Denny Barney is CEO of the PHX East Valley Partnership, which advocates to improve the business climate in Arizona’s PHX East Valley.
I hear it frequently: The key to a robust economy is a talented and plentiful workforce.
Never has this been more important, as America stages an economic comeback from one of the worst pandemics in history. Raising up a highly trained workforce isn’t just the responsibility of local teachers and school boards, state agencies, and federal officials. Small businesses, mega-corporations and nonprofit organizations must play a role, too, by contributing brainpower, time, advocacy and money to ensure tomorrow’s workers are ready for the future today.
Nonprofits, in particular, have the potential to build a more involved community around innovating education.
My nonprofit, the PHX East Valley Partnership, operates in a burgeoning region of cities, towns and Native American communities just outside of Phoenix. Here, our leaders understood the link between education and economic prosperity long before the pandemic. That’s why we are eager to join Greater Phoenix Leadership, Helios Education Foundation and other civic nonprofit organizations in solving one of the most significant issues facing our community: developing a skilled talent pool.
The process started by reviewing the state of education in our community and identifying our shortcomings. In doing so, we learned that Arizona needed to do a better job of training the next generation of teachers, reducing the teacher attrition rate, closing the achievement gap that leaves so many students behind and training workers for the jobs in demand.
Together, we confirmed the need to arm our youngest students — those at the pre-K level — with fundamental skills to succeed. We saw an opportunity to build the state’s professional and technical workforce and fortify our STEM and STEAM ecosystem, leveraging strategic investments, maximizing government resources and producing a pipeline of talent prepared to assume the next generation of jobs.
Transforming an education system does not happen overnight; done right, it is an evolving and continuous process. Yet, our region is making progress, as evidenced by a surge in corporate relocations and expansions in which access to talent and continuing education were determining factors.
As we propel our education system to the next level, our work could serve as a road map for other regions. Here are some keys to success that other nonprofit leaders may find instructive:
In our region, civic, business, education and political leaders coalesce around a common goal: to create good-paying jobs. Looking through the prism of jobs, we think broadly about everything from behavioral health to infrastructure and transportation. We also promote emerging economic clusters with a wide range of institutions, from Maricopa Community Colleges to Arizona State University and the University of Phoenix.
Nonprofit leaders can play a role in propelling their communities’ education system forward by bringing public- and private-sector stakeholders together. Too often, K-12 schools, community colleges, and public and private universities are so laser-focused on individual missions that they don’t think about how they could help the common good. As conveners, we can broaden these stakeholders’ perspectives on ways to achieve greater efficiencies, close the gaps in learning and ultimately build a world-class education ecosystem that elevates our workforce and drives economic growth.
This brings me to another best practice: partnerships. Two decades ago, our nonprofit helped create the East Valley Think Tank to engage practitioners from our preschool through graduate school systems and business executives passionate about achieving educational excellence. Since then, our community has forged scores of other partnerships.
To be successful, look for partners with a like-minded vision, but don’t rule anyone out. While community colleges and public universities may be obvious partners, private universities and technical schools have an important role to play in improving education, too. The same goes for nonprofit organizations. By developing partnerships with organizations in the education space, nonprofits can help prepare their district’s students for the demands of college, career and civic life. Consider building alliances with employers that invest in continuing education for their employees or interns.
Another successful driver of a region’s strong economy is the interconnectedness of a vibrant business community. We use that voice to speak and act to evoke measurable change and by unifying our constituents around agreed-upon legislative priorities. Then we advocate on these issues as a single, powerful voice to state, local and even national government officials.
It sounds easy enough, but it takes some coordination. As a nonprofit leader, you can amplify your voice by recruiting other leaders to join the cause or piggyback on other organizations’ advocacy efforts. If you are building your coalition, be sure to establish priorities (this will serve as a unifying force for your members) and outline a process and ideas for making your voice heard.
Pushing The Envelope
For us, pushing the envelope starts with arming teachers with the skills they need to help students be successful. At ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, that means understanding how to develop and deploy a 21st-century education workforce. This entails designing community initiatives in which faculty, staff and students work with schools to tackle tough problems, as well as devising models and systems that deploy teachers in new ways to deliver personalized learning to students.
Think about ways you and your organization can tackle issues. While other leaders may be focused on the issues of today, nonprofits have the unique opportunity to look ahead and create an educational road map for the future that develops talent, inspires new ideas and encourages entrepreneurial pursuits.
It’s all part of preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.