It almost goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a tidal wave, wreaking havoc on our nation, state and local economic wellbeing. We will approach a new year with ongoing challenge for our regional labor market as a result of the widespread business closures, followed by a slow-paced, phased reopening.

As in prior recessions, workers are desperate for some stability. Many are looking to improve their employability through further education. Unlike prior recessions, the workers seeking reentry into the labor market have several new options to arm themselves with specific skills to compete in a post-COVID era. Reskilling and upskilling programs that offer specific skills-based training, can help displaced workers to competitively reenter the labor market.

Reskilling refers to learning a new set of skills or obtaining a credential in a separate field, with the goal of transitioning to a new job or different industry. Upskilling, on the other hand, refers to learning additional skills, enhancing existing abilities, or acquiring new credentials within the same occupational field, with the goal of advancing to a more responsible position, increased wages, and/or a higher degree of stability and protection from lay-offs, while remaining in the same line of work.

In North Central Washington, short-term skills training options are essential. Even prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, employers were searching for workforce training programs to introduce digital skillsets to incumbent workforce to keep up with technology integrations. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology in almost every sector, and has elevated the need for these types of training options to an even greater extent. Almost without exception, digital skilling can improve employee efficiency, productivity, and stability.

Aimed at both COVID-19 economic recovery, and the increasing demand for skilled workforce, the North Central Washington Technology Alliance, formerly GWATA, recently partnered with Microsoft, LinkedIn and GitHub to bring skills-based programs at no cost to the general public. Their resulting ‘Upskill’ platform offers a broad range of training options that meet employees where they are in terms of level and location, and offer on-demand training modules, with foundational digital literacy, digital skills development, soft-skills, and even credential-baring role-based skilling into high-demand career paths. The programs are offered in multiple languages, and they are finding traction with several major employers.

Workers seeking reskilling options will find industry-aligned skilling paths in development with local higher education partners. In Grant County for example, Big Bend Community College (BBCC), and the Grant County Industrial Alliance launched the Data Center Technician program last year with tremendous success. The collaboratively designed program meets the information technology needs for several large area employers, but the skills and competencies strategically embedded in the program design also lend a competitive edge to small, medium and enterprise businesses throughout the region.

In both cases, upskilling and reskilling programs are key to employment and economic stability for the region. Ensuring that these opportunities are available requires formal and sustained collaboration between schools, colleges, and local employers with state and federal support. The local Career Connect Washington North Central Network has emerged as a champion of this effort.

For many, this type of collaboration presents an entirely new way of working together — but if carried out with intentionality, it will result in a brighter future for students, our community and state.

Dr. Gene Sharratt, is a research associate with The Center for Educational Effectiveness and board chair for Education Northwest, a five-state (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana) research consortium. He can be reached at gsharratt@wsu.edu or 509-670-3222.

Dr. Sue Kane is co-director of the Apple STEM Network and a member of the Washington State STEM Education Innovation Alliance. She can be reached at suek@ncesd.org or 509-888-7036.