Infrastructure, Equity, and Good Jobs on the Agenda at Skills in the States Forum

By Nicky Lauricella Coolberth, November 20, 2023

Last week, skills policy advocates from thirty-seven states (and one territory) gathered in Baltimore for the 7th annual Skills in the States Forum. Nearly 350 people – representing training providers, community colleges, state agencies, unions, businesses, community-based organizations, worker centers, advocates, and researchers gathered to network, exchange policy and advocacy ideas, and add their voices to the dynamic national conversation about how to expand access to inclusive, high-quality skills training.

The Forum was the biggest ever – with 100 more participants than last year’s milestone event. The remarkable attendance shined a light on our shared challenge: as states work to implement historic federal infrastructure and clean energy investments as well as tackle long-standing racial and gender inequities in the workforce, it’s more important than ever that governments, businesses, and organizations equip working people with the education, skills and supports they need to get good jobs and obtain careers that match their aspirations.

“The real conversations around our workforce systems and how people are at the center are inspiring,” said Lindsay Blumer, President and CEO from WRTP BIG STEP. “I can’t thank National Skills Coalition enough for providing the convening space to be innovative, share ideas and mobilize. Investment in workers is more important than ever right now.”

The Forum’s agenda was robust. Advocates discussed and heard from state experts on:

  • How to change WIOA to increase investments, invest equitably, and invest differently.
  • Policies that propel equitable college access, credential completion, and connections to quality jobs.
  • Centering racial equity in policy and advocacy.
  • Creating a workforce system that serves and centers workers.
  • Digital skills challenges in the states.
  • State efforts to measure and report on credential quality and learner outcomes.
Good Jobs: Part and Parcel of the Skills Training Policy Conversation

Advocates sometimes debate whether policies to expand skills training and policies to improve job quality are congruent or in conflict. The 2023 Skills in the States Forum began with an inspiring plenary discussing how the perspectives of working people can inform that discussion and explored what workers want from skills training and good jobs – and how workforce providers, organizers, advocates and businesses can center the perspectives and expertise of workers.

The first panel featured two worker experts – Dominic Redmen and Chantelle Williams who told their own stories about how skills training and effective workforce services created a pathway for them. “It’s one thing to share your work, but it takes a whole other layer of vulnerability to share your story” said Melissa Johnson, Managing Director of State Strategies for NSC as she thanked the workers. They appeared with Eli Allen, Senior Program Director at Civic Works and Chrissie Powell, Chief Growth and Impact Officer at Byte Back, and the panel was moderated by NSC Director of Worker and Student Voices, Michael Richardson. The second panel was moderated by Brooke DeRenzis Chief Strategy Officer at NSC, and featured reactions to the worker panel by Janel Bailey, Co-Executive Director of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, Dr. Ana Luz Gonzales-Vasques, Project Director UCLA Labor Center POWER in Workforce Development, Sarah Miller, Principal Adviser, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity and Rick Plympton, CEO of Optimax. The panelists also discussed how they endeavor to center worker voice and experience in their work towards quality jobs and training.


A Historic Opportunity for Infrastructure Jobs

Federal laws passed in the last two years have set up a huge opportunity for a diverse group of workers to repair our nation’s infrastructure and fight climate change. But it’s up to workforce advocates to partner with and apply pressure to state agencies accountable for creating equitable access to these good jobs. A plenary on seizing this historic opportunity that explored promising state strategies on leveraging infrastructure investments spotlighted training providers and advocates helping to realize this monumental opportunity.

The plenary featured speaker Portia Wu, Maryland’s Secretary of Labor, and a panel discussion featuring Christopher Montgomery, Director, Syracuse Build Jamal Jessie, Workforce Development Manager, Georgia Power Shana Peschek, Executive Director, Machinists Institute Randy Stamper, Associate Vice Chancellor, Career Education and Workforce Programs, Virginia Community College System. The panel was Moderated by Melissa Johnson, NSC’s Managing Director, State Strategies.

Before the forum began, some advocates convened for a special People-Powered Infrastructure Convening to discuss the lessons learned in two states (Illinois and Wisconsin) as they work to build a diverse, multigenerational infrastructure and clean energy workforce ready to take on quality infrastructure jobs. Participants spend the second half of the convening with others from their region discussing what their organizations are already doing, what sectors they’re focusing on (public transportation, clean energy, water, etc.), and what outcomes they want to see in their states.


Policy Action Lab: Boosting Student Success through State Financial Assistance and Holistic Supports

The day before the forum, state policy leaders and agency staff from higher education, workforce development, and human services systems; community college system and institutional leaders; SkillSPAN leaders; community-based organizations; and other key partners convened for NSC’s inaugural Policy Action Lab. This Policy Action Lab was the first engagement of Expanding College & Career Possibilities: A Policy Action Initiative, NSC’s newest state technical assistance initiative. Participants came together to engage with each other and learn from peers about how expanded financial assistance and holistic supports have supported the enrollment, retention, and completion of adult learners in quality non-degree credential programs.

“I was lucky to be part of a two-day lab on policies in postsecondary that boost student success for ALL learners with a focus on financial aid and holistic supports,” said Johntel Greene, Director of Legislative Affairs for Maryland Association of Community Colleges, as she reflected on her time at the forum. “I walked away having learned a lot of the best practices and policies happening in places like Texas, Washington, New Mexico, Tennessee, Virginia, etc.”

Acknowledging a Leader

Forum attendees recognized CEO Andy Van Kleunen as he prepares to step down from his position in December after 23 years of leadership. To recognize Andy’s commitment to growing the organization’s influence and impact, NSC’s board established a new award – The Founder’s Circle Award – that will be given in honor of Andy and his lasting contributions. The award will be given annually to leaders in the public, private, and philanthropic sectors who have leveraged their position of influence to further NSC’s mission and impact. The Board named Andy the first recipient of the award and it was presented to him by Board Chair Dr. Girard Melancon and past Board Chair Alice Pritchard.

Portia Wu, Maryland Secretary of Labor and NSC board member also presented Andy with a Secretary’s Citation on behalf of the citizens of Maryland acknowledging his outstanding service and leadership of National Skills Coalition for more than two decades.

Members of NSC’s network thanked Andy in a moving video tribute.

The Skills in the States Forum was sponsored by:

  • The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation
  • Comcast Universal
  • CompTIA
  • Kapor Center and
  • Walmart

Additionally, the organizational supporters of our state work include:

  • Ascendium Foundation
  • AutoDesk Foundation
  • James Irvine Foundation,
  • ECMC Foundation
  • JPMorgan Chase & Company;
  • And Kellogg Foundation

Check out photos for the event on our Flickr page and the full event agenda here. A few of our favorite tweets are below – follow the conversation at #SSF23