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This page offers all of Delaware Public Media's ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it is affecting the First State. Check here regularly for the latest new and information.

Job training funded by COVID relief money touches multiple industries

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A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are starting to see how some efforts to help people hit hard economically are faring.

One example is Forward Delaware, a broad training program to help people laid off during the pandemic pivot to a new career.

It wraps up this month and contributor Larry Nagengast looks at what it‘s accomplished since rolling out in August

Forward Delaware, a broad training initiative designed to help workers laid off by the pandemic find new career opportunities, wraps up this month, putting at least 1,200 individuals one step closer to finding a new job.

The program, launched last August by Gov. John Carney, was funded through a $15.3 million allocation the state received through the federal CARES Act for COVID-19 pandemic relief.

On the advice of the state’s Workforce Development Board, the state Department of Labor, which coordinated the operation, identified five key areas to concentrate the Forward Delaware training: information technology, healthcare, hospitality, construction and transportation and logistics.

"The fact that Forward Delaware exists is a good thing because it helps more people get the skills that they need to get good jobs." - Delaware Prosperity Partnership CEO Kurt Foreman

The goal is to give individuals who lost jobs or had their hours reduced during the pandemic “not just a job, but a job that allows them to have a quality of life that puts them in a better position than they had before,” said Kurt Foreman, a Workforce Development Board member and president and CEO of the Delaware Prosperity Partnership.

The training is provided at no cost to participants who, in most cases, will receive industry-recognized certifications at the conclusion of their program.

At the start of the pandemic, the most significant job losses in the state occurred in the retail and leisure/hospitality sectors, said Rachel Turney, assistant secretary of labor. Retail has recovered, but leisure/hospitality employment was down 9 percent in January from a year earlier. The state’s unemployment rate peaked at 15.9 percent last May and fell to 5.9 percent in December. The January 2021 rate was 6 percent, slightly below the 6.3 percent national average but well above the 4 percent rate in January 2020.

IT a high priority

The largest slice of the CARES Act training pie – $4.9 million – was allocated to information technology, with Tech Impact, a Delaware-based nonprofit that provides IT support to nonprofit programs as well as having a training component, managing that part of the effort.

Tech Impact provided some of the training through its IT Works program, which prepares unemployed individuals ages 18-26 who lack college degrees for entry-level IT jobs, said Patrick Callihan, the nonprofit’s executive director. But most of the 250 or so IT trainees received instruction from Tech Impact’s partners – Zip Code Wilmington, Code Differently, the Precisionists, Delaware Technical Community College, Delaware State University and the University of Delaware.

Trainees are entering the program with varying educational backgrounds, but the most important attribute is “the interest, the desire,” Callihan says. “The rest is teachable.”

For those interested in coding or developing computer apps, it’s good to have math or logic skills, he says, but those looking to work on an IT help desk will benefit from having experience in customer service – an asset for many of those laid off from retail or hospitality jobs.

Since each partner organization already had a robust training program in place, there was no need to build infrastructure. Rather, it was just a matter of scaling up to handle increased numbers. Much of the training – in IT and the other targeted areas – was delivered virtually, but by the time the program began in the fall, the partner organizations had already moved much of their instruction online.

As with IT, the Department of Labor designated a lead organization to handle each of the other target areas, with subcontracting partners delivering significant pieces of the training. Delaware Tech took the lead on healthcare and the adult education segments of the three countywide vocational-technical school districts handled the transportation/logistics and construction areas.

A partnership between the Delaware Restaurant Association and the University of Delaware produced a program to train about 60 hospitality workers in human resources issues. The training helps fill a significant need for some restaurant businesses, which sometimes promote employees to fill an HR management role even though they don’t have the needed background in that area, according to George Irvine, UD’s associate vice provost for professional and continuing studies.

Since some of the programs won’t wrap up until the end of the month, it’s too soon to gauge the overall success of the initiative, but Callihan did say that about 30 percent of those who have received IT training have already secured jobs.

"We want to be investing in multiple areas and we have to keep the momentum going," - Delaware assistant secretary of labor Rachel Turney

Because the Prosperity Partnership does not track hiring details of the businesses it has helped bring to Delaware, Foreman said he does not know whether any of those companies are hiring Forward Delaware trainees. However, he noted that many businesses coming to the state are looking for IT personnel and the growth of warehousing operations has increased the need for drivers and logistics specialists.

“The fact that Forward Delaware exists is a good thing because it helps more people get the skills that they need to get good jobs, and that’s a helpful complement to our work [recruiting businesses to come to Delaware],” Foreman said.

Carney’s office has not determined whether any of Delaware’s $1.25 billion share of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden last week will be used for another round of workforce training. But he did say that how well the state rebounds from the pandemic will depend in part on its ability to keep providing rapid retraining to help Delawareans qualify for jobs that are in high demand, and he expects the partnerships between employers and higher education to provide that training to continue.

Rachel Turney, assistant secretary of labor, says the department expects to use its ongoing mix of state and federal funds to continue to the training programs in some form.

At Delaware Tech, Paul Morris, the college’s associate vice president for workforce development, says, “we’re always ready to respond to needs. We have the capacity to do the same thing again.”

Big grant for Delaware State

Turney and Callihan point to yet another workforce development initiative that will continue to produce about 700 new IT workers over the next four years.

It’s a $9.2 million federal grant to the Department of Labor that Delaware State University and Tech Impact will use to increase the participation of people of color in the IT sector.

"We'll be serving people who want to get into tech. or who have been displaced from jobs in education, construction or other sectors." DSU adukt education exec. director Darren Blackson

The program, which should start around April 1, will provide training in cybersecurity, applications development, support desk procedures and related topics, with about 325 hours of instruction, according to Darren Blackson, Delaware State’s executive director of adult education. It will include an internship and the opportunity to work one-on-one with a tutor, and participants will be provided with any needed technical support, including use of a laptop computer.

“We’ll be serving people who want to get into tech, or who have been displaced from jobs in education, construction or other sectors,” he said.

The curriculum will be self-paced, providing flexibility for students who may have other jobs or have family responsibilities, said Patrice Gilliam Johnson, the university’s dean of graduate studies and adult education. “We’re trying to be as flexible as possible. We’re trying to alleviate pressure by providing all the resources the students need,” she said.

For now, the classes will be delivered online, but Delaware State plans on offering in-person instruction on its main campus in Dover and at its suburban Wilmington campus on Kirkwood Highway when pandemic-related restrictions are lifted, she said.

Employment opportunities

While Delaware’s still-growing financial services industry has created a continuing need for IT specialists and training HR specialists for the hospitality industry addresses a hidden need, the training offered in Forward Delaware’s other target areas provides opportunities for displaced retail and hospitality workers to refocus, improve their earnings and position themselves for career advancement.

Many of the 270 participants in health care training are becoming certified nursing assistants and are finding new jobs at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which were hit hard during the early stages of the pandemic, Delaware Tech’s Morris says.

Because the construction trades have a high proportion of older workers, opportunities abound for welders and HVAC technicians, he says.

The growth of warehousing operations in the state means that more workers with commercial driver’s licenses are needed. “If you’re in your 40s and looking for a good job for the next 10 to 15 years, driving a truck might serve you well,” Turney says.

Logistics, Foreman says, “is a good place for people to get to the next rung on their career ladder.” Some warehousing businesses provide tuition reimbursements as an employee benefit, he says.

Turney is pleased with the cohesion shown by the partners in each of the Forward Delaware target areas. “We want to be investing in multiple areas,” she says, “and we have to keep the momentum going.”

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