Empowering Ada’s Workforce: A Digital Skilling Initiative for Economic Growth

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker

Workforce Development is crucial to economic development in a community. Businesses cannot function properly, and the possibility for growth is severely limited, without a skilled and robust workforce. This is one reason why Daniel Castañeda, the Economic Development Specialist for the Ada Jobs Foundation, is enthusiastic about an upcoming project to grow and improve Ada’s workforce. The Ada Jobs Foundation, working with the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) and Ascendium, is poised to spearhead a new initiative to improve the digital skills of Ada’s workers.

In his role as the Economic Development Specialist, Castañeda focuses on growing the economy of Ada. His tasks include meeting with businesses and community members to determine overall growth and development needs. He also provides information on local and state incentives and evaluates, identifies, and promotes models that help with economic and community growth. Castañeda explains, “Essentially, my job is to help grow the city by attracting new business, increasing the number of jobs, and helping people enter higher paying jobs.” Workforce development is crucial to every aspect of this mission.

During his Business Retention and Expansion efforts, Castañeda discovered that one major hurdle for local businesses and industries is the challenge of finding skilled workers. Particularly with the changing technology and the move towards automation, businesses need workers with strong digital skills. Without these workers, their growth is restricted. However, training these workers and making them available right here in Ada would enable successful business growth and reduce the likelihood of companies leaving or outsourcing these good, high paying jobs.

People have long discussed the idea of a school-to-work pipeline as a way to assist with these workforce development efforts. This approach would assist businesses in acquiring the workers they need, and it would also aid workers in finding good jobs. However, connecting all these different siloed institutions to make such a pipeline flow fluidly can be challenging. But this is why Castañeda was so excited when CORI approached the Ada Jobs Foundation about the Ascendium project, aiming to develop a free digital skilling program for the community. Ada is one of only six communities nationwide asked to pilot something like this in their community.

The Ada Jobs Foundation has closely collaborated with CORI for the past four years. They played a key role in providing technical assistance for many grants, including the Build to Scale grant from the Economic Development Administration. This grant funds the efforts of the Conduit Initiative to grow tech entrepreneurship in the region. CORI focuses on “Advancing economic prosperity in rural America through the creation of inclusive tech economy ecosystems that support scalable entrepreneurship and tech job creation.” However, their efforts go beyond entrepreneurship because a well skilled digital workforce is crucial to the success of these efforts as well as the health and prosperity of rural economies.

The Ada Jobs Foundation has completed the first year of the three-year engagement process of building this program. Breaking down the silos that separate business, education, and community is one of the initial steps they must take in order for this to succeed. Castañeda has the task of bringing all the voices and partners to the table for discussions and collaborative work to shape this digital skilling initiative. Ada Jobs Foundation has already hosted two workshops: the first was a kick-off event, and the second was with local employers. They will host their next workshop on April 24th , bringing educators to the table. They are hoping to have representatives from all K-12 schools in Pontotoc County as well as Pontotoc Technology Center and East Central University. Getting these institutions on board is important, but it’s also crucial to find out what types of digital skills they are already offering. Castañeda states, “We don’t want to replicate anything that is being done. We want to see what is missing and find ways to fill those gaps.”

Communication is vital to this process. It is crucial to know what is being offered, but also what businesses need in a workforce. This project will enhance the workforce capabilities of our community by providing vital skills to workers and creating a more successful business climate. This clearly illustrates the overall vision of the Ada Jobs Foundation: to advocate on behalf of businesses and residents to promote a vibrant community and a prosperous local economy. By providing opportunities to the citizens of Ada, the Ada Jobs Foundation is helping the community; by developing the workforce, they are growing the economy, providing possibilities for expansion.

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