Skip to main content

Spanning the spectrum of Native workforce development

Initiatives under way in the Ninth District demonstrate that Native-focused organizations are working to increase work preparedness, education levels, and employment rates in the communities they serve.

July 1, 2012


Jacob Wascalus Community Development Project Manager
Spanning the spectrum of Native workforce development

In a broad sense, workforce development is the cumulative education and training that endows individual workers with the skills necessary for gainful employment while also supplying businesses with an adequate pool of qualified workers. Depending on the context, workforce development can include anything from early childhood education and socialization skills to vocational training and advanced post-secondary education.

This article focuses on some innovative workforce development efforts under way in the Ninth Federal Reserve District’s Native American communities, where educational attainment and employment levels lag those of their surrounding states. For example, in each of the six states in the Ninth District, the percentage of Native Americans with less than a high school diploma is higher than the statewide percentage. (See Table 1.) Similarly, the percentage of unemployed Native Americans aged 16 or older in each of the Ninth District’s states is persistently higher than the percentage statewide. (See Table 2.)

click to view larger image click to view larger image

As the programs described below demonstrate, Native-focused organizations are working to increase work preparedness, education levels, and employment rates in the communities they serve. From the "soft skills" that teach the rules of mainstream workplace interactions to four-year degrees that position job seekers for high-skill work, initiatives directed toward Native communities throughout the Ninth District span the spectrum of workforce development programs.

Teaching “soft skills”

Having workers who possess the “hard skills” needed to perform their jobs is a business necessity. Metal workers must know how to solder and braze, for example. However, “soft skills” are also critical to a business’s sustained success. People who exhibit soft skills, or “people skills,” demonstrate an ability to successfully manage stress, resolve conflicts, and navigate workplace challenges—behaviors that contribute to improved workplace productivity and job retention.

For most residents in north central Montana, home to the Fort Belknap, Blackfeet, and Rocky Boy’s Indian reservations, the programs offered at area tribal colleges, such as Fort Belknap College and Blackfeet Community College, are ideal for learning the hard skills required for many jobs. Yet the opportunity to learn soft skills is constrained by the geographic isolation of many reservations, which can limit residents’ exposure to settings and employers outside their immediate communities. Recognizing this situation, Opportunity Link, an anti-poverty organization based in Havre, Mont., funded the creation of a soft skills-focused workbook called Workin’ with Tradition to help job seekers of Native American heritage or from small, rural communities succeed in their goals of obtaining and maintaining entry-level work.

Workin’ with Tradition is designed to help workers understand the unspoken sets of rules that employers often use,” says Day Soriano, director of development at Opportunity Link. “It points out that the beliefs they’ve formed about themselves and the everyday world they grew up in may be very different from the ones they encounter in the workplace.” Examples of unspoken workplace rules discussed in the workbook include showing up for work on time and being open to criticism from supervisors.

The ten-lesson workbook, which is based on the Workin’ It Out employment training curriculum created by Dr. Steve Parese (, has been in use since 2010. It uses culturally relevant scenarios and activities to explore strategies for overcoming common employment challenges, such as finding the motivation and resources to travel long distances for work. So far, more than 200 people have participated in Workin’ with Tradition workshops, which are being taught on all seven of Montana’s Indian reservations by 28 trained facilitators.

While the workbook can be taught as a stand-alone course, such as at Stone Child College on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, it is often incorporated into the curricula of other programs. One such program is YouthBuild of North Central Montana, a U.S. Department of Labor-funded workforce development initiative that teaches low-income 16- to 24-year-olds basic carpentry skills while they earn their GEDs. Based on the campus of Montana State University-Northern, the 20-week, 20-student program recently incorporated the entire Workin’ with Tradition workbook into its broader curriculum.

“We try to get them ready for the job market,” says Bob Anderson, director of the area’s YouthBuild program. “Not only do they need the academic training, but they also need to develop the soft skills.”

A one-stop career training shop

Located in the heart of Minneapolis, American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center (AIOIC) operates as a veritable one-stop shop for individuals seeking to jump-start their careers. With a goal of providing education, training, and employment services for American Indians and others in need of career assistance, this workforce development organization operates a range of programs that help hundreds of people annually. For the nearly 12,000 American Indians aged 25 or older in the Twin Cities, having an organization dedicated to improving their employability is a valuable resource, particularly when 18 percent of them lack high school diplomas or GEDs.1/

“Workforce development is critical to meet employment needs in the Twin Cities,” says Mitzi Hobot, external relations director for AIOIC. “We see 40 new individuals a week and 70 percent are scoring below 7th grade levels for reading and math. Without structured training and employment services, we’ll never be able to reduce the number of those on assistance or meet the employment demands of the area.”

AIOIC offers career training programs in three industry categories: health care, business, and information technology. Among these categories, students can choose from 13 different job-specific certification programs that are developed in consultation with employers and taught by industry professionals. The programs, which range in duration from one week to nine months, teach students the skills and subject matter needed to start careers as administrative assistants, public relations specialists, nursing assistants, and computer support specialists, among others.2/ Currently, the only programs that charge tuition are those in the business category; all others are free.

To enhance the effectiveness of its career training programs, AIOIC operates an employment services function that works with program participants throughout their training. Not only do students receive assistance in finding a job, but they also receive help in developing their resumes, learning about employer expectations, and accessing appropriate work attire. Moreover, if it’s needed, students will be connected to support services that can offer solutions to childcare, housing, and transportation challenges.

Since March 2010, more than 1,100 students have graduated from or are still enrolled in AIOIC career training programs. And since June 2011, nearly 350 of those students have gone on to find steady employment.

