Daryl Bassett was named to lead the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services in December 2014 after the election of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Bassett formerly worked as division chief for the Department of Workforce Services, served as workforce services liaison for Gov. Mike Huckabee from 1999 to 2001, and served on the state Public Service Commission from 2001 to 2010.
As DWS Director, Bassett leads one of the state’s largest agencies with an annual budget of $1.7 billion – a significant portion coming from federal workforce programs.
He recently sat down with Talk Business & Politics Business Editor Wesley Brown and talked about his plans for restructuring the agency to be more responsive to the business community and the needs of the Arkansas workforce.
TB&P: You were one of Gov. Hutchinson’s first hires to lead his administration. Tell us about your early conversations with the governor and what he asked of you as director of the state department of workforce development.
Daryl Bassett: When the governor asked me to come over to DWS, one of things he told me was that he was going to put an emphasis on workforce development. To do that, he said: “We need get out in front of the issues, and we are going to be asking a whole lot of questions.” So, what I want is accountability, transparency and deliverables, clear deliverables.
He said, “Can you make that happen?” I said, “Absolutely, if that is the direction you want me to go.”
So, when we came in, those are the things we wanted to look at: How can we make the agency more accountable? How can we make the agency more transparent? And how could we look at our contractual obligations and include in those obligations ‘hard deliverables’ so we know where the taxpayer’s money was going?
Workforce development is really economic development – that’s what we are talking about. We’ve had a paradigm shift here. There was once a time, back during the Huckabee administration, when the Department of Workforce Services came into being in 1996 and 1997, we were all talking about finding jobs for people. Now, we are finding people for jobs … and that means we’ve got to have skilled people.
TB&P: What are some of things that you have identified in the first 6 months on the job that immediately needed to be looked at and changed?
Bassett: Internally, one of the first things that we did was take a look at all of contracts and memorandums of understandings that we had out there with either other agencies and outside vendors. I wanted to review those contracts to determine just what kind of deliverables were included in those contracts, how accountable were we holding our vendors, and if we had performance measures in there.
In the end, we have to have performance-based contracts. We have to reward people and vendors on how they are producing. To the extent that we are able to hold them accountable. That sends a clear message to the business community that we are operating under the same principles as they are.
It makes it much easier then to go to the Chambers of Commerce and the business community and say we need you to be an active partner with us in our workforce development efforts. We are trying to put some of the same mechanisms in place that the business community operates under.
Having done that, I am seeing a tremendous increase in the level of support from the business community. There is still some level of hesitation because they don’t know how far we are willing to go in the areas of accountability because of past (non-performance), but they are willing to meet us halfway – and that is all we need.
Externally, we have reached out to every chamber of commerce in the state and the State Chamber of Commerce and let them know we are open for business.
TB&P: As the agency evolves, what are you doing to better market the myriad of services that the Department of Workforce Services offers – from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and unemployment insurance services to job training and career readiness services?
Bassett: We haven’t done as good of job in the past of shaping our message to everyday Arkansans. The ‘silver lining’ there is that infrastructure for communicating that message is already in place to do that, but we haven’t done a good job in the past of selling ourselves.
For example, over the last 45 days, we have brought in $7 million in grants that are going to be targeted for workforce services, job training in manufacturing, IT and healthcare. We have a re-employment services grant that we need to promote and tell people about what we do.
The bottom line is this: We have got to re-shape that image because the big loser is the Arkansan who needs those services. We have kind of hidden (our story) and we have to let it out. We are going to take the opportunity to promote and let people know what is available here in workforce services.
Just in the last three years, we’ve done more than 65,000 career readiness certificates and businesses need to know that. We’ve helped over 46,000 businesses through our job training program over the last four or five years. These are the kinds of services that people don’t know that we have.
You are going to see in the next few months a re-branding of our agency and more openness to the business community because that is our logical partner. If we don’t have good relations with the business community, we are not going to be able to provide the jobs that we need in order to affect the lives of Arkansans.
TB&P: Since you replaced longtime DWS Director Artee Williams, who served under both the Huckabee and Beebe administrations, how has the transition gone in reshaping with a new philosophy under the Hutchinson administration?
Bassett: The transition has been relatively smooth. Most of the people that I have here are professionals and most of them have gone through several directors. They understand there is a learning curve. A new director is going to have a new way of doing things, but they are adapting well.
I have retained all the principal members of the staff because they possess institutional knowledge that I need, but they have been consummate professionals. The transition from a personnel standpoint has been relatively easy. I have not encountered any problems or reluctance to put in place any initiatives that I want to put forward.
TB&P: Short-term, what is your vision for what the Department of Workforce Services will look like after your first two years as director of the agency?
Bassett: Initially, what I would like to do is create a workforce development system that will be an agency where we’ll be, in the next several months, the depository for all workforce development information. We want to provide the business community and our citizens a one-stop shop. Anything that has to do with workforce development, they will come to us or our website – and it’s there.
Secondly, I would like to move toward a completely automated unemployment insurance system, where there won’t actually be a need for someone to come into workforce centers and ever apply for workforce insurance again. The only reason they would come to any office would be for some specific question they couldn’t find an answer online.
There would no more unemployment lines. There would be no more going out to the unemployment center (in Little Rock) and see people lined up around the corner.
Lastly, I would like to have a new accounting system that incorporates all of our programs and links all of our systems together. We now have multiple (accounting) systems functioning within one agency. I can’t hold one system more accountable than I can (with) multiple systems.
Those are my short term goals for the first two years.
TB&P: In the past, there have been situations where employers have said that they could not find the skilled workers they need to fill a particular position or several positions. When will Arkansas be able to say we will have the workforce to compete for any job, including the announcement later this summer for the Joint Light Vehicle Project in Camden?
Bassett: I am going to shock you. I think we are there, I think we are past there. We have that ability right now, but what we have not had is effective collaboration between all of the partners that can provide those jobs or the service to develop the skills needed for any job.
We have the people, but we have not collaborated between Workforce Service, Career Education, Higher Education, K-12 – we have not been talking. So because we have not been talking, we have been looking for people and resources, but we have not turned over enough dirt. It’s just like going to Murfreesboro, there’s diamonds there – but you don’t just see them when you go out and look on the ground. You have to do a little bit of digging. But they are there, and they are here in Arkansas.
We can provide workers for virtually any industry that wants to come to Arkansas with enough time and notice. We have sent people (from DWS) down to talk with Lockheed Martin officials in Camden about our workforce certificate program, which they didn’t know anything about. That tells a business that once this person goes through the program, they are ready to go to work for a certain period at a certain level – gold, platinum and all the way down.
If they want welders, we have programs all over the state. If they need X number of welders, we should have an open dialogue with workforce services and our two-year colleges, which have welding programs across the state.
We have the ability and infrastructure, but again we have not done a very good job in the past of working as a team. The governor has brought his entire cabinet together to talk about these things, so that we don’t operate in silos. So clearly, he understands where we need to go.