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Southern Maryland industry leaders say a workforce trained in the essential skills of communication, customer service and office technology will be critical to their operational success in the post-COVID-19 environment. This was the common theme expressed by regional business owners during four virtual town halls sponsored this summer by the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) and the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland (TCCSMD) as part of its partnership aimed at Getting Southern Maryland Back to Work. The initiative is a joint effort to create a transparent, accessible and coordinated pathway to skills upgrade training and re-employment for individuals who are unemployed or underemployed as a result of the pandemic.
Town Halls meetings were held for leaders from healthcare, retail/hospitality, construction and professional services industries – all considered essential trades during the pandemic and all largely reshaped by COVID-19.
“Obviously each industry provided some salient needs that were specific to them, but the overarching theme crossed all four groups,” said CSM Associate Vice President of Continuing Education and Workforce Development Ellen Flowers-Fields. “We found their individual needs to be simplistic and straight-forward and highly important. It was clear to all of us that there has never been a more definitive time for CSM and the workforce development community to step up and play a significant role to help these businesses and their employees recover.”
Specific Industry Findings
During the Healthcare Industry Town Hall meeting, leaders said they were in crisis when it came to keeping their most vulnerable employees working.
“We also heard that the physician and nursing shortage continues to impact the industry,” shared Tri-County Council Director of Regional Workforce and Business Development Ruthy Davis. “The pandemic has rightfully caused employee burnout and led to unexpected staff re-deployments.”
While in the Construction Industry Town Hall, attendees acknowledged an ongoing need for strategies and support in recruiting and retaining entry level laborers.
“The trades were struggling with getting trained laborers in their companies before the pandemic hit,” said Flowers-Fields. “We plan to work together as a region to build a stronger pipeline for these workers and this critical work.”
Enhanced cleaning measures and sanitation were the top concerns discussed during the Retail and Hospitality Town Hall. To address this need, CSM immediately established several online on-demand virtual trainings for those employees, according to Flowers-Fields.
“Interestingly, we heard that hospitality and retail employees have had to take on new roles as cleaning and sanitation enforcers and inspectors,” said Davis. “That was not a skill requirement listed on their job application when many of them applied. Now this workforce has had to also shift to master de-escalation and conflict resolution skills.”
Equally changed and perhaps crossing all industries was the pandemic’s impact on the IT and professional services industry.
“Basically, everyone started working from home in March,” said Flowers-Fields. “If your company wasn’t already technologically ready to make that shift, there was no time to prepare. You either fit into one category or the other: Companies that provide IT and professional services or companies that needed IT and professional services – and both categories got hit hard.”
During the IT and Professional Services Town Hall, employers shared concerns regarding worker productivity in the remote environment and the need for leadership training that included managing remote teams. There were also requests for increased digital marketing and social media training opportunities, as well as training on cybersecurity basics to keep privileged information safe.
“Companies are grappling with how to maintain their corporate culture while supporting teamwork and collaboration in the virtual workplace,” said Davis. “Not lost on any of us is the huge emotional impact that this pandemic is having on people and their ability to focus on work.”
“Overall, I can’t say that I was surprised by the feedback and results of our town halls,” said Flowers-Fields, “But perhaps enlightened by the resiliency of these businesses and how they have evolved to continue to provide services. We will continue to put together resources that will ready new hires with certifications that affirm their ability to think critically, analyze data, work independently and communicate effectively. Our shared work is ahead of us as we seek to address these critical workforce issues.”
‘Getting Southern Maryland Back to Work:’ A Threefold Approach
The key objectives of this initiative are separated into three goals: Investing in emerging skills needs; responding to business needs; and reshaping workforce development needs for the region’s future.
The immediate and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the knowledge and skills of workers across industries. According to Flowers-Fields, existing industry training at CSM has already been enhanced to include learning modules on COVID-19 awareness, safe worker and safe workplace protocols. In addition, new certificate programs are being developed for Infectious Control and Barrier Protection, Community Health Liaison, Contract Tracing Proficiency, Medical Assisting, Communication and Customer Service skills and others in direct response to the pandemic.
The TCCSMD has invested in SkillUP, an online platform designed to help the Southern Maryland region build a workforce ecosystem that supports positive economic development. The platform will be available to all Southern Maryland citizens explore career pathways, assess career interests and aptitudes and develop basic skills. SkillUP is a bridge program that helps prepare individuals for employment or secondary education, and is the on-ramp to workforce development response.
For eligible job seekers, the Federal Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act will be leveraged. The act funds employment and training activities that ensure the region produces a skilled workforce to meet the needs of businesses and strengthen the local economy.
“Strategically, we are poised to deliver this response,” added Davis.
For more information about the Getting Southern Maryland Back to Work Initiative, or to listen/view the Town Hall meetings, visit online at https://tccsmd.org/backtowork/.
For more information about the College of Southern Maryland’s workforce training programs visit https://www.csmd.edu/programs-courses/non-credit/career-development/
For more information about the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland’s Workforce Division visit https://tccsmd.org/workforce-development/.