A new voice at 'the Fed'
PacMtn CEO shines light on rural economies for Federal Reserve Bank board
Cheryl Fambles (left) joined the board at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Seattle Branch earlier this year. She says she was tapped because of her workforce expertise, having headed Pacific Mountain Workforce as its CEO since 2012.
Photo by Arnie Aurellano
When the call came, Cheryl Fambles was surprised.
Several weeks earlier, she had a long conversation with a representative from the Seattle branch of Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco about some of the challenges around workforce issues.
“They wanted to know what the region here is like, and about the different business sectors and specifics about the population,” says Fambles, CEO of Pacific Mountain Workforce.
“I thought they were doing some research for an article.”
Instead, two weeks later, she was invited to meet the bank president.
“She said they were looking to add someone like myself to the Seattle branch board of directors,” says Fambles. “It was not solicited and not something I even considered doing, until it presented itself.”
She accepted the invitation, beginning her two-year tenure on Jan. 1st. The role primarily consists of providing perspective and recommendations on issues pertinent to the bank, such as what interest and deposit rates should be and related monetary policy issues that the financial institution is responsible for.
“We get a very focused set of monthly questions and have discussions about them,” she says. “The conversation gets richer the more perspectives are added. Every month, we make recommendations. The Fed Bank staff wrap it all together and form some kind of conclusion.”
As she attended her first meetings, she learned why they wanted her on the board of directors.
“The Federal Reserve is interested in making sure we get to full employment,” she says. “They thought it would be useful to have someone with workforce expertise. I’ve also learned that many of the prior Seattle branch directors were from the northern urban areas or the eastern Washington rural areas.
“We have a very complicated economy, and there are things happening in western Washington rural areas that the Fed is interested in learning more about. I’m no expert, but coming from the southern part of the state and a strong rural economy, I know something about those issues.”
Her connections to diverse sectors of the community were also important.
“Workforce councils are natural conveners,” says Fambles. “We have our fingers in a lot of places, so in that sense, I was an efficient pick.”
The appointment provides an opportunity to tell the story of what’s happening in those rural areas, says Fambles, citing the fact that, although the national unemployment rate has dropped below 5 percent, it remains close to 8 percent in three out of the five counties that her agency, PacMtn, covers.
“We’ve still got people who are desperate to find work and we don’t have enough jobs. And for some of the jobs, we don’t have right skill sets,” she says. “We have to understand that, and figure out how the economy can work for everyone, if we’re going to move the country forward.”
The board appointment also represents a step toward achieving a long term goal for Fambles.
“When I first took the job with PacMtn, one of my major goals was moving the PacMtn Council to greater connection and integration with both the economy and our economic development partners,” she says. “There’s some confusion about workforce being more social services-oriented, but our work contributes to economic development. We’re developing the labor needed by business and industry. They needed to learn more about us and we needed to learn more about them.”
Four years later, she’s found herself sitting around a table with the treasurer of Starbucks, CEO of Avista Corporation, and a vice president of Key Bank, discussing what’s happening in all of their respective worlds.
“That’s a pretty big ‘check the box,’ ” says Fambles. “On behalf of all of workforce, I get to hear what business and industry is saying and take that back to shape the thinking in our area. It’s a tremendous honor and incredibly humbling.”
She’s been happily surprised to see how much of the conversation is focused on questions of how to upscale and increase the number of people in the workforce.
“In all of the industries, that’s what everyone is talking about,” she says. “Originally, I was kind of intimidated because many of them are business moguls, financial wizards and (academics) – Would I be able to follow the conversation?
“But a lot of what they’re talking about are concerns around being able to find the kinds of workers to do the jobs that need to be done.”
At the end of her orientation to the board, Fambles was impressed by bank President John Williams’ explanation of their role.
“He was very encouraging,” she says. “He asked us to think about how we could help them do their jobs better. They have all of these Ph.D.s and brainiac types, but there was humility in his pitch. He told us, ‘We don’t know certain things, and you’re our access into those areas.’ I was really moved by that acknowledgment.”
She hopes that her participation results in a deeper understanding of what can be done to close the economic gap for rural economies.
“I want to look at what we’re going to need to do to at least get them on par with the rest of the country,” she says. “What will it take? What are some ideas that can be driven by financial institutions? What specific investments could help close those gaps. If we do that, our region is a winner.”
Although it’s been less than a month since she joined the board, the experience has already changed how she operates at PacMtn.
“I set up my own ‘campfire cabinet’ and monthly, I ask them to think about certain things in their business and their observations about the economy,” she says. “Those conversations have been very enlightening. It’s strengthened my ability to do my job better.”