When we’re young and planning for the future, most of us have just a handful of careers in mind, usually based on the adults around us or what we see on TV. Some dream of being a teacher or a police officer, others dream of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. For Tiffany Gallegos Whitley, she was headed down the law track. Little did she know, her dream job would actually be director of workforce initiatives at Prosper Waco.
Actually, when she was an undergrad student at Baylor University, that job title and organization didn’t even exist yet. But step by step, her life has led her on this road of helping people get quality jobs and helping organizations work together to collectively have a greater impact in the community.
Wacoan writer Heather Garcia sat down with Whitley to discuss her relatively new role at Prosper Waco, how a group of kids she met through Mission Waco wrecked all her plans and what big change is coming for her family in 2022. (hint: It has 10 tiny fingers and 10 tiny toes.)
WACOAN: How long have you been director of workforce initiatives at Prosper Waco?
Whitley: I’ve been at Prosper Waco almost a year and a half. So still fairly new.
WACOAN: What path led you here?
Whitley: To workforce? So, it’s interesting. I actually started working at Mission Waco. I’m a two-time Baylor grad that never left Waco. I came to school, thought I was gonna go to law school, started working at Mission Waco at the youth center and really enjoyed working with the kiddos. Got a feel for what it was like to work at a nonprofit. I still joke to this day — because I still keep in touch with some of my kiddos who are now adults — that they messed up my life plans in the best way possible.
So I took a year off and was trying to explore, getting some more work experience and figuring out what grad school program would be a good fit for me. I actually got to work out of the Baylor School of Social Work for a year with [what is] now the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger & Poverty but was then Texas Hunger Initiative. I took a year to work there and made friends with someone in the recruitment office who told me about social work and said, you like doing the administrative side of nonprofit, you like being in the community, and social work is such a broad field that I think this might be a good fit for you.
I ended up enrolling again at Baylor, doing the Master of Social Work program with the focus in community practice. I got to intern at Grassroots [Community Development], so learning about community organizing, development. It really helped teach me a lot about Waco and the neighborhoods, the opportunities and the challenges that each of our areas face. That led me [to realize] I like Waco, I think I’m gonna stay in Waco, put down roots. Then like any grad student, you graduate and you’re like OK what job opportunities are out there?
So what’s funny is I graduated in 2015 when Prosper Waco first came to fruition. The first meeting that they had, gathering all of these nonprofits, churches, school district, city, county leaders together to say how can we work better together to impact health, financial security and education in our community? It was a really great event, and I thought, Wow this is a collective impact effort, like our city is invested in helping these organizations work better together. Now there’s a team that’s gonna help support our nonprofits to be able to work better together.
I met my [former] boss at this event; she was head of mission at Heart of Texas Goodwill [Industries]. They just so happened to have a job available at their Waco Job Connection, helping folks find and keep employment. I hadn’t really done the workforce development side. I was pretty well connected in the community. And they wanted to do more outreach and learning about how can we better serve our community across the county but also how can we work and partner better with organizations? I thought it was a really good fit. I got in, and I stayed for about five and a half years working at Heart of Texas Goodwill.
So that’s where I got my workforce development experience, and moved up and ended up being their senior development director, overseeing the work there — fund development, so grants, contracts, fundraising, strategic partnerships. That was my wheelhouse.
When COVID hit, Prosper Waco was going through the reorganization. Suzi Paynter March came on board as CEO and was trying to assess what’s currently happening in our space and how can we better reorganize our staff to support the efforts around these three bucket areas that we cover. So I met my now boss in a group meeting of education and workforce leaders to [discuss] what’s currently going on in this space.
A lot of us said, you know, we have these great job training programs, like Mission Waco, Christian Women’s Job Corps, Goodwill. We’ve got employers that want to hire folks that are underemployed or unemployed. And then we have two great higher ed partners, MCC and TSTC, that offer great credentials for folks that aren’t looking to go the traditional two to four year route but could still get trained and placed into high-demand jobs. But there wasn’t anybody in the background coordinating everybody to see, OK here’s your strength, here’s your strength, here’s your strength. How can we streamline our processes and get folks not just trained but also supported and placed into employment? And then what are those common outcomes that we all care about that we’re tracking and need to track better? Like, we care that people get jobs, but what kind of jobs are they getting? Are they able to sustain themselves and their families long-term? Nobody’s really tracking that at the community level.
