Local lobbyist leads national legislative committee

Vancouver-based workforce development leader Tim Probst pushes for public awareness

Tim Probst has been Chief Executive Officer of the Washington Workforce Association, the organization representing all of the workforce development councils throughout the state, since 1998. Probst came to Washington from the office of former Illinois governor Jim Edgar, where he oversaw the $1 billion state Medicaid budget and advised Gov. Edgar on welfare reform policy.

Probst has a bachelor’s degree from University of Notre Dame and studied politics and economics in Austria.
Probst was named chair of the National Workforce Association’s legislative committee in December 2005, having served on the NWA’s board since 2004. In his newly appointed role, Probst is focused on raising awareness of the importance of a skilled workforce and pushing reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act through Congress.

In an interview with the Vancouver Business Journal, Probst discussed workforce development issues affecting businesses across the state and country.

VBJ: Describe your roles as CEO of the Washington Workforce Association and chair of the National Workforce Association’s legislative committee.
Tim Probst: At the Washington Workforce Association, we work for a skilled workforce. And the main issue we are working on this year is helping the public to understand that a skilled workforce is not just a nice little thing, but it is our economic future and our major economic asset.

The National Workforce Association basically does the same thing that the WWA does at the national level. As chairman of the legislative committee I am working to promote all of the main issues we are chasing, but again, the bottom line becomes public awareness far more than bills passing or not passing. The more the public understands and calls for strong workforce development programs the more we will see the government responding. South Korea produces as many engineers as the U.S. does, and China and India are taking great strides in investing in their workforce. The U.S. is sitting on its heels compared to those countries.

VBJ: What is the status of reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act?
TP: There are a series of really good reforms built into the Workforce Investment Act reauthorization. The House and Senate are stuck on a completely non-related issue called charitable choice. The House has added some language that says if you are receiving funds from the WIA as a training and placement contractor and you are a faith-based organization that you can elect to hire only people of your own faith. It really seems to have Congress at loggerheads when they have basically reached compromise on the substantive pieces of the bill. Because of that issue it probably is not going to move through the congress for another year.

VBJ: What led to your appointment to chair of the NWA’s legislative committee?
TP: Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are major champions of workforce development. They both have been pushing the Senate to pay attention to this issue and make sensible changes to the existing programs. It is an issue I care a lot about, because it really is where social issues and economic issues intersect. You can help the business community and help a lot of individuals get secure jobs and better jobs than they used to have. Helping people get jobs has a direct effect on their lives and sends a ripple effect through the economy.

VBJ: What are the greatest workforce development challenges?
TP: On the workers’ side, they are going to have a harder time finding the good jobs that keep them in the middle class, unless they have training for those specialized skills. Workers need to know that your skills and your ability to gain new skills and adapt throughout your lifetime are going to determine your economic future.

The greatest challenge is to businesses right now. They have to have a skilled workforce to compete. We are in a global economy where we are not going to win based on cost; we are going to win based on quality and innovation. And for that we need really highly skilled workers, and not just from the college level. We need skilled technicians and machine operators, and our society still needs to adjust to that so that we have a system that is providing a skilled workforce.

VBJ: What is being done to improve on-the-job training?
TP: Reauthorization of the WIA gives us better flexibility to provide incumbent worker training. Right now we can’t use most of our funding for that purpose. It’s harder to provide for small and mid-sized businesses because of the current law, which requires a dollar-for-dollar business match. And we find that that means we are usually helping the bigger businesses. Small businesses oftentimes can’t do that, and yet small businesses oftentimes need it the most and also could benefit the local workforce the most.

Incumbent worker training helps prevent layoffs and keep businesses here competitive, open, growing and hiring more people. Current law is designed to help after a layoff occurs. If we know a layoff is going to occur, the law isn’t flexible enough to allow us to prevent it. We would rather take care of it before the layoff ever occurs.

VBJ: What are your initiatives going forward?
TP: It’s critical that we understand where the real opportunities are for individuals to have long-term jobs that are not going to disappear in the next few years and make sure we are focusing our resources on getting people into those jobs.

We need to be able to respond to what the industry skills panels (ISPs) tell us. Washington has over 40 ISPs that work with the local leaders of an industry sector to identify occupations we are having a hard time filling and what occupational skills are missing from the local workforce. Right now we get siloed funding for specific purposes.

Oftentimes the industries tell us they need something else. We would like to see a local, flexible pot of money to respond to those industry leaders. It’s a locally driven approach. Clark County’s economy isn’t like the economy of Ferry County in northeastern Washington, so we both need different approaches for developing our workforce.

We work really closely with the economic development councils. If our workforce strategies and our economic strategies are aligned then everybody wins.

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