Blue Stone Insights

Building Stronger Tribal Economies Part III: Workforce Development
Dr. Alexandria Wright
July 19, 2021

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"Building Stronger Tribal Economies"

In the landscape of economic and community development, building a broad Tribal workforce is fundamental to ensuring prosperity and strengthening Tribal sovereignty.  A workforce provides the building blocks upon which economies stand—it is people and their talent that create resilient and sustainable economies.  In indigenous communities, knowledge passed on generationally is at the core of education. Maintaining this knowledge base is essential to holistic community development.  This core is enhanced by non-traditional education in formal academic fields of study and through vocational training.  In the modern era, independence of any sort is grounded in economicindependence, and the bedrock of economic independence is a healthy and educated workforce.

Education comes in different forms such as traditional and cultural knowledge, college and university degrees, graduate school, vocational certificates and apprenticeships, and entrepreneurial training.  The workforce development piece of education can begin in high school with student internships, however, the bulk of development needed for productive economies occurs at the post-secondary level: college, university, apprenticeship programs that occur after 12th grade.

There are three primary tenants found in post-secondary education: Access, Student Success, and Success After Completion.  Embracing these concepts and contextualizing them to your community can help Tribal Nations strategically plan for building a local workforce.  What does access look like in your community?  How do we support student success? What defines success after completion?  These are the questions every community must ask themselves when creating their workforce development strategy.


Once a community has decided what fields of study are in demand for their region, they can begin to address how and when education will be delivered.  In order to build a strong workforce, Tribal Nations must make education and training accessible to their communities.  Accessibility is how, when, and where classes are offered. Different students require different standards of accessibility. Non-traditional students, like those that may have full-time jobs or are returning to the workforce after caring for elders or child-rearing, require various options for learning including evening and weekend courses, and online classes.  Determining how and when learning is delivered is a meaningful part of the process in ensuring educational resources are available to the different types of students in your community.

Communities can enhance existing elements of higher education already available on Tribal lands by conducting an educational gap analysis that identifies fields of study still in need. Partnering with local community colleges and state institutes can allow a Tribe to provide the identified certificates and degrees and to do so in the fields identified by Tribal communities using various delivery methods (in-person, online, or hybrid). Tribal governments can also start apprenticeship programs that combine formal education with paid, on-the-job training.  Apprenticeships have been proven to substantially increase access to education and training for non-traditional students by allowing them to earn income while learning.

Student Success

At its heart, student success means that all students successfully complete their education or training program.  What does this look like in your community and what resources are needed to achieve this?

Research has shown that integrating work-based learning into educational programs increases cognitive understanding and the applied experience connects learners with greater opportunity when they complete their program.  Work-based learning programs can include short internship programs, guest speakers, apprenticeship programs, or any type of activity that provides students with hands-on experience.  Here again, Tribal governments can significantly increase the number of opportunities available for students by partnering with educational institutes that provide this work-based learning experience.  These types of programs specifically build skills in administrative, maintenance, and operational work—areas Tribal governments often employ, thus assisting Tribal governments in planning for future workforce needs and replacement of talent as workers retire.

Success after Completion

Success after completion is a newer way of thinking about the effectiveness of post-secondary education available to students, recognizing that the fields of study offered by post-secondary institutes over the past few decades have not always matched job demand.  Success after completion means that upon graduation, students are qualified for the jobs in their local region and are able to obtain employment.  In order to deliver on this third tenant, communities need to ensure that education and training programs match the available or emerging jobs in the area.

Each Tribe has its own unique environment and workforce needs, though, there are some commonalities that span all communities.  Tribal communities, at a minimum, require skills in public administration, grant writing and management, entrepreneurship, farming and resource management, finance and business administration, and water resources/utilities.   Developing Tribally-owned educational institutes or partnering with local community colleges and universities can help provide the educational resources needed to sustain a viable economy on Tribal lands.   Additionally, federally-sponsored One-Stops, now called AJCs (America’s Job Centers), can offer Tribal members access to subsidized educational programs listed on their ETPL sites and provide paid on-the-job training opportunities for Tribal members in Tribal governments.  For additional details on these programs visit your local Workforce Development Board site.

A strong Tribal economy is grounded in a healthy workforce.  Investment in people is the most important element of economic independence and further sovereign governance.  The people are the essence of Tribal sovereignty, and that foundation must be cared for and fostered generationally in order to achieve economic independence and strengthen sovereignty into the future.

If your Tribe is seeking assistance with workforce development planning, including gap analyses and structured apprenticeship programs, please contact Blue Stone today.