So they talked about getting a role to coordinate that, and of course my ears perked up, and I thought, you know, that actually would be a really good role for me. It plays to my strengths, and it’s something new and exciting and needed in the community. I know all of the folks in this space, and we’re all saying we want to do more, we just don’t have the bandwidth. We have our own organizations, our own departments to run. So we’re limited in our capacity.
So I jumped on board at Prosper Waco. I essentially said I can eat, sleep and breathe collaboration, so how can we stand up a project that focuses on those high-demand industries that we know that pay well and don’t require a bachelor’s degree, and what are those associated training programs that can get people into those jobs?
We piloted what we call the UpSkill Waco initiative. The intention was to make it a community effort, to not say this is one organization’s project or program, it’s a collective effort among our nonprofits, our higher education institutions and our businesses to get folks skilled, trained and placed and supported into employment.
WACOAN: What kind of training are you offering as part of UpSkill Waco?
Whitley: We looked at advanced manufacturing and health care as our two first industries. They’re big industries, they have a lot of jobs available, a lot of employers, they’re growing industries. It really started with getting a couple of employers in those industries to sit down with our higher ed partners and say, What are your needs? What does that look like if we were to start up a training course in a location that traditionally hasn’t been served? Not everybody can make it to [McLennan Community College] proper or [Texas State Technical College]. And if we’re talking about unemployed and underemployed folks that have a lot of barriers to get into training and successfully completing it, how can we remove some of those barriers?
We worked with TSTC on the manufacturing side, MCC on the health care side, to customize training courses for employers in these two industries, and then the city graciously allowed us to use the community centers at no cost. So we’ve been using [Bledsoe-Miller Community Center] and the Dewey Community Center to actually deliver the trainings there.
Then on the wraparound support side, because the higher ed partners don’t do case management or help with child care systems or any of that, we utilized Goodwill for that piece and then Communities in Schools who works on the youth side. We kind of had everybody; it was plug and play. OK, you do A, we’ll help with the recruitment piece. You’re doing B on the training side, our higher ed partners. And then C on the wraparound support side, all right Goodwill, CIS — go.
From there, we piloted our first course that ended in October, which was a construction core manufacturing course. Then we started a medical office certificate course in December that will actually wrap up at the end of this month. Then we’re going to start tracking those. We have employers coming in and interviewing the students, and our goal for this year is to say, Is this having an impact? Are these folks getting hired? What’s their wage? Are they getting benefits? We want to track them over a period of five to six years.
So these cohorts will be smaller, but we think if we can work out a way to be able to track good and better data utilizing the strengths of our existing workforce partners, we’ll be able to scale it at some point and serve more.
That’s how I got into Prosper Waco, and I’ve stayed there. My first year there was really just building out processes and procedures between these partners and this next year, OK now let’s look at what is our outcome and what is our impact. It’s funny, a social worker that loves workforce development. I think it’s really neat because financial stability is a very important piece of someone’s overall well-being. So that’s where I found my passion, in intersecting social work and business.
WACOAN: What are some things that you’ve learned with this first cohort?
Whitley: Patience. I’m used to co-running a department with staff that you guide, you lead, direct. When you get back into this space of collaborative community work, your partners aren’t your staff, so you can’t necessarily tell them what to do. Some of their goals and their work flows may be a little different. So you’re really trying to meet them where they’re at, knowing that their time isn’t always your time.
You have to be patient and realistic with what the timeline of implementing a project like this would look like. I knew it would probably take about a year, let’s pilot some courses, let’s find some good businesses, let’s work out the logistics.
Me, I’m very action-oriented, and I just want to boom, boom, boom, check it off, let’s do. That’s just not going to work. It’s just that balance of patience and working diligently, deliberately, intentionally toward the outcome we want to see. That’s been a lesson learned on my end.
Also continually communicating with the partners who are actually doing the work. To say, OK is this working? What’s not? What do we need to tweak? Just being open to that feedback and trying to make those tweaks as we go, instead of waiting a year or two from now to say, OK what didn’t work? I’ve learned over the years that continual process improvement is important, just as important as tracking those outcomes that you want to see happen.
