Sarah Labadie is a Senior Policy Associate at Women Employed. In the interview below, Sarah shares her take on job-driven financial aid as a pathway to success and what she’s learned from her work in the field.
Tell us a little about your professional background and how you came to focus on workforce development?
I have a Bachelor Degree in Communication from Cornell University and had initially planned to work in public relations. But I spent a year teaching in Honduras and returned to the United States with a new goal: to make a difference in people's lives. Teaching was not my path (although it did give me an appreciation for the incredible work teachers do) so I looked for opportunities in nonprofit organizations. I joined Women Employed in 2008 as a program coordinator working with the education and training team and quickly figured out that I wanted to focus on transforming policy in the state. WE has been crafting and improving workforce development policies since well before I joined and I was thrilled to help give more women--and men--the opportunity to reach their education and career goals.
When did you first get involved with NSC and why?
Women Employed has been involved with NSC for a long time, but my first real introduction to the organization was in 2010, I believe, when I attended my first Skills Summit. I was familiar with NSC's great work--at the time, I was referencing NSC policy briefs and and participating in webinars--but seeing the team in action and connecting with people and organizations doing great work in Illinois and beyond gave me a different appreciation for NSC's role.
Can you tell us about your efforts with Women Employed?
Women Employed mobilizes people and organizations to expand education and employment opportunities for working women. With regard to workforce development, that means everything from improving state policies around career pathways to increasing state funding for financial aid to developing new high school equivalency options. Right now, we are focused on passing a budget in Illinois. The state has not had a fully-funded budget for 18 months now and that has meant no funding for our public colleges and universities or for the Monetary Award Program (MAP), Illinois' need-based financial aid grant. We are also helping define career pathways for the whole state, as WIOA implementation moves forward and we see a need to ensure everyone in the state is working with the same language.
Why is job-driven financial aid critical to Women Employed’s mission of expanding educational and employment opportunities for working women?
Many working women need more education to move up the career ladder or into careers they want, but don't have the money to start or return to college. They may also have to balance work with school and other responsibilities, so attending full time is often challenging or downright impossible. We fought for and won financial aid for less-than-half-time students in Illinois to ensure that working women taking one class would be eligible for financial aid. The next step is to ensure that those who are seeking short-term training are able to pay for it using financial aid.
What do you feel has been your most meaningful accomplishment during your time at Women Employed?
WE has accomplished a lot in the time I've been there, from passing paid sick days in Chicago and Cook County to creating Career Foundations, a curriculum for adult education students that helps explore careers, identify a best fit, and create an education plan to reach that career. But two pieces stand out for me personally. The first is defensive. We have protected eligibility and, to a lesser degree, funding for MAP. And once a budget is in place, the policy behind MAP is strong. The second is being part of the task force that approved all three high school equivalency tests and is moving toward alternatives to assessments. Hopefully this work will result in more students receiving high-quality credentials and degrees.
National Skills Coalition recently released a series of scans and toolkits for policymakers and advocates to advance a skills equity agenda in their state. For more on Job-Driven Financial Aid, take a look at our Policy Scan, Policy Toolkit and Toolkit Summary.