Why strategic vision and integration matter to developing a tribal workforce

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde member Daniel Freeman receives auto mechanic training through the Tribes’ 477/Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation program. (Photo: Grand Ronde/Michelle Alaimo)


Op-ed series: Building the human capacity to rebuild tribal nations

In its multi-year project examining tribal workforce development approaches across the country, NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance (PTG) worked to identify and document key foundational strategies that are empowering tribal innovation and, in turn, workforce development success.

Distilling lessons learned from that endeavor, PTG identified 15 strategic considerations that tribal leaders, workforce development practitioners, and other decision-makers must tackle as they craft workforce development approaches capable of achieving their definition of what “success” looks like for tribal citizens and the nation as a whole. These mission critical aspects of workforce development have a direct bearing on the ability of tribal workforce development approaches to make a transformative, sustainable difference. The following explores two of those considerations.

Strategic Vision

A few years ago, the leaders and education directors of several tribal nations met with board members of the local school system that was educating the majority of their nations’ youth. Among the nations’ pressing concerns was the fact that the school system – despite serving so many Native students – employed few Native teachers. Did the school system have a plan to recruit more Native teachers? “No,” was the answer. Then the question was flipped to the tribal representatives in attendance: “What are you doing to encourage and prepare your own people for careers in education?” They responded, “We don’t have a plan either.”

This conversation made the tribal representatives realize their workforce development activities weren’t intentionally advancing what they had identified as a strategic priority – and the need to connect the two. Across Indian Country, the success of Native nation-rebuilding efforts hinges on such strategic vision. In workforce development, strategic vision is forged when the nation has a clear, widely understood sense of the future it seeks to create for itself – Native people teaching their own, for instance – and makes decisions about how to build its human capacity based on long-term priorities the nation considers vital to creating that future.

For example, one nation has structured its workforce development activities to advance its overarching goal of creating tribal citizens who are capable of contributing to the nation over the entirety of their lives. Another nation prioritizes on-reservation citizens in its higher education scholarship funding in order to support its strategic commitment to reversing “brain drain” so that it has the local human capacity it needs to accomplish its long-term nation-rebuilding goals.

As a tribal nation crafts its workforce development approach, its success will depend on whether it does so with a greater, national purpose in mind. Tethering that approach to its community development imperatives requires addressing some key structural considerations, such as:

(1) syncing the nation’s workforce development approach with its economy building effort: to ensure it has the right human capacity to achieve the latter;

(2) focusing on preparing people to buildcareers as opposed to just getting jobs, thus enhancing upward mobility and community prosperity over time;

(3) diversifying the careers you prepare people for: beyond public sector careers that typically don’t create jobs to private sector careers – like working in tribal enterprises or as small business owners – that can create jobs;

(4) defining the reach of the nation’s approach: and whether/how it will serve tribal citizens living off reservation; and

(5) ensuring the nation’s strategic priorities drive funding for workforce development: not vice versa.


Many tribal nations are plagued by a dynamic known as the “silo effect.” A legacy of outsiders calling the shots in tribal communities, the silo effect is evident in a lack of communication, coordination, cooperation, and common goal-setting between the various departments and programs in tribal government. For example, for each new initiative the federal government created to support workforce development and related services came the establishment of a tribal program or office to administer it (the Jobs Training Partnership Act, Native American Career and Technical Education Program, Tribal Employment Rights Office, Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, as examples). Over time, this has produced fragmented bureaucracies where programs dedicated to some aspect of developing workforce do their work separately, or worse, at cross-purposes. To complicate matters, in the self-governance era, according to the Native Nations Institute, some nations have taken over “administrative and service provision functions without thinking through how the various pieces of their growing government structure should work together.”

The drawbacks of this dynamic are pervasive, such as duplicating services, poor service quality, and the wasteful spending of limited financial resources. Because programs rarely communicate or work together, they can’t comprehensively address community needs or grow what does work across the organization. Conversely, research by NCAI and others finds that nations who develop integrated systems that fuse workforce development and related activities around a singular set of tribal goals enhance their ability to make life-changing differences for tribal citizens. This requires eradicating programmatic silos and, often, consolidating programs into larger, centralized programs or “umbrella” departments or divisions. It also demands structural coordination and communication between that system and other parts of tribal government, notably: its economic development arm (and tribal businesses), education department (to ensure a “cradle through career” workforce development continuum), and social service programs (such as General Assistance, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

How a nation creates such a system is itssovereign choice, and should be based on its needs alone. For example, if a federal program can’t legally be part of its 477 Plan for workforce development, that doesn’t mean a nation shouldn’t merge it into its system in another way if it makes sense to that nation. According to a 2001 report, deploying a self-designed system can “eliminate redundant service provision, realize complementarities and synergies among services, gain efficiencies, and leverage savings from more streamlined client processing to expand service provision.” It also ensures that mission-critical staff work in lockstep to advance the nation’s big-picture objectives. Most importantly, it works better for the people, as an integrated system that provides person-centered, “wrap-around” services enables a nation to holistically assess all of a client’s needs and instantly connect that person to the suite of services they need to get and stay on the right path.

For more information about how tribal nations are crafting innovative, self-governed approaches to workforce development, please clickhere.

In part 3 of this op-ed series, NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance explores two more strategic considerations for tribal workforce development: institutions and culture.

This essay is the second in a series of eight op-eds exploring the keys to success in – and the key strategic considerations for – tribal workforce development. It is drawn from a newtribal workforce development toolkit(see pages 8-11) produced by NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance.

Op-ed Series:

The following six op-eds will each explore two other strategic considerations for tribal workforce development:

Op-ed#1: Tribal workforce development: Success starts with governance

Op-ed #2: Tribal workforce development: Why strategic vision and integration matter

Op-ed#3: Tribal workforce development: Why institutions and culture matter

Op-ed#4: Tribal workforce development: Why leadershipand funding matter

Op-ed#5: Tribal workforce development: Why citizen engagement and assessment matter

Op-ed#6: Tribal workforce development: Why removing obstacles and targeted solutions matter

Op-ed#7: Tribal workforce development: Why closing the loop and advancement matter

Op-ed#8: Tribal workforce development: Why partnerships and sustainability matter

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)