“We have a really solid placement rate for our students,” says Hobot. “In fact, for individuals who go through the entire employment services process with us and who enroll in and complete one of our training programs, we have a 97 percent job retention rate.”

Hobot attributes the overall success of AIOIC’s job placement services to the close relationships the organization has developed with many area employers and the positive reputations earned by AIOIC graduates who have gone on to work at those establishments.

“We have a lot of employers who will ‘repeat hire’ from us,” she says. “We know what the employers want and need, and we know what AIOIC’s students want and can do.”

Tribal colleges offer fast-track job training

For those looking for an alternative to four- or even two-year post-secondary educational programs, some community or technical colleges offer fast-track means to learn new trades. In Bismarck, N.D., United Tribes Technical College (UTTC), an accredited institution dedicated to providing American Indians with post-secondary and technical education, fills this niche.

As the recent recipient of an $18.9 million federal grant oriented toward workforce development, UTTC is leading a consortium of four tribal colleges—made up of UTTC; Aaniiih Nakoda College in Harlem, Mont.; Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, N.D.; and Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, Mont.—in an initiative to equip students with the skills and education needed to compete for local and regional jobs.3/ Working directly with employers, the initiative—called the Tribal College Consortium for Developing Montana and North Dakota Workforce (TCC DeMaND)—has developed or is enhancing 21 programs that are geared toward training students for in-demand careers at regional businesses. The careers include welding, geographic information systems (GIS), and other skilled trades that feature prominently in the oil-extraction industry, a rapidly growing sector in North Dakota.

Because student tuition will not cover the development costs for all of the programs, the consortium will use the grant money to purchase equipment and cover other capital requirements necessary for some of the programs’ development. After the three-year grant expires, according to Dave Archambault, TCC DeMaND workforce director at UTTC, the programs should be able to function on student tuition and fees.

“Even though we set our goals high, we’re confident we’ll be able to help connect displaced workers and other unemployed residents to jobs in industries that have a need for workers,” he says.

In addition to welding and GIS, programs range from HVAC and heavy equipment training to nursing assistant certifications. According to Archambault, 3 of the initiative’s 21 programs are currently offered, while the remaining 18 should be ready by this fall. The programs range in duration from four weeks to two years.

He adds, “Training people relatively quickly and getting them into the workforce allows them to become self-sufficient. We’re building an American Indian workforce that will be less dependent and will have the ability to support themselves and their families. They’ll have pride in who they are and what they do. By developing this untapped workforce, we’ll create change in Indian Country in a positive way.”

Bringing the community college to the students

The Lac du Flambeau Reservation, home to more than 1,800 members of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, lies 40 miles from Nicolet College’s main campus in Rhinelander, Wis. Yet since the spring of 2011, the reservation’s Education Center has doubled as a classroom for Lac du Flambeau members enrolled in Nicolet College courses. For this northern Wisconsin tribe, bringing the community college to the students, rather than having the students drive to the college, is turning out to be quite an effective workforce development strategy.

“Transportation is a really big issue, especially in the winter,” explains Christin Coleman, higher education transition coordinator of the Lac du Flambeau Education Department. “What we’re trying to do is help alleviate that obstacle by bringing classes here.”

The Nicolet College-Lac du Flambeau partnership provides community members with a convenient opportunity to take classes on a range of subjects, such as business management and natural resources, that are fundamental to careers with tribal employers and area businesses. The goal of the partnership is to increase the overall educational attainment of tribal community members—first by establishing a curriculum for them to earn an associate’s degree from Nicolet College and then by facilitating their transfer to a traditional, four-year institution, such as a college within the University of Wisconsin System. Currently, approximately 7 percent of Lac du Flambeau Reservation residents have bachelor’s degrees. The tribe would like to see that number increase to 10 percent through this program.

“Through the coursework offered by Nicolet, they’ll be able to receive multiple certifications that will enable them to advance in their careers and be stronger employees for the tribe,” says Coleman.

To that end, the tribe strives to offer at least 6 credits of college classes per semester, with the goal of increasing that number to 12 credits. To encourage current Lac du Flambeau employees to enroll in classes, the tribe provides four hours of paid time off each week that students can use to attend classes and study. So far, 25 to 30 students each semester have taken advantage of this opportunity.

Nicolet College is looking to expand its on-reservation course offerings to reflect the workforce needs of the tribe and the broader area. On tap for the fall of 2012 is a dental hygienist program, which the college is developing in response to the planned construction of a dental clinic on the reservation. Early childhood education is another potential subject area.

“Because we’re a small college, we’re able to adapt to the changing needs of students and regional job providers,” explains Rachelle Ashley, director of multicultural services at Nicolet College. “We’re doing a range of classes in response to the workforce demands of tribal employers.”

A panoply of programs

Across the Ninth Federal Reserve District, organizations are calibrating workforce development programs to serve Native participants and others, in concert with the employment demands of area businesses. From Opportunity Link’s soft skills training and AIOIC’s business and medical education programs, to UTTC’s fast-track job training and Nicolet College’s course offerings that align with job-specific certifications and associate’s and bachelor’s degrees—each of these work preparedness initiatives is designed to meet specific needs of workers and employers. And while they are intended to improve educational attainment and employment outcomes in Native communities, these initiatives may have broader and deeper effects.

Says Coleman of the Lac du Flambeau Education Department, “Working with employers to identify the needs they foresee and aligning training programs to meet those needs in a timely manner not only empowers the employer and the future employees to better the community, but also grows a culture where education is valued.”

1/This figure was drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006–2010 American Community Survey. With the supplied margins of error, the share of people aged 25 or older with less than a high school diploma could range from 15 to 23 percent.

2/For a complete list of the 13 programs offered by AIOIC, visit

3/The four-year grant was made through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Education.