The room was cramped, and the people wedged into it were uncomfortable in their suits and dresses and heat and that noise from the kitchen staff as they ended their day loudly on the other side of the thin dividing “wall”. As to be expected, tempers ran as hot as the collars of the professional men and women in the room.

This was September, 2014. The CWA Board Meeting in Monterey.

And the conversation had just turned to messaging. How to talk about what it is that workforce boards do.

The temperature was rising.

There is very little that any room full of 40 people all share in common. They all breathe oxygen. They all need water. But when it comes to agreeing on opinions, the list of topics they agree upon becomes very narrow, if it exists at all. The color of the sky, perhaps. Depending on the time of day. Is that a fuchsia sunset, or would you call that magenta?

It is in this room that the question was asked… how do workforce boards talk about what they do? And the 40 workforce board directors, the people who are most able to answer that question, had many different ideas. All valid, mind you, but when it came to the key messages, it was impossible to prioritize what should come first.

Fast forward to January of 2016. Two organizations, spurred by different motivations, came together seperately, one day apart and in the same city, with separate resolves to answer the same question.

What do workforce boards do?

Because of the unique perspectives of the organizations, two very different answers and very different styles of answers came out of those discussions.

On one hand, you had the National Association of Workforce Boards (NAWB). The longtime conduit of information to and from Washington DC and the local workforce boards, headquartered in the nation’s capitol. They had worked with select workforce board directors across the country and solicited the assistance of a professional messaging organization.

On the other hand, you had the Workforce Development Council of the Conference of Mayors (WDC). Comprised of workforce board directors from across the country, who had formed a committee of messaging professionals from local board staff to come together and try to answer the key question.

What came were two very different answers.

NAWB’s answer was legislative in nature, as one may expect, given the conversations that NAWB regularly participates in. The messaging solution was centered around the broad impact of workforce development, and the impacts of funding at less-than-ideal levels.

WDC’s answer was much more localized, again as one may expect. What do boards do? What are examples? They broke their messaging strategy by overarching topic groups, focused on stories from the ground.

Some people would take a look at these plans and see very different needs. Some people would think they should choose between one or the other.

But the CWA Board of Directors, led by Opportunities Chair Nick Schultz, saw… well… opportunity.

Nick Schultz, the Director of the Pacific Gateway workforce board, is a member of the WDC, and was intimately involved in the discussions around NAWB’s messaging. He immediately began to connect the dots.

But the concept of a communications strategy did not just pop into his head. Nick was also the chair of CWA’s Ad Hoc Communications Committee, where he and First Vice Chair Stephen Baiter worked with CWA staff and various marketing professionals to try to find a messaging strategy at the same time that NAWB and the WDC were forming theirs.

The CWA Board had the foresight to start this discussion years ago, and it had the foresight to focus time and resources on the concept of a communications strategy, because many CWA board members saw the adoption of such a strategy as the most important work that needed to be done in our system. Legislative discussions, discussions about funding, talking with business leaders, working with the public… it all depended on solid messaging. And the messaging among workforce boards in California, much less the nation, was not well-coordinated and often talked about varying and even contradictory messages. It made the system hard to understand, made it so that when the need arose for conversation about the system (such as when funding or reauthorization were on the line), it was impossible to coordinate talking points, even at the most basic level.

CWA Board Members saw the need. And Nick Schultz saw the opportunity to marry the two national plans into a messaging strategy that could work for all boards, not only in California but across the state. That’s exactly what we’ve done.

And so what you have now is what you can see on our site, under the main heading of “About Us” in the navigation bar at the top of the screen, under the subheading “What Workforce Boards Do”. The WDC’s five topic areas have been adopted (with one more added on). These topic areas will be the focuses of individual week-long messaging campaigns, championed by the WDC, NAWB, state workforce associations, and workforce boards affiliated with those three entities.

The campaigns will be produced through the lens of the larger messaging developed by NAWB. And this is a crucial point.

The year 2020 looms large over the workforce development system. 2020 is when WIOA will be up for reauthorization, and the system will have to be able to speak for what it’s done over the past five years.

Every time we are successful in messaging, every time we are able to tell our story, it gets us prepared for these discussions.

The temperature is going to rise with every passing month. Workforce boards not only need to answer the heat with results, but by being able to talk about how they got those results, and why this system is vital to the future of the American economy in a fast-changing economic climate that is crying out for industry-based local leadership.

And now, because of the foresight at the national and state level, we are moving past heated discussions about what should be said… and we’re actually going to say it. Together. As a system.

It’s about time.

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