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Last Friday, Mayor Muriel Bowser released her administration’s plan to ensure greater compliance with federal workforce-development standards. The 350-plus-page document that emerged outlines the District’s efforts to “bridge [the] divide” between residents who have college degrees—roughly 50 percent of the population aged 25 or older—and the 60,000 adults who lack a high school diploma or equivalent education. In large part, the plan seeks to align D.C. with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act by providing job services, including training programs.

D.C. is the only jurisdiction in the country that the U.S. Department of Labor categorizes as “high-risk,” partly due to underspending federal funds. That designation results from “long-running problems—ineffective programs, bungled bureaucracy, and poor participation,” the Post’s editorial board wrote in late December.

The mayor last week also announced the appointment of Odie Donald as executive director of the Workforce Investment Council, the private sector-led board that advises District agencies on job programs. (Bowser appointed Busboys & Poets owner Andy Shallal as WIC’s chair in December of last year.) City Desk talked with Donald last week about his vision for the council and his past experiences. The interview that follows has been edited for clarity and concision. 

Who are you? Where are you from and what have you done in your career? 

I’m from Atlanta, Ga., and I’m 37 years old. I have worked in and around workforce development for about the last 15 years. In Georgia, I held basically every position there is in the workforce system, from case management and providing services to clients, to actually leading the state’s workforce system as well as local and municipal systems.

A part of what interested me about the District is that D.C. operates both a local and a state workforce system, which has its own benefits and challenges. That’s an opportunity. In Georgia, we had success in tying workforce development to economic development.

What lessons did you learn from working in Georgia?

One of the key lessons that I learned over the years is that change is good, it is necessary, but it is also difficult. Nothing really happens overnight. But there are key things you can dictate early on that helps decide where systems go. Georgia’s system has had some ups and down until about the last three years, basically because of a change in how we deliver services. In various pockets through the nation, these services have been the biggest kept secrets and not fully leveraged. That’s why I’m here: to ensure that a very diverse community of large and small businesses, a very strong advocacy community, as well as other community-service participants and stakeholders really come together to help lead the policies and help ensure the vision of delivering very streamlined, effective, efficient, but robust services.

What’s unique about D.C. for you?

I think D.C. has a great opportunity because they’re both state and local. That means we’re keenly positioned through D.C. government to do both: create state initiatives that cover the bulk of our population and our business community, but also target pockets throughout the eight wards that specifically require resources, [through] local funding.

What is the Workforce Investment Council anyways?

I think the WIC is a body that has quite a bit of potential, and I think our mayor, I don’t want to continue to toot her horn too much, but her and the deputy mayor [Courtney Snowden] are the reasons why I chose to leave Georgia and help build on what I believe is a very quality vision that is going to help a lot of people. I think the focus on standing up the WIC and the WIC staff, the administrative staff that carries out that vision, will help ensure there’s a level of oversight and compliance and adding innovation, which I think is the key thing that not a lot of people see. The first opportunity to look into that is the [D.C. State Workforce] report [which came out on Friday]. It’s a very dense document. And of course the federal government is very rigid in terms of how you develop and respond to your plan.

Can you give me a preview of the workforce report?

The state plan is the guide for the workforce system moving forward. One [of the things] that’s in it is that since all the workforce local partners are required by the federal government to report and coordinate as one team, we have started to look at data as a key source in delivering services. There is a data vault being developed that includes a way that all of these core partners and these core agencies that deliver workforce services will be able to communicate with each other across one platform: who our participants are, what services they’re receiving, what barriers they have… To my knowledge, there is only one functioning state that has that capability, and that’s Mississippi. They invested quite a bit of money in testing it and implementing it within current infrastructure to ensure that it works… It’s a data-driven system that is really customer-focused.

There are also coordinated programs. You not only have in these workforce systems federal funding, you have your local funding as well and it allows you the flexibility to create programs that put people to work quickly but also provides them with portable skills that allows them to move up the economic ladder.

Under the [federal] Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which governs us now, there’s an opportunity to provide more workplace learning experiences like the apprenticeship program which is a standout. Now you’re able to bundle them with your community-college education to shorten up the apprenticeship time and provide those people with credentials that are valuable to their employers and [they] acquire employment a lot quicker. You also have the job training which allows employers to bring in employees that have barriers or lack a certain skill level. People who have a two-year credential or a one-year credential are able to more quickly go to work, and employers save money.

So who’s on the WIC?

The actual make-up of the WIC is a very interesting one—it’s federally mandated. The majority is business leaders and then includes labor and workforce, which is considered a community-based representative; the state legislature, which in this instance is representation from the D.C. Council; and the mayor and/or her designee [which is the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity]. Right now the staff size is seven. We are adding the required capacity under the [federal] WIOA. I have seen boards that are as large as 50-plus and as small as 19. We are currently finalizing our board membership; right now we’re getting some guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on that.

Isn’t D.C. the only jurisdiction that the Department of Labor categorizes as “high-risk” for job programs? 

I’d say the high-risk assessment is something that is placed on areas where it’s not necessarily a sanction, but it is to really alert that municipality, region, or state area that there’s an opportunity to provide services in a more coordinated fashion and the way you are currently providing those services has room for improvement. I’ll be quite honest with you: Before accepting the role, I met with the Department of Labor to talk about how bad the situation is. They were not only very supportive but also quite confident that we could remove the high-risk designation. There’s an opportunity to take advantage of D.C.’s position as both a state and local area.

We’ve been working very closely with the Department of Employment Services in coordination with the Department of Labor under the guidance of the mayor and deputy mayor so that the WIC is empowered to provide the level of oversight as well as technical assistance needed, which is something that has keenly been missing from the formula, and so that DOES and their service providers are very well equipped to make proper adjustments.

The high-risk designation is specifically related to youth programs. The interesting part of that is that D.C.’s youth programs are nationally renowned for how to coordinate local programs… I don’t think D.C. understands how much folks outside of D.C. really look at that model and try to [replicate it]. D.C. puts a lot of local funding into the local workforce.

There are quite a few moving pieces that are going on at one time. D.C. having a high-risk designation—although we’re moving at lightning speed to get out of that, we also want to be sure we’re not moving too fast and moving in lockstep with the Department of Labor.

What are you most excited about in your new role?

The most exciting thing is that there are so many people in the District who are concerned about workforce development. They understand its importance in relation to economic wellbeing and the state of the District as whole. Even more than that, our citizens, our businesses [on the WIC] are volunteer—I haven’t met a more engaged board that the one that’s currently in place. I think it’s only going to get better with the [federal] requirements.

It’s exciting to know it’s about helping the person at the end of the totem pole. I think it’s difficult managing expectations and ensuring we’re all on the same page. But here as opposed to some of the other places I’ve been in the past, there is one uniform focus and that is making the lives of D.C. residents better.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery