Forward Delaware initiative set to graduate first cohort
Like many young adults, Mubarak Onaneye did not have a career in mind but he did have an interest in technology and computers. While working at 5 Below in Christiana, he decided to explore opportunities out there in the tech sector.
“A job wasn’t something I thought of when I was growing up. At one point, I wanted to be a dental hygienist, but once I realized the training needed for that, that was off,” said Onaneye, 21. “But my sister knew I was into tech stuff, so she recommended Tech Impact, and said it was perfect for me.”
He was in one of the last in-person classes that Tech Impact, a nonprofit focused on IT training and certification programs, held before COVID-19 hit. All of his classes went remote, and while Onaneye finds online learning hard, he graduated from the IT Works program.
Onaneye works at Tech Impact’s Community Help Desk, offering IT support to students, teachers and parents in the Indian River School District. He’s studying for the CompTIA A+ exam to get an IT technician certificate to level up his career.
“This program is definitely important, because there’s classes assigned Chromebooks and students as young as 6 who are learning how to use it,” he said. “I think this kind of technology will be around for a while.”
Tech Impact is one of a handful of organizations offering free workforce development programs through Forward Delaware, a CARES Act-funded initiative to retrain thousands of suddenly unemployed Delaware workers. The program offers certification programs that run for 20 weeks or less.
It was formally launched in October at a time when the state managed to add back more than half of the 74,700 jobs lost at the pandemic’s onset.
There are roughly 1,239 students — maybe more, as the data is slow to update — wrapping up their programs right now and ready to start their renewed job hunt. These students are sharpening their skills in construction and the trades; hospitality; logistics and transportation; health care and information technology (IT).
Up until August, the state focused much of its $927 million CARES Act allocation to unemployment insurance activities. But that changed after Gov. John Carney signed Executive Order 43, which authorized the state’s Department of Labor and the Workforce Development Board to create an initiative to get unemployed and underemployed Delawareans working again.
By the time the governor’s pen inked that order, the Delaware Workforce Development Board (DWDB) was ready to spring into action.
“When it became apparent to us that the economy was going to go upside down, we started having these calls every Thursday morning at zero dark thirty with industry thinkers about what’s next.” DWDB Executive Director Bill Potter told the Delaware Business Times. “Then we were having calls at night to make decisions on contracts with trainers, and then we would do it all again at 6 a.m. to figure out the next steps. Nobody squawked or whined about it.”
“Because they knew what it meant to get it done,” DWDB Deputy Director Robin McKinney Newman added. “We had so many staff from other divisions sent to work in the unemployment division to help… and revamping that process to help people keep a roof over their head and food on the table is an enormous task.”
Behind the scenes, much of the groundwork by the DWDB looked like normal years, except time was of the essence. Traditionally, the DWDB uses its annual federal funding allocation either to buy a cohort of seats for training or on a seat-by-seat basis from secondary education institutes like Delaware Technical Community College or private sector providers like the American Driver Training Academy.
Trainers with a solid reputation and focused on in-demand industry sectors — as mandated by Carney’s executive order — with an ability to scale up class sizes were awarded contracts.
“In Delaware, the No. 1 skill training that’s in high demand is truck driving, because it’s a well-paying job that can get turned around with certification between six to eight weeks, and someone has to drive around the products,” Potter said. “Some other sectors just made sense, like health care. That was a crushing need because those workers are getting tired.”
Hiring trend surveys were conducted with businesses and unemployment data analyzed to see what sectors and skills were shedding jobs at the time. While Forward Delaware is built on much of DWDB’s existing infrastructure, Potter said that IT and hospitality jobs were sectors added to the program based on market research.
“Hospitality and tourism had gotten beaten up pretty bad with the fluctuating capacity limits. IT is another big go-to for us, because technology crosses over with almost every industry at this point,” Potter said. “We try and sculpt the workforce by figuring out what’s needed.”
While it may be too soon to say whether Forward Delaware will continue after this first cohort leaves class behind, Potter said he plans on taking the lessons learned from the experience and applying them forward for the next iteration of the state’s workforce placement program.
One thing he hopes the business community takes away from the experience is the camaraderie without the competition. In the past, training contractors can get cutthroat to land state contracts, but through Forward Delaware, he saw other contractors recommending rivals to help make the program hit the needed criteria.
“Just watching the providers work together blew me away. People who run businesses, they’re competitive, because they want to win. And for this, they chose to leave their self-interest behind them for the common good of Delaware,” he said.
For businesses looking to hire from the Forward Delaware cohort, visit www.forwarddelaware.com and keep an eye out for DWDB promotions. Potter said that each graduate will likely have a strong work history that pivoted to a new sector, which makes them easier to train to a business’ particular needs.
Organizations involved with Forward Delaware include: Code Differently; Tech Impact; Zip Code Wilmington; the Delaware Restaurant Association; Del Tech; New Castle County VoTech; Polytech Adult Education Division; and the American Driving Training Academy.