Strengthening Colorado’s workforce and education policies: A Q&A with Frank Waterous of Bell Policy Center

May 27, 2015

NSC leadership council member and Senior Policy Analyst at the Bell Policy Center Frank Waterous speaks with NSC about using coalition-building and technology to drive workforce and education policy in Colorado. 

Can you tell us a little about your professional background and why you decided to focus on workforce development?

I’ve been involved in public policy and postsecondary education for many years. I really started focusing on workforce development issues when I worked at the Colorado Community College System. I became much more aware of the connections between workforce opportunities and adult education, literacy programs, and postsecondary credential attainment. Working at the community colleges gave me a better understanding of opportunities in policy that can better serve workers and employers. And coming to the Bell Policy Center was a terrific way to further my engagement in trying to make a difference at the state policy level.

2015 marks your ten year anniversary with the Bell Policy Center. How has Bell’s strategies changed and developed through the years?

First of all, I can’t believe it’s been ten years! It’s been really interesting work and those years flew by. While Bell still focuses on in-depth research to support our policy recommendations, we’ve also become more involved in the direct advocacy of policy issues. I think there are two major ways we’ve expanded our reach: through technology and coalition-building.

Technology has pushed us to send more urgent and immediate messages on certain policy issues to more targeted audiences. Social media has really contributed to the policy area because it forces us to think about ways we can address the interests and concerns of various audiences. We also directly engage legislators and policymakers, and working in coalitions has been critical for reaching more folks and having more people at the table.

What has been one of your most significant accomplishments at the Bell Policy Center?

Without a doubt, one of the most significant accomplishments would be the passage of a bill in the 2014 legislative session that provided funding for and refocused adult education and literacy programs here in Colorado. Until the bill passed, Colorado was the lone remaining state that did not provide any state-appropriated funding for adult education and literacy programs. The Bell Policy Center and the Skills2Compete Colorado Coalition worked very hard on the bill, which was an enormous step forward for the state and provided nearly $1 million for adult education and literacy programs.

In order to be eligible for the funds, adult education, postsecondary education, training, and workforce development providers had to work as partners. The idea was that the partnerships would create a pathway to help low-literacy and low-skill adults move from skill acquisition to postsecondary credentials and meaningful workforce opportunities. Now that the bill is being implemented, it’s great to see that the first round of grants has been awarded, and partnerships in the area are able to serve more students and see more results and success.

When did you first get involved with National Skills Coalition, and why did you choose to take on a leadership role?

I first became involved with NSC in 2010. The Bell Policy Center was one of the founding members of the Skills2Compete Coalition here in Colorado, and we worked with NSC staff on a report on the state’s forgotten middle-skill jobs. The collaborative effort was a great opportunity to get to know NSC, and in 2012, I was asked to join NSC’s Leadership Council. It was an honor to be asked and I was happy to serve because it was a great way to interact more closely with the NSC staff and with leaders from other states. I wanted to thank NSC for acting as an important resource to the Bell Policy Center, and I also felt I could inform federal actions and NSC’s understanding of how federal policy affects Colorado.

You are also involved with Skills2Compete-Colorado Coalition. What policy victories has the coalition achieved so far, and what’s on the horizon?

One of the first things we did when we formed the Skills2Compete Coalition was we created a policy platform and a multi-year agenda. Looking back at the past four or five years, we’ve actually achieved the items on that agenda in a big way. The most significant victory of course is the passage of the adult education funding bill in 2014. We also supported a credential measurement bill that requires an annual report with information about job openings and trends, as well as the kinds of programs needed to help prepare people for those positions. We advocated successfully for authorizing I-BEST (integrated basic education and skills training) programs that our community colleges couldn’t offer until the bill was passed. We also were actively engaged in supporting career pathways legislation.

Another big victory we’ve had is the growing use of middle-skill language by legislators and other policymakers in the state. When we first started talking about middle skills it was a new concept but today many legislators use the term as second nature when discussing workforce development policy.

This is an exciting and historic time to be involved in all these workforce and education issues. This year Colorado put out a package of workforce bills, a number of which were supported by both the Bell Policy Center and the Skills2Compete Colorado Coalition. It’s been terrific that workforce issues have been a bipartisan-supported issue here in Colorado, and we’re excited to see those bills go forward.

Why should other people in similar roles get more involved in advocating for a skills agenda?

What I tell people about the skills agenda is it’s a win-win-win opportunity. It’s good for individual workers and students because it helps them gain skills that will move them forward into family-sustaining, well-paying jobs, and be fully engaged in the 21st century workforce. The skills agenda is good for employers because it helps businesses fill critically-needed skill positions for productivity and growth. And it’s good for society because by developing a stronger workforce, we strengthen our state and national competitiveness. The skills agenda benefits us all.