Mastering the art of workforce development

October 6, 2008
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Some Americans, especially in border states such as Michigan and Washington, tend of think of Canada as the 51st state.

But back in the 1990s, when it came time for Toronto-born Fiona Hert to put her vote where her mouth was in a local school election, she realized that’s just not true. Although she’d lived in the U.S. since childhood, her Canadian status prevented her from casting a ballot on an issue she felt was important.

Today, 11 years into U.S. citizenship, Hert is passionate about the power of the vote and its ability to give immigrants like herself a sense of attachment to their adopted country.

“I encourage people to feel empowered. I encourage people to developmentally progress to the point where they do become citizens of this country,” said Hert. “Which is not to give up allegiance to their old countries, but to really consider the power of the vote for their own sense of belonging in the community.”

Hert has lived in the East, the West and Alaska, so she refers to her 2004 arrival in Michigan from Washington to join the Grand Rapids Community College administration as the start of “like Picasso — my Midwest period.”

It’s a joke only an art historian like Hert could love.

Hert is GRCC’s dean of the School of Workforce Development, a role which puts her in contact with employers across the area. The school serves 5,100 students in for-credit programs, plus 9,000 to 10,000 per year in non-credit and training classes.

“It is programs from applied technology to welding,” Hert said. “Our health programs are included, our business programs are included, along with our job training.”

The school works with 21 advisory councils representing the industries in which it teaches. Credit classes are taught by full-time GRCC faculty.

FIONA HERT

Company:Grand RapidsCommunity College

Title: Dean, School of Workforce Development

Age: 55

Residence:Ada

Family: Husband, Rick Hert, executive director, West Michigan Tourist Association; one adult son

Business/Community Organizations:West Michigan Regional Alliance, Health Care Regional Skills Alliance, Allied Health Consortium, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Education Committee.

Biggest Career Break: Applying for the associate dean’s position at Grand RapidsCommunity College

“All faculty are required to have — when they are occupationally certified because we are funded by the federal government — a minimum of 4,000 hours in their occupational area. So that’s equivalent to two years in their field. That professional experience is key. It’s real-world experience to bring into the classroom for people to know what that field and what that occupation will entail.”

Hert said the school keeps a close watch on employment trends, and relies on its advisory councils to direct its efforts. Recently the school conducted a training workshop with the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative regarding medical device manufacturing, which represents health care and manufacturing — two areas where the school has been active.

“We hosted 150 people here to talk about ‘What does that look like? What could that look like for us?’ We are looking forward to what those next steps may be to develop a useful curriculum or training for future employees, current students, so they can have current, marketable skills in this changing economy,” Hert said.

“Our mission is to turn out a student who has the skill set, the leadership skills, to be able to be a team player, to be able to go out into the community and be employed and be successful in their career.”

With Michigan’s sour economy and Wall Street fallout hitting Main Street, Hert is encouraging her colleagues and students to think in creative and critical ways.

“How do we teach our students how to think differently?” she asked. “We are working and have been working with the funding with the WIRED initiative around teaching our students how to think differently and innovatively.

“What is that skill set that is necessary for this 21st century that will, as a knowledge worker, help them stand out in their next job? Why will their employer pick them over someone else? What problems will they be able to solve?”

Despite the impending demise of WIRED’s three-year funding cycle, Hert said “there is still considerable interest to see this carried forward and replicated in the future.”

Hert has seen an ailing economy before. That was in Washington, where the dominant timber industry hit the skids back in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I had seen the transition. I have experienced that it is tough, and there are many, many people affected by this in a very negative way,” she said. “I had experience with this first-hand with people who had lost their jobs and were in retraining that were very scared by this and the impact on their lives. The communities, all the services that served people, all of the restaurants that went out of business, the stores that went out of business — you could see it.

“But I love this work. I love the work of workforce development, of trying to train people in employment so they can feel good about themselves and their lives. It’s very rewarding.”

Hert is eons away from the art history degree that left her father wondering how she would support herself. The daughter of Scottish immigrants to Canada, Hert grew up with her sister Nancy in Montreal. When Hert was 12, her father bought a heavy equipment franchise and moved the family to Providence, R.I. After high school, Hert earned her art history degree from New York University.

“I lived in New York City. I absolutely loved it,” she said. “Then I went on a wild adventure up to Alaska, and I lived up there a couple of years.”

Hert worked on a Ford Foundation project at a “native and non-native” art center. “We had a gallery. We had a work center in four disciplines. We sold art. We did fundraisers. We did everything,” she recalled. “It was a dream come true.”

After several years, Hert grew weary of the early dark of cold winter days and the vastness of Alaska that required the frequent use of airplanes. She moved farther south on the West Coast to Washington, working for a university and for a hotel developer.

“My father used to say to me, ‘Good luck making a career out of art history.’ I am very glad I have that liberal arts background to assist me in some of the work that I do,” Hert said. “The worker out in the future, he or she does need to be able to write, he or she does need to have critical thinking. There's a richness about having a variety of things that you bring to the table as an employee.”

Eventually Hert married, settled in Port Angelus 90 miles from Seattle, and had a son. When the University of Washington and a Native American tribe combined to offer social work classes in Port Angelus, Hert said it was an offer she couldn’t refuse. “They were looking for people to try it out. I said, ‘OK, nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ Two years and 100 Saturdays later, I finished up the master’s program.”

Hert spent the next years teaching, and her professional social work with families eventually led her to workforce development, particularly in marine trades, construction and health care in a community that mirrors West Michigan in at least one important way.

“I came from a community where I’d lived for 23 years, and I knew a lot of people,” Hert said. “If I didn't know them exactly, I knew somebody else who probably did. And that’s the way we tend to get things done: making a phone call, calling somebody up and saying, ‘What do you think about this; can we get together and talk about this.”

Hert’s husband, Rick, came to West Michigan first, taking a job as executive director of the West Michigan Tourist Association. She had a job she loved as regional manager of the Northwest Services Council, but began to look for an opportunity in Grand Rapids. She remembers the moment she read the job description for associate dean at GRCC’s School of Workforce Development.

“I was sitting at my desk in my home in Port Angelus, Washington. I said, ‘This job is incredibly perfect. … That was one of those times when I said ‘This fits, this is just me. So for me, there was a high level of confidence in saying I feel impassioned about this work, and I feel like I bring a skill set, and I’d love to have the opportunity to bring that skill set to GRCC.”

Hert joined the college as associate dean in 2004. In May, she was named dean to replace the retired Judy Stark. Hert said that as an administrative leader, she tries to keep her eyes on the ship’s course and to support her crew.

“As a leader, know your team, know your posse, and treat them well,” she said. “I believe there is some sense of multiplication that occurs in that. And if you do this well, there will be other people down the road you’ll be connected to. In some way, it will come back to you.”

Hert, who was named for the daughter of her father’s close friend, said she’s an active tennis player. She and her sister, who lives in Boston, own a waterfront house in Rhode Island where they spent summers with her parents. Hert said she enjoys exploring Michigan with her husband and loves to travel.

“As my husband will tell you, when I travel, I will find out where the galleries and museums are and that's what gets me going. Some people go for the food; I go for the art. It’s a lifelong interest of mine and I don’t imagine it will go away,” she said.

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