From the County Manager Column from June 22, 2021

In-person job fair underscores workforce efforts changed by COVID-19

 

On March 3, 2020, I shared a message to employees about plans for a first-ever countywide job fair on March 18, 2020. We were looking forward to dozens of staff from Ramsey County and our partners meeting hundreds of job seekers in person to help connect opportunities. As we all know, things worked out differently as the cancellation of this promising event ended up being one of the first examples of how COVID-19 would fundamentally change the ways we’ve interacted and worked with one another over the past 15+ months. As we welcome the recent announcement of a major in-person Midway area job fair next Tuesday, June 29 at Allianz Field, this occasion also provides the opportunity to look at the efforts of our Workforce Solutions department to adapt during and coming out of the pandemic.

Virtual job fairs, opportunities and training     

Our Workforce Solutions department works very closely with the state’s department of employment and economic development (DEED) through the CareerForce program that supports job seekers statewide. When we needed to cease regular in-person service at Ramsey County’s CareerForce centers last March due to the risk of COVID-19, our career counselors joined colleagues across the state to make a quick pivot to providing online sessions. Now, there are literally hundreds of sessions available every month that leverage the broad talents of workforce professionals across Minnesota to help get our neighbors back to work. Although we’ve offered more limited online sessions for a number of years, this is an area where we’re learned a lot during the pandemic to provide the best resources for job seekers and those who wish to develop career skills in any format. Training and job opportunities are featured in a regular e-newsletter and on the Job Connect online job board.

Community Career Labs

Improved virtual and online options are great for many job seekers, but residents who don’t have personal or reliable access to technology miss out on not being able to connect with these opportunities. As all public computer access – at places like libraries and CareerForce centers – began going offline in March 2020, re-establishing safe, in-person computer access was an area that Workforce Solutions proactively identified as a high priority. To meet this need, Workforce Solutions leveraged CARES funds through our RISE program to open several Community Career Labs in partnership with Saint Paul Public Library. These adhered to public health guidance and cleaning protocols while providing access to the internet, printers, faxes, job and career resources, and critical real-time staff and counselor support. Initially, appointments were limited with advanced reservations required to minimize the possibility of exposure to COVID-19. Following the program’s success, we’ve maintained labs at several locations (see ramseycounty.us/CareerLabs) and expanded services to provide virtual labs by reservation also. ICYMI – Midway Monitor did this good piece on Career Labs last winter.

TechPak

In another effort to help bridge the digital divide for job seekers, the CARES-funded TechPak program brought 2,150 computers, internet and digital literacy training into the homes of residents who faced barriers and economic impacts due to COVID-19. Most participants worked closely with a digital literacy navigator who provided individual support with required digital literacy classes. An in-depth analysis following program completion shows how TechPak met program goals and posted an impressive social return on investment of $2.40 for every dollar invested.

Right Track Plus

The first program in Ramsey County to be approved for our American Rescue Plan fundingRight Track Plus is a partnership with the city of Saint Paul to extend their popular internship program for young people across Ramsey County. We’re currently hosting a series of informational sessions for employers looking to host interns or participate in the program in other ways. The goal is for 300+ new interns to come aboard with their employers (including Ramsey County!) in August and stay on through November 2021, providing great experience for both these young people and their employers.

Inclusive workplaces

Beginning in mid-July, Workforce Solutions and its partners will begin recruiting up to 20 small- and medium-sized employers in Ramsey County to participate in a cohort focused on developing inclusive workplaces. These are not organizations with large – or sometimes any – Human Resources departments, but are committed to implementing hiring, retention, policies and other practices that elevate workplace diversity as a tool for economic growth. Once assembled, the cohort will meet every month for 10 months in sessions facilitated by our partners at the Center for Economic Inclusion. This initiative is part of our newly-adopted Economic Competitiveness and Inclusion Plan.

Of course, all of these new initiatives tie in with the everyday work accomplished by Workforce Solutions – such as the efforts showcased in the department’s recently published 2020 Annual Business Report titled “Lifting Up.” If you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, I’d encourage you take a few minutes to give it a look.

The pandemic has hit the employees and employers in Ramsey County hard and has especially surfaced disparities among racial, age and digital literacy lines. I’m thankful to Director Ling Becker and her steadfast team in Workforce Solutions, along with the business-minded leadership and support provided by the Workforce Innovation Board of Ramsey County for proactively taking the challenges the pandemic has presented to our workforce and employers head on. As each week that passes allows us to safely gather and meet again in once familiar ways, our efforts in workforce development stand as a great example of mindfully leveraging the value of all the lessons we’ve learned over these past 15+ months.