The Horse Whisperer Goes to Washington

By Bridget Brown & Ellen Weaver Paquette

Who actually influences policy and budget decisions that control or constrain community agencies, schools and assorted non-profits? Wouldn't it be nice to find that person and tell them exactly what you really need to do your job wisely and well as a career practitioner? In fact, the person who greeted you in the mirror this morning IS that person - the person who you need to motivate.

Elected officials rely upon "field observers" to get a clear picture of what really happens outside the D.C. Beltway. They cannot know the ramifications of federal policies (or lack thereof) in affected areas unless someone articulates it for them. Career counselors have an interest in economic development, as they well know the causal relationship between work and self esteem. Economic development is also a "hot button" for legislators. So research your facts, put them in context with the legislator's priorities (not merely your personal viewpoint) and you just might get attention.

The tricky part is figuring out what steps to take to get the attention of decision-makers and how to utilize your strengths to make a difference. As career counselors, we have the facility to bring different points of view into the political arena and to see the ramifications of choices, both short-term and long-term. We use these very skills in job development with clients and employers. So here are three steps to get you started in being the most effective advocate for your program and clients.

First step: Define specific problems and potential solutions

Let's say that you are employed at a local outreach center funded through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). As a career counselor, you work with at-risk youth who do not see the relevance of their high school studies and are threatening to drop out of school. You have worked with them successfully to identify their career interests and link those interests to their academic subjects. However, because of federal budget cuts, resources are being diverted from your program to fund another program, and your program may have to close. Obviously, the short-term solution is to get more funding. A longer-term solution may be to influence the budget legislation to ensure that adequate funds are directed toward at-risk youth. This issue is larger than any one school, one agency, or one district. Learn how much it actually will cost to make a difference, and work closely with employers in your area, encouraging them to be your spokespeople.

Second step: Identify decision-makers

In the job search world, it is the employer who makes the ultimate decision to hire or not hire. But in the case of government funding, there are multiple decision-makers at the local, state, and national level who influence whether or not your program survives. At the national level, funding for education and workforce programs are determined by members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee - specifically the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Services (go to: http://appropriations.house.gov/ and http://appropriations.senate.gov/). For a long-term solution, also approach members of the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee (http://help.senate.gov/) or the House Education and the Workforce Committee (http://edworkforce.house.gov/). If your own legislators aren't on these key committees, you can still contact their offices and ask them to intercede in your behalf with colleagues who are. Congressional staffers are often overworked, so be sure to offer to help with the research and the legwork. It will be appreciated!

Third Step: Make your case

Develop your argument the same way you build a resume: What are the strengths of your program? What activities do you conduct with your clients? What successes have you seen? What would happen if your efforts were curtailed? It helps to understand what your legislators' "hot buttons" are. Just as you have to work with clients to determine whether a functional or chronological resume is best, you should determine what argument works best with your legislator. Should you make an economic case for your program (e.g., lower dropout rates mean lower health care costs)? Or would they respond more favorably to a personal interest approach? Shape your argument around what the decision-makers' natural inclinations are, more than your own - like the "horse-whisperer" who tames unruly steeds by adopting a sympathetic view of the horse's motives, needs, and desires.

While this may appear to be overwhelming, don't feel that you have to do it alone. What we tell our clients when they are exploring new career opportunities is to network. The same is true for advocacy. Think about your natural allies: clients, parents, school officials, and local officials. Would they be willing to contact decision-makers along with you? The more, and the more diverse types, of individuals and organizations who advocate on your behalf, the more likely you are to get a decision-maker's attention and potentially save your program. Even if you don't get everything you request, you will solidify your role in the community and enhance alliances at the local and state level.

Finally, be sure to sign up for the Legislative Listserv  (by contacting Bridget Brown), which will provide timely information on federal initiatives impacting career development.


Ellen Weaver Paquette, MA, CAGS has taught graduate courses in career development for twenty years while working in career services. She is a GCDF Master Trainer and a Distance Certified Counselor. Ellen may be reached at: CareersbyEllen@gmail.com


Bridget Brown was the Executive Director of America's Career Resource Network Association and now serves as chair of NCDA's Government Relations Committee. Bridget can be reached at bridget@nawdp.org

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