Cross-sector collaborations spur economic vitality


What does a healthy community mean to you? Certainly access to health care, opportunities to enjoy recreation, education, culture and civic life. What else?

According to Nancy Jordan, executive director of the Bellingham/Whatcom Economic Development Council, a healthy community includes economic development, a series of activities that assist in creating and supporting a vital community: creating and attracting new businesses, retaining existing industries, and meeting the service and product needs of the local community.


“Crushing need” for workers

All those activities depend on a workforce that can get that work done. The Northwest Workforce Development Council (NWDC) has taken a cross-sector approach to developing the pool of workers willing—and very importantly, able—to help large and small employers succeed.

“We have a crushing need for workers,” said Terri Briant Booth, executive director of the nonprofit Visiting Nurse Home Care, an agency that helps older adults live at home longer by providing assistance with day-to-day activities such as cleaning and shopping, in addition to nursing care.

According to a report by the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University found at, health care makes up nearly 11 percent of total employment in Whatcom County (about 1 percent higher than state average), nearly 7,600 workers from entry level to professional. CEBR researchers also note that health care is growing on par with the rest of the county’s economy. But the role of the industry to the local economy depends on finding the right people.

“We coordinate several industry panels to connect businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions, and government agencies around the common goal of meeting the workforce demands of business and industry,” said Gary Smith, NWDC regional manager. For example, the Northwest Alliance for Health Care Skills (NW Alliance), developed in 2001, is composed of NWDC, all major healthcare employers from a four-county region, three colleges, labor, and the Whatcom County’s Tech Prep consortium representing K-12 education.

Describing the need for developing interest and skills in the health-care industry, Visiting Nurse’s Briant Booth said, “Visiting Nurse is unionized, with full benefits starting at 20 hours per week. But we still have high turnover, in part because the average age of our employees is 50, and many people are simply retiring out of the profession.”

Responding to such needs, NWDC’s cross-sector collaborations are helping to expose new workers to both the economic and personal rewards of health-care careers. In seven years, the NW Alliance generated nearly $5.6 million in public and industry support to develop training and resources in high-demand careers such as nursing, radiology technology, medical assistance, and more. Partnerships have led to new educational tracks and resources at Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College, and other educational institutions in the Puget Sound area.


Connecting younger workers to high-demand jobs

Another NWDC promising practice is their Youth Council, a policy advisory committee that focuses on effective strategies such as Youth Camps for serving secondary-school students and high- school dropouts.

“Since 2004 our Youth Camps have exposed youth 16-21 to different career opportunities in the health care sector,” said Rafeeka Gafoor, regional business services manager for the Northwest Workforce Development Council (NWDC). Camps take place the week after school gets out in the summer. Youth Camps are one-week, hands-on experiences. Experts in industry talk with youth about the industry, and join them on field trips to medical facilities, to see what it means to work in that environment. “There are a lot more options out there than a lot of kids think of: medical billing, administrative, technical, clinical,” Gafoor said. After camp, NWDC connects youth with internship opportunities.

Youth learn about what kinds of classes they should take in the last year or two of high school to prepare,” said Gafoor. “Young people who show interest and promise are being recruited for employment straight out of the camps and internships,” Gafoor said.


Economic vitality depends on collaborative leadership

Efforts to develop the workforce for Whatcom County’s health-care industry are just one example of cross-sector collaborations that support the community’s economic health. In cross-border trade, the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce is building on its success with the BESTT Coalition (Business for Economic Security, Tourism and Trade), which this year helped postpone implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, and led to enhanced drivers’ licenses that can be used instead of passports.

“I’ve never been a part of a such a successful effort,” said Ken Oplinger, chamber president and CEO, as he described the coalition that united local governments and business interests to use academic research to advocate at local and national levels. “Now the coalition is working with Homeland Security to keep trucking into and out of the U.S. running quickly and efficiently.”

Likewise, Whatcom County’s small businesses are being supported through a new cross-sector partnership to connect workers with health-insurance options. The Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Access is working with the Economic Development Council (EDC), Western Washington University Small Business Development Center (SBDC), and various community stakeholders to develop the Small Business Health Insurance Connection program. “Employees who have good benefit packages many times feel secure so they stay longer and there is more of a commitment,” says the EDC’s Jordan. “But many small businesses wear so many hats that they can’t be expected to be experts on health insurance.” Staff at WAHA, a nonprofit supported by many public and private sources, screen employees and advise them on current insurance options. In the future, specific products for small businesses may be available.

Developing the local workforce, ensuring cross-border trade, and providing health-insurance options for small-business workers are just a few examples of promising practices in cross-sector collaborations. Leadership Whatcom, a 10-month community-based leadership program that develops cross-sector collaboration, is accepting applications for its 2008-2009 class through June 30. A public reception is being held March 22 to learn more about the program.


Elizabeth Jennings is executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Healthy Communities.

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