Workforce education and the value of partnerships: A Q&A with Darlene Miller

July 28, 2015

Darlene Miller, executive director of the National Council for Workforce Education, spoke with NSC about strategies for providing the link between policy and workforce education and economic development. NCWE will be a lead partner at the Business Leaders United Fly-in, which will bring employers and community college administrators to Washington DC later this year. 

What brought you to your position as executive director of the National Council for Workforce Education? What do you feel has been your most meaningful accomplishment in this role?

I originally studied to become an engineer and when I couldn’t pay my student loans I sought a part-time job teaching technical math at a technical college. Not long after, I was offered a full-time faculty position teaching math and computer science. It evolved from there and I now have 25-plus years of experience working in community colleges, mostly in the workforce and economic development area.

I come from a working class background and was a first-generation college-goer, meaning I was the first person in my family to attend college. It was interesting to see what community colleges and technical colleges could be doing to provide education and training for first-generation working class folks to move into long-term family wage jobs.

The most meaningful accomplishment in my role as executive director is NCWE’s increased emphasis on partnerships. I’m particularly proud of a project that we’re doing right now called Building Community Partnerships to Serve Immigrant Workers, a Ford Foundation-funded project. It brings together eight teams of community colleges, community-based organizations, and worker centers around the country to develop better training programs that integrate English language skills in the technical curriculum to help immigrants move into family wage careers.

NCWE engages in a variety of partnerships to provide a link between workforce education policy and practice. What strategies does NCWE employ to build and strengthen these relationships to better promote student success in education and training?

What NCWE brings to the table that is different from other organizations is all of us have been community college administrators in workforce education and training and economic development. We come as practitioners who have done the work, who understand the population of students and the needs of business and industries. We are engaged in student success and learning, develop programming, and work in sector partnerships and career pathways.

When did you first get involved with NSC, and why?

I first got involved in NSC in the early 2000’s, when Holly Moore, the Executive Dean of Georgetown Campus and South Seattle Community College, brought me with her to the annual NSC (then called the Workforce Alliance) summit. When I was a young dean, I didn’t fully grasp the importance of policy and how it affected the work we do. It wasn’t until I went to my first NSC meeting that I really saw the impact of federal policy on community colleges and came to understand why community colleges need to be partners with and engaged in the entire workforce training system. Back in 2002, I don’t think you would have heard a community college person talk about partnerships with community-based organizations. Now, it’s a common conversation for workforce education people to talk about their CBO partnerships because of this greater awareness of the role that all of us in the workforce system play in helping adults, particularly low-skilled, achieve success.

How has NSC’s connection helped to advance NCWE’s work, and how has your work helped to inform and progress NSC’s efforts?

I always refer to NSC as my favorite policy wonks; NSC understands and interprets the information and then makes it easy for those of us who are not policy people to comprehend and then apply it to the work we do. Whenever NSC does a legislative alert or asks people to contact their local legislator, we get that out to our local NCWE membership because I want those in the field to weigh in on these issues. We support NSC by offering our expertise and experiences as practitioners. Whenever NSC was working on an issue that had an impact on community colleges, they would call me to ask what I think and how this could impact the work I’m doing.

NCWE and Business Leaders United are teaming up to bring employers and postsecondary administrators to the BLU fly-in this November. Why is it important to have both parties at the table when discussing ways to make the federal workforce system more demand-driven?

Everybody needs to play a role to ensure that we educate and train a skilled workforce that meets the demands and needs of business leaders. It shouldn’t only be the practitioners advocating, or only business and industry, or only community-based organizations; there is great value in working together and supporting each other. We need to work in partnership and sing out of the same hymnal because in the long-run, it’s really all about creating education and training opportunities for people to get family-wage jobs.