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Lessons from the Field: Adapting Upskilling Programs in Light of COVID-19

Earlier this summer, we shared our experience collaborating with our amazing partners in San Antonio, Texas, to build upskilling pathways as an approach to help incumbent frontline workers access and succeed in middle-skill jobs in growth industries. While the COVID-19 crisis initially halted our programs due to the disruption and devastating health and economic impacts on the San Antonio community, pathway activities have resumed and learners are making great strides towards earning micro-credentials. Over these past five months, we have learned some key lessons about how to adapt programs like UpskillSA! to best support learners through “normal” and challenging times.


1. Course + Badge = A win-win for learners and educators

To prepare for the launch of our Certificate Plus pathway in October 2019, we worked with instructional designers and faculty members at Alamo Colleges District to integrate our Collaboration badge into BMGT 1301 – Supervision, a required course for the Logistic Management and Business Administration certificates. As a result, 36 students, including 26 Goodwill San Antonio team members, successfully passed this section of the course. They also earned one of the Lab’s 21st Century Skills digital micro-credentials, the Collaboration Badge. This model proved so promising for the College that they received an internal grant to build a formal “course + badge” institute to train faculty members on how to incorporate badges into their coursework. A pilot group of four faculty members started this summer, with larger cohorts being recruited for both this fall and spring 2021. This outcome from year one of the pilot has the strong potential to extend our work to benefit all students at Alamo across a myriad of majors and career trajectories!


2. The show must go on…line

Goodwill San Antonio’s day-to-day operation was seriously impacted by the precautionary measures to close non-essential businesses in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. As a result, the UpskillSA! partners were forced to pause the SkillsBooster program and the recruitment of new learners to give Goodwill team members the time and space to navigate their personal commitments and health needs. However, we believed that these pipeline programs were highly beneficial during times like these for those who could continue to participate. Alamo Colleges District devised a strategy to continue providing uninterrupted services, supports, and instruction to our learners throughout the spring 2020 semester. By early June, we were able to re-engage over 60% of the SkillsBooster cohort to restart the program this summer. In contrast, learners enrolled in our Certificate Plus pathway experienced the least disruption. By design, the program was grounded in online instruction from the beginning. Students have had continued access to their program throughout the quarantine.


3. New industries, new skills, new learners

Our aim is to build sustainable upskilling programs that can evolve with the future of work while being responsive to learners and local economic growth. We have kept our eye on the skills that employers are expressing the most need around and using those lessons to help inform what the next iteration of upskilling pathways could be. In response to overwhelming demand from our learners, we expanded our certificate program to include two additional certificates in business administration and computer support. We will continue to explore new certificate programs in logistics, technology, healthcare, and business. We are also paying attention to our learners’ experiences – how are they resilient, what drives them to continue, what happens to them once they complete, what are their hopes and desires? Recognizing these realities for our learners, we are working to align them to the skills and growth industries that would best position them to earn higher wages, achieve more stability, and deepen their skill sets. Focus groups with participants have revealed barriers throughout the student lifecycle. These insights have inspired further collaboration across the employer and learning partners to streamline recruitment, orientation, registration, advising, and information-sharing to immediately improve the student experience.


Moving Forward

We are excited about the lessons that we continue to learn through these pathways. These discoveries will allow us to expand our reach to serve more learners, engage more employers, and build more sustainable partnerships with our education partners to meet the needs of the San Antonio community and beyond.

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