By Kelly Ryan, CEO Incourage
Long-term thinking creates positive change for workers, businesses, and community
A decade ago, Incourage launched a comprehensive effort to change our community’s approach to workforce development. With support from leaders in manufacturing and business, we planned, staffed, and facilitated an innovative new program called Workforce Central. As one of the first rural sites recognized by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, we were able to leverage national investment and learn best practices from similar communities across the nation.
Workforce Central generated impressive results for South Wood County: 2,000 workers and students received employment-related training; 35 manufacturing businesses benefited through improved operations and investments in workers; 7 new degrees and certificates were created, many in partnership with Mid-State Technical College; and 75 public, private, and non-profit organizations participated. This initiative also sparked several new working groups and coalitions, including the Business Education Alliance and Regional Economic Growth Initiative (REGI), both of which are going strong today. To accomplish these shared successes and maximize impact, our partner organizations learned to adapt and work together in different ways.
In order to uphold our core mission – “to meet the changing needs of the community” – Incourage also had to adapt and adjust its role in this program over time. As other organizations became more willing and able to direct new approaches to workforce development, Incourage gradually transitioned from a primary leader of this effort to a supporting partner. In the long run, we believe that “teaching others to drive and sharing the road” is preferable to keeping our organization “in the driver’s seat.” To that end, it was always our plan to build robust community capacity around workforce development, so that this important goal could flourish beyond Workforce Central, with or without Incourage.
Although Workforce Central has drawn to a close, it remains a powerful testament to our collective ability to work together. Individuals and organizations from many different sectors put aside self-interest to achieve more as a community — proving that sustained, cooperative focus on a common goal can yield measurable results. The program also fostered important relationships and trust, from which we can all now benefit. Today, many local organizations are newly engaged in workforce and job training issues, and similar efforts have sprung up throughout the region.
As for Incourage, the end of Workforce Central does not signal the end of our commitment to workforce as a key lever for economic transition. On the contrary, we are eager to capitalize on our community’s momentum around workforce, and we will remain an active local investor in, and champion for, this issue. At the same time, we have an organizational mandate to meet the changing needs of the community. This means Incourage must regularly reevaluate our programs and priorities to assess where our leadership is most relevant and valuable. While such decisions can be difficult and inevitably affect real people, they are essential to ensuring that Incourage remains a responsive, innovative, and community-led organization.
At this important moment for Incourage and our community, we are refocusing our attention on three core priorities, which we see as vital to ensuring long-term positive change for our economy and quality of life:
- Shared responsibility for community and each other. For Incourage, this means nurturing a sense of community ownership, pride, and ability to work together. We believe that engaged and empowered residents can expand individuals’ capacity to lead, increase collective participation in community decision-making, and strengthen civic infrastructure – all essential ingredients in sustainable economic growth. Drawing on the Community Survey and several of Incourage’s successful leadership training programs (which have included high school students, local organizations, and business executives), Incourage will help residents shape discourse into action – inspiring greater community awareness, resourcefulness, and collaboration in our journey from “They can” to “I can” to “We can.”
- Create demonstration spaces that catalyze economic transition. Incourage is determined to realize residents’ vision for the Tribune Building – a public space where local innovation, creativity, networking, business development, and new approaches to work can thrive. When we finish the renovation and open the building’s new doors, the Tribune Building will be an unprecedented resource for this community – one that is vital to our region’s long-term economic vitality. It represents community-led decision-making, support for entrepreneurs and small businesses, commitment to job quality and training, and a dynamic future for young people and families.
- Align financial resources for maximum results. Incourage is committed to using our financial assets to accelerate this community’s economic transition. We have embraced impact investing as a way of fully aligning our current organizational resources with our values and goals. To increase Incourage’s direct impact on the ground in Central Wisconsin, we are providing loans to local businesses and nonprofits that align with our development goals. To amplify our community’s voice in distant industrial boardrooms, we have purchased shares of all publicly-traded firms that employ workers in our region, including Wal-Mart, Domtar, Verso and more. In the coming year, Incourage will expand our involvement in “shareholder advocacy” – for example, endorsing Wal-Mart’s proposed increases in hourly wages and investments in workforce training, or challenging private equity firms’ cost-cutting efforts and decisions that threaten workers and families.
Over the last decade, Incourage has learned quite a bit about workforce strategies. Most importantly, we’ve learned this is complex work that requires both short-term interventions and long-term plans for sustainable change. It requires a “big picture” understanding of the interdependence of workers, businesses, and communities. And it requires a much deeper understanding of the needs of both employers and employees. What is a “Good Job”? What is a “Good Company”? And how do we, as a community, make decisions in the coming years (collectively and transparently) that will grow good jobs, strengthen businesses, and engage more of our residents in creating a prosperous future?
As we begin to consider these questions as a community, Incourage will host a special public forum on March 13 at the Performing Arts Center. This event will focus on the results of the 2017 Community Survey, in which nearly 4,000 of you shared your hopes, concerns, and priorities for our region. The new findings, along with public discussions at future events, will help inform and influence Incourage’s organizational strategy and resource investments going forward, and will be useful to many of you as well. We hope you’ll help us create actionable steps for how we can work together in the future to address survey findings. It will take all of us, working with sustained effort and common goals – as we did with Workforce Central – to build a thriving community and economy.
Please also stay tuned to our website in the coming months for opportunities to take action on Community Survey results, attend an Incourage Open House and more. We always welcome your thoughts, comments, and conversation.
Kelly Ryan, CEO