Becky Thofson
Industrial Sectors Project Manager
Workforce Development, Inc.
Rochester, Minn
Health care, Manufacturing and Service-related occupations

Background & Interest in Sector Work
For Becky Thofson, becoming a Marano Fellow of the Sector Skills Academy in 2005 represented a way to increase her expertise in developing, operating, and funding sectoral employment initiatives that could connect employers with qualified employees and connect jobseekers with meaningful work.

At the time Thofson applied for admission to the inaugural class of Marano Fellows she was the Albert Lea and Austin Area Manager for Workforce Development, Inc. (WDI), a community-based organization and designated Workforce Investment Board for 10 counties in southeast Minnesota. WDI provides services to jobseekers at 10 locations. Services are focused on low-income and disadvantaged populations dealing with multiple barriers to meaningful employment. In addition, WDI had organized around four high-demand industry sectors – health care, manufacturing, hi-tech and bio-science, and services and trades and was in the process of rolling out a multi-faceted sector strategy that prioritized high-quality jobs, sought business participation through industry-specific sub-committees, and partnered with the education system to deliver a vocational Healthcare Academy to incumbent workers looking to advance.

As part of her work, Thofson was responsible for supervising the Healthcare Academy, which is designed to prepare workers to become Certified Nursing Assistants and assist incumbent workers in advancing along a health care career ladder through two separate training programs. Thofson’s experiences in the health care industry, motivated her to more deeply explore the field of sectoral employment development, believing that “the most effective way to leverage shrinking government funds is to partner with the industrial businesses that stand to be most affected by the shortage of a skilled workforce.”

“I feel the Sector Skills Academy was instrumental in changing the entire direction of my career. It gave me the confidence to speak out for the needs of entry level workers when discussions get tied up in politics.”

Now, months after completing the Sector Skills Academy, Thofson is able to look back on the experience and reflect on how it’s impacted her work. “I feel the Sector Skills Academy was instrumental in changing the entire direction of my career,” she said. “It gave me confidence to speak out for the needs of entry-level workers when discussions get tied up in politics.” Her director, Randy Johnson, agrees. “Becky has really taken hold of our sectoral initiatives, and as a result we have gained statewide and national recognition. She brings a real passion for analyzing organizational dynamics and relationship building ...Without having such a plugged-in and super person in the pivot position for our agency, we would never have been able to get our projects and board alignment off the ground."

Changing Perspective on Sector Work
While still a Fellow of the Academy, Thofson’s job title changed to Industrial Sectors Projects Manager, a reflection of her growing responsibility for leading sectoral initiatives in health care and other new sectors. Since completing her Academy stint, Thofson has helped support a culture change at WDI to orient the job counselors and staff to “think more sectorally.” As part of that process, the organization will be highlighting specific industries within its workforce centers every other month. In preparation, staff will participate in training and educational opportunities designed to help develop activities that target specific industries. In addition, the Albert Lea and Austin offices will be asked to customize their activities to better reflect the needs of local employers.

“This is bi-partisan work. The sector field is a win-win for both potential employers and potential employees.”

On a broader level, Thofson says she has grown as a leader by extending the benefits of her participation in the Academy to other colleagues within the state’s workforce development community. She has been able to share with those participating in the Minnesota State Policy Academy some of the learnings and the tools she gained to illustrate some sectoral ideas. She also has been invited to make presentations at the state level and to other regions of the state, regarding WDI’s sectoral work in the southeast Minnesota region. She also has been invited to participate in the Minnesota Governor's Workforce Development Council's Business & Community Connections Committee. The Committee is working on policy changes designed to promote sector work.

Sharing Sector Skills Academy Resources
Thofson has found that many of the tools she learned about through the Academy’s workshops have helped her further WDI’s sector work. For example, she is using the Business Value Assessment (BVA) tool presented at the Sector Skills Academy to assess and document her program’s impact to a long-term care facility with which WDI partners.

She also reports that WDI’s Healthcare Academy itself continues to grow. The organization secured state funding to replicate its pre-Certified Nursing Assistant model in two additional communities. In addition, WDI received funding to run an alternative model for pre-Certified Nursing Assistant training, in which the students receive concurrent English language instruction. Thofson is working to develop models for collecting and comparing data from the sites to foster additional learning from the implementation.

Thofson also has been working on furthering WDI’s work in the manufacturing sector, which in southeast Minnesota is tied to partners in western Wisconsin and northeast Iowa. As a result, WDI has begun to work on joint projects involving several businesses in all three regions that cross geographic borders. Moving forward, she plans to continue to expand her work into other sectors in southeast Minnesota, beginning with manufacturing and then service-related jobs, such as truck driving.

The Sector Skills Academy is a fellowship opportunity designed to provide emerging leaders in the sectoral workforce development field with an experiential learning experience, geared toward their present and future work. The Academy consists of three 3-day workshops over a 12-month period that provide participants with mentoring, technical assistance and peer support designed to help them acquire and enhance professional skills. Faculty and mentors are drawn from experienced leaders in the field of sectoral employment development. As a result of participating in the Academy, Fellows are expected to apply the lessons they learn in ways that enhance their work in their chosen sector. The Academy is a program of the Aspen Institute’s Workforce Strategies Initiative and Public/Private Ventures. Major funding is provided by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.