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Minnesota’s free online reskilling removes barriers to training

To help Minnesota’s 130,000 unemployed workers, the state’s  Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) is providing on-demand access to online classes for training, reskilling and upskilling. 

The department contracted with Coursera, an online learning provider, to offer 3,800 classes for free to Minnesotans, particularly those affected by job losses related to the coronavirus pandemic. Residents request access to the course catalog through the DEED website and have until March 31, 2021, to complete their courses, which typically cost individuals $400 annually.  

More than 18,200 state residents have requested access since the offering went live in mid-June. About 5,800 courses have completed and 4,800 are in progress, said Hamse Warfa, deputy commissioner for workforce development at DEED. 

“If you look at the different sectors of the population that are signing up, roughly two-thirds of those who are accessing are people who self-identified as unemployed or have been furloughed or laid off in the pandemic,” Warfa said. “There’s a lot of learning coming from this that might shape how we think about service delivery, pivoting more to virtual services.” 

When COVID hit, Warfa and his team began researching ways to offer training online to remove what they call “workforce adjacent issues,” that might prevent someone from getting in-person education. 

“Barriers have been accelerated significantly by COVID and the closures,” he said. Online training “really removes some of the key barriers of needing transportation, concern about COVID, childcare issues because anybody can take it from home.” 

Courses related to technology, health care, retail and manufacturing have drawn the most attention, but so have COVID-specific ones, too, such as contact tracing classes, Warfa said. Because this effort targets out-of-work residents, state government employees are not required to take courses, but they are eligible. 

What’s more, the offering complements the state’s CareerForce platform for connecting employers and job seekers. It has a tool that residents can use to see what skills they need to work in a particular industry.  

“This is by no means a replacement for the workforce-training programs that exist. This is just another tool in the toolbox that I think is responsive and timely to COVID impact,” Warfa said. “Our goal is really just economic prosperity for everyone, especially those living on the margins of our economy.” 

Minnesota’s work with Coursera is part of the company’s Workforce Recovery Initiative, which it launched in April specifically to help governments gain access to job-relevant training. About 320 government agencies in 100 countries have taken part, including 30 U.S. states. Through the initiative, Coursera has trained 1 million unemployed and displaced workers and has seen the number of government learners grow by 900%, said Kevin Mills, Coursera’s senior director and head of government partnerships. 

Some of the most popular courses are on artificial intelligence, big data and data analysis, he said, because people see the effect of technological change.  

“This is driven by two overarching things,” Mills said. “One is automation and [the second is] just the continued advancement of technology, which is changing all jobs and making some jobs obsolete and opening up completely new jobs.” Online learning can also have a profound impact on helping governments upskill their public-sector professionals, he added.  

The company created what it calls “gateway certificates.” Students who have no experience or previous education in a particular area can take a course and earn a credential they can use to obtain entry-level work or apply as credit toward a bachelor’s degree. 

Coursera works with each state or locality to put together a course catalog, Mills said, adding that the existing selection meets about 80% of needs. “Some agencies will say, ‘My region really relies heavily on manufacturing, so I want to really heavily weigh my curations on manufacturing and I want to have it much less on IT,’ for instance.” 

The Defense Acquisition University was an early user of Coursera for Government, which offers courses popular in the public sector. DAU trains Defense Department acquisitions officials in procuring technology, so the agency wanted a solution that could do that at scale, Mills said. The company has a tailored custom training and credentialing program that began with digital engineering and is expanding now to AI and machine learning. 

“They knew that there was a need to have more digital training prior to COVID,” he said of DAU. “COVID happened. They had to basically shut down their very advanced in-person training almost overnight, move things online, and what they’ve said to us … is that they’re not going back.”  

As of Dec. 15, Coursera solutions became available via immixGroup’s General Services Administration Multiple Award Schedules contract. 

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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