Leadership Spotlight: Susan Crane

September 30, 2013

Susan Crane is the Executive Director of SkillUp Washington, a workforce funders collaborative which supports employers and working families in the Seattle-King County, primarily focusing on low-income adults. She also serves on NSC's Leadership Council.

In the following interview, Susan shares her experiences in bringing sector strategies to the federal system. She also discusses how involvement with NSC has helped advance her work in Washington State.

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

I would say that without having tried, there are common workforce development threads that encompass my career. I spent the first decade working with victims of sexual and domestic violence. One of the things that we learned was that women who were economically dependent on their abusers were less likely to be able to leave them and stay away. At the time, there were few services available and public policy in this arena was nonexistent. As a bunch of us 20-somethings, we were able to work on some of the first policy work around sexual and domestic violence. We worked simultaneously on building a service system and moving legislation.

I then went to work as a legislative analyst for the Seattle City Council, where I had the opportunity to learn, analyze and develop policy options. It was an amazing education and the work was fun. I got to work in nuanced areas that don’t necessarily have right or wrong answers, such as public safety, human services, personnel, labor policy and housing. In doing so, I became involved with the Seattle Conservation Corps. SCC provides stabilizing services to its members who are typically low-skill, low-wage adults and often homeless. SCC helps its corps members overcome their barriers by providing stabilizing services such as help for finding housing, getting a wage, battling substance abuse, gaining valuable skills, and providing long-term case management,. That was my initial education to how important the workforce development is to diverse areas of public services.

With over two decades of workforce development experiences, how does the field look different now than when you first started your career?

Well, none of us had gray hair. That and one of the things that has changed in the workforce development field is that initially, small entrepreneurial non-profits were the ones that were involved in shaping sectoral employment strategies. Through the work of Jack Litzenberg—a visionary philanthropist at the Mott Foundation who really had the initial vision of building this field—we all got a chance to learn from each other and hone what those strategies could be. Jack seeded this work and built two pillars in the field: the National Network of Sector Partners, and the Workforce Alliance. The latter is now the National Skills Coalition. I remember being shut in a small room in Oakland where we fought out what the definition of sector employment strategies should be. One of our biggest “wins” was bringing the sectoral strategy to the federal system. Suddenly the federal workforce system was providing funding and opportunities for scale. Another big change over the last several years is the partnerships between sector programs and community colleges.

Your policy experience spans a variety of areas: public safety, housing, health, human services. How does your background contribute to your work with NSC?

I am very lucky to have made a living as a professional dilettante. My work in all of these different policy areas has helped me to be a “systems spanner.” I think people who work in workforce development really understand how to work with multiple systems and many times, systems that may not touch each other, but really need to be bridged in order to work better in order to help low-skilled folks move up. National Skills Coalition is an organization of systems spanners. Their work with government, nonprofits, industry associations and community colleges all help to generate policies and practices that are holistic.

How has your partnership with NSC helped to advance your work in Washington, and how has your work helped to inform and progress NSC’s efforts?

When I left the Seattle City Council I took over as Executive Director of Port Jobs, a small workforce intermediary that is associated with the Port of Seattle. We focused on access strategies, which is taking a high-wage field that is normally closed to people who don’t have some sort of an “in” such as a family member who is already working in that industry, and creating systems that allow people access. We built these access strategies to be a sturdy pillar of the work that is being done here in Seattle. National Skills Coalition is a critical connection to taking the kind of work that we’re doing and moving it to a much larger level. Their presence in policy circles in DC helps us in many ways—as an advisor, translator and connector. NSC’s annual Skills Summit provides an efficient venue for learning about what is happening around the country and on the national level.

Another area where I have been helpful to NSC is my knowledge of policy and practice regarding the registered apprenticeship system. I served as the public member of Washington State’s Apprenticeship and Training Council for 14 years.

What encouraged you to engage with NSC at such a meaningful level as a member of NSC’s Leadership Council, and why should others consider doing so?

They asked me. All kidding aside, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to work with a vibrant organization and a diverse group of thought leaders? NSC’s staff are strategic and dig deeply into the skills agenda. Our work is all about helping low-skilled adults get the skills they need in order to support themselves and their families. Being involved with NSC gives us a powerful national voice. The connection to what’s happening in Washington, in having people who are really knowledgeable who are working on our behalf in a particular area, is extremely helpful. I learn far more than I contribute.

Since joining SkillUp Washington in 2010, what do you feel has been your most meaningful accomplishment?

One major focus in our work has been to increase on-ramps to skills training, particularly for low-skilled adults. There are large numbers of very low-skilled adults in Washington who don’t have access to the I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) program, which helps people get the skills they need to be able to go to work quickly in an area where they can make a decent wage. SkillUp Washington has been focusing on creating on-ramps that helps people who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to make it through, to move forward and into the I-BEST program. We were able to establish robust partnerships with community colleges in order to braid resources, and design and test these on-ramps to the I-BEST program.