An upskilling program is in the works for frontline workers at Goodwill San Antonio. Starting this past February, the company will spend 18 months designing and piloting a learner-centric, stackable credential program for 400 incumbent workers, in collaboration with Palo Alto College and national nonprofit Education Design Lab, and with a grant from Walmart.
During the pilot, called UpskillSA!, the workers will be taught skills that will help them find jobs in fields such as logistics and supply chain management, two high-growth sectors nationwide, but especially in the San Antonio region, according to a 2019 job report by SA Works, a division of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.
SA Works will also evaluate the program design and planning stages to ensure the program continues to meet the needs of the San Antonio region, according to the Lab’s webpage for the project.
Education Design Lab first pitched the program to Palo Alto College, which is part of the Alamo Colleges District. Then the Lab presented the idea for Upskill SA! to the Walmart Foundation on November 26, 2018. After grant funding was approved, they approached Goodwill San Antonio. Steven Hussain, chief mission services officer for Goodwill San Antonio, said joining the project as the employer partner was a no-brainer, as it aligned with the nonprofit’s already existing mission to upskill its own employees at little to no cost for them.
Goodwill San Antonio invests 92.6 percent of its earnings into educational programs and career support services, according to its website. If the group decides the UpskillSA! pilot is successful, Hussain said they would discuss scaling it up to use across all of Goodwill San Antonio.
“I also think it’s a project that can serve as an example for the entire Goodwill network,” Hussain said. “It has the opportunity for a significant amount of scale.”
The design team just completed its second planning session last May, in which they began developing the pilot curriculum.
The program will use Palo Alto College’s employer-aligned curriculum along with support services, including counselors, case workers and life coaches from the college and Goodwill San Antonio, who can help the incumbent workers address any barriers to accessing child care, transportation or technology during the pilot program, according to a press release.
Breaking Down Silos
A 2018 report from the Deloitte Center for Government Insights, “Closing the Talent Gap,” notes an increase in companies struggling to find individuals with the right skills or certifications to fill a position. In July of that year, there were more open jobs in the U.S. than there were people looking for work, according to the report.
On the higher education side, people are questioning the ROI of universities and four-year degrees. In a fast-changing, creative economy, it’s hard for colleges and universities to keep up with employer needs, said Kathleen deLaski, Education Design Lab co-founder and president. Additionally, deLaski added, it’s hard to keep up with student needs, as more individuals enrolled in higher education are considered “nontraditional,” which, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, is considered racially diverse, over the age of 24, working at least part-time and living off campus.
As a result, more and more businesses and higher-ed institutions are partnering to create new learning opportunities for current and future employees. After all, employers can provide a great deal of visibility about what skills are needed, whereas learning providers struggle to keep the pace with industry standards, deLaski said.
“One of the challenges I think we all face is the silo mentality,” said Dr. Robert Garza, president of Palo Alto College. “But when we pull our resources together … the more successful our organizations can be, and ultimately our students and employees.”
Garza said community colleges are good partners for businesses looking to upskill their workers because they can collaborate on such a local level. Many times, businesses aren’t looking at the local talent pool, opting to hire someone out-of-state.
The Pilot Logistics
The UpskillSA! pilot curriculum has two offerings: In the first, incumbent workers can work toward a technical certificate that incorporates relevant 21st century skills. In the second part, workers can complete “SkillsBooster,” which consists of three 21st Century Skill Badges in resiliency, problem solving and collaboration that were co-designed by the Education Design Lab, along with higher education and employer partners.
The Lab, which is currently partnered with 100 colleges and universities and about 60 employers, is currently piloting two of its 21st Century Skills Badges with the Alamo Colleges District, with plans to ultimately make all 8 available to students.
Hussain said these were selected following an assessment of Goodwill San Antonio’s workforce with the help of Education Design Labs, which helped them identify the 21st century and advanced manufacturing skills lacking in their incumbent workers.
“We knew we already had some challenges when it comes to strengthening some 21st century skills, and we also recognized that a lot of the programs on the market today just don’t fit with what employers actually need,” Hussain said. “It’s hard to take something right off the shelf and make it work for your company.”
Right now, the team is prototyping the curriculum and discussing how it will weave it into Goodwill San Antonio’s work environment, deLaski said. To keep the process learner-centric, they will be holding interviews with workers to find out how long it will take for them to get through the curriculum, as well as what motivates them along the way.
“When thinking about upskilling, a lot of people forget to bring the learner to the table,” deLaski said. “We, as innovators trying to shape this new ‘digital credential ecosystem,’ have to make every possibility visible to the learner and show them how to navigate them and position themselves in ways that are meaningful to employers.”