Workforce development group’s new leader emphasizes lifelong learning

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter



Contact the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council at 360-567-1070.

Contact the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council at 360-567-1070.

Promote lifelong learning. Bring business professionals into classrooms to show the real-world applications of math and science. Boost opportunities for the working poor to become economically self-sufficient.

Those are a few of the big goals of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, the Vancouver-based nonprofit that oversees job training programs and helps employers recruit workers in Clark, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties.

And the agency has a new executive director tasked with guiding the work to achieve those and other initiatives: Jeanne Bennett, a leader in promoting science education and research.

Bennett succeeds Lisa Nisenfeld, who recently took the helm of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, the nonprofit jobs promoter and business recruiter that works closely with the workforce development council.

Bennett previously served as executive director of the Mount St. Helens Institute, a nonprofit that promotes stewardship, science education, and research and appreciation of volcanic landscapes. As leader of that agency, she was responsible for program administration, fundraising, partnership development and overall administration of the organization.

Just five weeks into her new job with the workforce council, Bennett exudes enthusiasm about the work ahead. She recently discussed with the Columbian everything from her plan to strengthen partnerships with community colleges and social service agencies to why her dad is her hero.

Her comments are edited for brevity and clarity.

What can you tell us about how the council came to be?

The council is one of 12 workforce investment boards in the state of Washington. The boards are basically chartered by the federal Workforce Investment Act (of 1998), and we … help align the workforce in our community with the available jobs and the coming jobs to prepare and promote a highly skilled and adaptive workforce for Southwest Washington. We have funds that come through the Workforce Investment Act, and the funds are distributed to the states, and the states distribute (the funds) to the workforce investment boards. The workforce investment boards contract with providers or they provide the services themselves. In our case, we contract with providers.

Your organization was recently awarded two federal grants totaling nearly $2.5 million to train workers in Clark, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties in information technology and advanced manufacturing industries. Why focus on those industries, and what’s the status of this project?

(It’s) based on what’s happening with employment in our communities. We all have advanced manufacturing, and we all have IT (information technology). This is where the hiring is happening, and this is where people can get higher wage jobs. That’s where we want to focus our attention. We mostly know who we’re going to be working with: nLight, SEH America, Linear Technology, Weyerhaeuser, Logitech, Northwest Natural Products, Silicon Forest Electronics and ControlTek. And we’re looking at about 1,700 job seekers and workers that we can impact, which is quite a few. It’s over four years, so we don’t expect to really be ramped up until later this year.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to Clark County’s workforce?

One of the things that most impacted (our) unemployment rate was our construction business. What do you do with people who have construction skills if there are no construction jobs? Some of those skills are transferrable to manufacturing or other trades. How do we get people to work in industrial manufacturing and high-tech manufacturing? We have big employers in those areas, and we’ve been working closely with them over time to make that work.

Health care is the other huge driver in this community. It’s less about entry-level jobs and more about skills. In fact, I was speaking with someone over at PeaceHealth, and they said informatics (the acquisition and use of information to improve health care services) is their most important job right now. They need people who can do the technology.

What do you hope to accomplish as the council’s leader?

I have a passion (for) education and have pretty much worked in education for most of my career. We already have strong partnerships with community colleges and Washington State University and with our K-12 (institutions). What I hope to accomplish is more extensive, deeper and stronger relationships with all of those folks. We think too often that if you only have a high school degree, you’re never going to be able to support yourself, but that’s just not true. What is true is that just because you have a high school degree does not mean that you will consistently be able to support yourself through time. You need to be a lifelong learner … learning doesn’t stop the day (students) walk out of high school. They have to be ready for retraining. Maybe they really need an associate’s degree down the road … we have been a provider of funds to Clark College because part of what we do is pay for training. We’ll (also) spend money at the college to pay for tuition.

The other thing I’m really hoping to do is partner more with the social service agencies in the community, because they’re the ones who are seeing some of the need and they know that they have people who are employable.

Who’s your biggest hero in life?

I’m going to have to say it’s my dad. My dad was just a really great guy who worked in the steel industry … so he moved the family around to seek better work where he could. So we moved from Illinois to Michigan and then from Michigan to here. He was always just a person who had incredible integrity and loved his family more than anything else, and sadly (he’s) not here anymore.

He did things his own way, and he didn’t really worry about convention, so I try to model that a little bit, to my children’s chagrin (laughs).

What books are you reading?

I’ve got two novels going right now. One is “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” (by Haruki Murakami). It’s a very strange book about a guy’s mind and all the things that can happen because of his amazing mind, even though he’s not that particularly amazing himself. The other is “Daughter of Fortune” (by Isabel Allende).

Do you have a favorite movie?

I do. Oh my goodness, you know, it’s so sad that I do (laughs). I love “Gone with the Wind.” It’s one of my most favorite movies of all time. It’s so cliché and boring (laughs), and in fact a couple weekends ago I was all by myself for a whole weekend, so I watched it. Hadn’t watched it in about five years.

Aaron Corvin:;; 360-735-4518;