WACOAN: How many people were in the first two cohorts?
Whitley: We just have 20. We started small. Our goal for each cohort was between five and six. We actually exceeded five to six in our medical office certificate class, we ended up getting 13 in that one and then 7 for our construction core manufacturing class.
We knew going in we wanted to balance keeping it small and having enough butts in seats so that it’s still worth TSTC and MCC doing. It worked, and once we get those logistics worked out, again more scaling. Could we do something with 10-15 students in the future or do more classes concurrently? There’s always those options.
As much as I want to do and go and try, I also have learned quality is very important. And I think that can sometimes get lost if you try to do too much at once or try to get too many butts in seats at once. And I also care about the clients too. I want to make sure they’re having a good experience, before, during and after the training. We’re really intentional about keeping our — we call them an alumni, so anyone that does an UpSkill training, we’re calling them an alumni — and having this pool of former students we can go back and get feedback from and continuing to get what worked, what didn’t. Just trying to make sure we’re getting feedback from our partners but also from the people we are serving.
WACOAN: How long is an UpSkill course?
Whitley: It depends. We started with more of a rapid workforce track. We define that as in between six to 12 weeks. The core class took about 11 weeks, and the medical office class is about six. They’re evening classes, so really, in theory, if they were during the day, they could get churned out a lot quicker. But most of our folks are working.
Most of our folks are underemployed. They have no postsecondary education or training; they are wanting to get an industry credential in a field that pays higher. That’s been an interesting piece. We were curious if we would get a mixture, what the mixture would look like for unemployed or underemployed, and the majority are underemployed.
WACOAN: There’s been a lot of stories in the national news about large numbers of people resigning their jobs recently. How does Waco compare with what’s happening on a national level?
Whitley: I think it’s trending with what we’re hearing at the national level, that we have jobs and not enough people applying for them. You also have to look at the data though and see — of the people that have left the labor force, there’s actually numbers that show that it’s a lot of our older labor market folks, so like our 55-plus are retiring earlier than they thought. When you look at who is looking for work, we do have a younger labor force that just hasn’t caught up to the folks that are older and leaving.
It’s peeling back that layer, and then also looking at OK, so of the folks that are in the labor force, that are working, what quality jobs do we have here available for them and how can we get them to it? So if we talk about financial security for individuals and their families, then there also has to be the question of what types of jobs are they able to get. And if they’re lower skilled, then how can we provide that pathway so that they’re able to get that type of job?
We talk a lot about job quality. The chamber and the city’s economic development team, they’re really big in pushing incentive packages for businesses that are coming to town, to say, to get city or county money you have to pay at least $15 an hour. What’s interesting is that was not a conversation that was had six years ago when I first came on board in this space. I think if we as a community, especially city, county, folks in the workforce space, employers, really hone in on OK so how can we create quality jobs and then attract folks to those quality jobs is really important.
WACOAN: What is something you’d say Waco needs?
Whitley: This is very much skewed to what I am passionate about, but I really think Waco needs to continue creating quality jobs. It’s not enough to bring businesses in if they don’t pay well or offer benefits for their workers and families. I’ve seen that trend, and our city and county are promoting it through their incentive packages for businesses, and so I’d like to see that continue. Because that’s such a key part, when we talk about Waco has a high poverty rate.
We have folks who struggle to afford health care, housing. Not that income is the end all, be all, there’s a lot of health and other issues that impact someone’s life. But a big piece of that, if you can build financial stability from a good, stable income, I think that’s going to make our community even better. Of my laundry list of things, that’s the one I would hone in on because it impacts a lot of other areas.
WACOAN: What are things you enjoy doing outside of work?
Whitley: I like gardening. I’m a plant person. I’m like a stereotypical millennial plant lady. I’ve got an obscene amount of plants at my house.
I enjoy getting out. I have a 3-year-old, so getting out looks a little different nowadays. But I’ve always enjoyed going out in Waco, whether that’s going to Cameron Park, going kayaking, trying out our breweries downtown, trying out different places to eat. I like going and finding new places in different pockets of neighborhoods. That’s always been fun for me.
