Community Collaboration: AJF’s Efforts to Enhance Ada’s Workforce

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker

On Wednesday, April 24th, the Ada Jobs Foundation (AJF) hosted an Education Roundtable Workshop related to their Digital Skilling Initiative in partnership with the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) and Ascendium. Justin Cooks, the Tech Jobs Program Manager, and Mike Gutman, the Workforce Development Manager, led the workshop as representatives from CORI. This represents one of the critical steps toward building a program that will provide crucial training to Ada’s tech workforce, enabling them to fill good jobs and empowering them to expand their employment possibilities.

They chose Ada as one of six communities across the country to take part in this digital skilling initiative, along with Cochise County, AZ, Taos, NM, Selma, AL, Chamber County, AL, and Wilson, NC. They selected each community based on the resources and infrastructure that currently exist, but also due to a need for more digital skilling opportunities. Each of these communities is also a part of the Rural Innovation Network (RIN) through CORI, which is working to help provide more opportunities in the realm of rural innovation and technology. CORI’s overall approach is to assess what communities have, what they need, and what their goals are. Their next step is to collaborate with these communities on a strategy to achieve those goals, helping put them into practice.

The last time Cooks and Gutman visited Ada, they focused on employers. They consider it important to start with the employers and then work backwards when it comes to digital skilling. Gutman said in the workshop, “First we figure out what is needed, and then we figure out how to provide those skills.” The participants of the Education Roundtable workshop discussed the data collected from the employers’ roundtable and surveys to determine what types of jobs are needing to be filled and which jobs are being outsourced, many of which could be filled locally if people had the necessary skills. They also discussed employers’ willingness to upskill their current employees to take on some of these tasks that are currently needed. They also found that many of these employers prioritize experience, certifications, and overall interest in the field over an actual degree.

Once they had an idea of what career opportunities could exist in Ada, they focused the conversation on the local educational partners to see what they offer and what gaps need to be filled. Representatives from Pontotoc Technology Center, Vanoss Schools, the United Way, and Ada Jobs Foundation all attended. They discussed different ways to possibly strengthen the education-to-career pipeline, finding ways to funnel interested students from K-12 into programs that could help them achieve high-paying, good careers. They discussed different ways to possibly strengthen the education-to-career pipeline, finding ways to funnel interested students from K-12 into programs that could help them achieve high-paying, good careers. Daniel Castaneda, the Economic Development Specialist for AJF, and the one spearheading this initiative, stated the importance of these discussions, stating, “It’s important for us to learn more about what other community partners are doing to train for digital or tech jobs in the community. This allows us to see where AJF fits in the model and how we can help them in furthering their efforts.”

The participants spent time brainstorming together about what an ideal talent pipeline could look like in Ada and how it could be successful. Each person contributed their own ideas, but as the conversation progressed, they all started building upon one another’s ideas. These conversations are important for developing the steps to move forward and help employers, educators, and future workers. Gutman cannot understate the importance of these workshops. He says, “Getting committed community stakeholders in the same room allows individuals to share their visions of what an ideal tech talent pipeline can look like. From there, they can align on the steps to help build that ideal. That alignment is a critical step.”

The Digital Skilling Initiative with CORI and Ascendium spans 3 years, and we have completed only one year. Next, we will ask local educators to fill out a survey to help us better understand what our community has to offer. Once everyone has the data from both employers and educators, we will need to figure out the actionable steps to take next, bringing all interested parties together for the betterment of Ada and our tech workforce.

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