively participate in the development of WIOA state plans. NSC developed a fantastic playbook that guides folks through the planning and implementation process that I strongly encourage reading. There are three things we need to focus on in order to maintain momentum: focusing on delivering high-quality, evidence-based models that can be scaled; actively participating in all the policy discussions at the local, state and national level; and working with our champions to secure the resources needed to build a comprehensive system. People need to take the time to participate in policy deliberations that are going on at the local, state and federal level so that all voices are heard and are actively integrated. We have to make sure that we’re working to really build a comprehensive system.

The PIAAC data that was released while you were at OCTAE shows that 36 million adults have low foundational skills. Who are the key stakeholders that need to be at the table to help address this challenge? What role do you think NSC can play in helping to make this happen?

I’m a strong believer in partnerships and alliances, and we need to work in coalitions with all the stakeholders including elected and government officials at the local, state and federal level; businesses and the employer community; higher education; community-based organizations; labor unions; the federal agencies such as Department of Labor, Education, and Commerce; and adult learners and workers. And this is NSC’s very strength, building coalitions and forming effective partnerships.

You recently joined National Skills Coalition’s Board of Directors. What encouraged you to engage at such a meaningful level and how does your experience contribute to NSC’s work?

A number of things. One is NSC has a fantastic reputation so it’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of the coalition. Second is we can only do this work if we engage in coalition building. The whole premise of NSC—the fact that all the work is built around coalition building—is something that I strongly believe in and feel excited about. NSC is not a group that’s going on their own trying to do all the work and thinks it has all the answers, but it brings all the necessary stakeholders to get together and discuss the issues. Third is its focus on Adult Education, CTE and immigration, areas that I have worked all my life on. As for my contribution to NSC,I aim to bring my experiences and perspective from working at the federal level, as well as the contacts that I’ve made.

You served in the Department of Education for the Clinton administration and the Obama administration. How has the national workforce agenda changed and developed over the years?

It was an exciting time working for the Clinton administration because of the school to career movement, a collaborative effort between the Department of Education and the Department of Labor. I believe the Obama administration has made an even more concerted effort to work across agencies and eliminate the silos. It’s a directive that we received from day one that we were really to work with our federal colleagues as much as possible and frankly, I think it’s the right strategy. It benefits our students and workers on the ground when they don’t have to deal with multiple agency requirements. We’re trying to build a seamless system and I think that the Obama administration has taken what was started in the Clinton administration and developed it more seriously and made a real commitment to it.

You’ve been dedicating your career to expanding access to quality education and jobs for youth and adults. Why should people get more involved in advocating for a skills agenda?

When you look at the adult education system and the fact that there are 36 million low-skilled adults, and the federal government is only serving less than 2 million, it’s not that folks aren’t interested in skilling up or increasing education, the matter is we don’t have in place all the services and training programs that they need. We need to say that we can’t leave anybody behind, whether they are youth or an adult.

Prior to my work in federal government with the Obama administration, I worked as president of a non-profit adult family learning center. My interactions with the adults and youth learners really showed me that all the students I worked with had a strong desire and motivation to work. They knew that without the skills, education and experiences it’s extremely difficult to participate in the economy. People are anxious to improve themselves and they understand that education and training is the key, and it’s incumbent upon us to provide those opportunities.