I volunteer for the Baylor School of Social Work’s field office. All undergrad and master-level students are required to do internships, so I serve as a field instructor for Baylor interns, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. I’ve been doing that for about five years, and I love it. I supervise them at Prosper Waco, but I also volunteer. I’ve helped supervise interns at Goodwill or other organizations that need a master-level social worker to be the field instructor.
I think it’s a neat way to pour into the next crop of social workers coming into the community. It’s neat to see your students throughout the years as they grow, especially those that stay in Waco and then they go on to do great things. It’s great to see that you can help be a part of that journey.
I think it’s really important, mentoring, giving back. And particularly women, too. I mean social work is primarily female. But I think it’s also, to me, as a woman in leadership, I also want to mentor and guide younger women coming up to be the best leaders that they can be. That’s something I’m really passionate about.
WACOAN: Are you from Waco or did you move here for Baylor?
Whitley: I moved here. I’m actually from Mesquite, Texas. It’s outside of Dallas.
WACOAN: What does your husband do?
Whitley: [Patrick] works for Smith Pump Company. He’s a control panel tech, which is really cool because he helps me articulate, or he makes people think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to some of the industrial systems stuff, like with TSTC. I joke all the time with the TSTC folks, I’m only throwing out these words because my husband told me.
He says my work is [over his head], and I think his work is [over my head]. He has got more of an engineering [mind], can fix anything, good with electrical systems, very hands-on. He’s kind of my industry insider.
It’s a neat balance. We joke that I’m the administrator of the household, and he’s the chief maintenance officer because he can literally fix and build almost anything.
WACOAN: When are you expecting your new addition?
Whitley: Baby Whitley will come July 2022. Wyatt will be 4 by the time this baby comes around. So we’re going back through the newborn phase again. We’re far enough removed that we’ve kind of forgotten some of the early newborn stuff, but not so far removed that we’ve completely forgotten. The first time being pregnant, I didn’t have any other kids, so this time it’s been interesting with my 3-year-old wanting to know, so what’s growing in your belly? OK, I’m gonna be a big brother… I have a lot of feelings about that. Some days he’s excited. Some days he’s like, I want to be your only baby. It’ll be interesting.
WACOAN: It’s the start of a new year. Are you a New Year’s resolution person?
Whitley: I’ve never been consistent. I will say this year, I guess this is also something I do on the side for fun. I do spin cycling.
I am not a workout person. I’d rather eat cheese and drink wine and lounge around. But in July I started [spin cycling]. My coworker invited me, and I got really oddly into it. It’s been the first time that I’ve actually stuck consistently with a workout schedule, and it’s made me feel better physically, mentally. And it is kind of nice when you get that rush of endorphins. It makes my body feel good.
I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, but this year I’m determined, I want to stick with my spin class at Rush Cycle and maintain that consistency because of just what good it’s done for me since I started in July. I want to continue and have a healthier pregnancy this time around.
Those are my New Year’s resolutions. Will I have any next year? Who knows.
WACOAN: Having a 6-month-old, you don’t really need any.
Whitley: I think my New Year’s resolution next year will be, OK my newborn is alive and thriving? OK, cool. We made it. We survived.
Favorite spots in Waco:
Waco Ale Co. That was our place, especially before COVID, our hangout spot for the three of us. We are huge frequenters of Waco Ale.
Our Breakfast Place. We eat and drink a lot. Huevos Rancheros. That is my go-to. That has been one of those things I craved in my first pregnancy, and I’m craving again in my second pregnancy. So they get my money a lot, and they have sustained me.
Tiffany’s 5 Must-Have Items:
1. A book. I’m a big book person. I’m a huge J.R.R. Tolkien nerd. Like, huge nerd. Have read the trilogies multiple times, as well as ‘The Silmarillion,’ multiple times. That has and probably will always be my favorite author and my favorite book series.
2. A plant.
3. A cat. (I’m making myself into a sad cat lady.)
4. A comfy blanket.
5. I love big windows. My ideal serene situation is sitting in a window seat, lots of sunshine, reading a book, surrounded by plants with my cat on me. That’s my sad life, but those are my things I enjoy the most. I’m a simple lady.