Maine: Here’s how you can learn new skills for free

A quick response to help the unemployed and underemployed

Nearly one in four Americans have filed for initial jobless claims in the past nine weeks, bringing the total to more than 38.6 million since mid-March. The job loss is widespread, hitting all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The types of industries shedding workers vary from state to state, as do the efforts to prepare job seekers with the skills they need to be ready when jobs become more readily available.

In Maine, for example, educators are making hundreds of upskilling courses available—for free.

Learning a New Skill Might Help You Find a New Job

More than 16,100 Mainers filed initial unemployment claims last week, bringing the total number of people out of work since March 15 to 124,600. The unemployment rate jumped from three percent in March to 10.6 percent in April in the state, which has a population of 1.35 million.

The Maine Community College System recently ramped up its offerings to help residents during this uncertain time. Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) is one of the system’s seven schools. With its primary campus in South Portland, SMCC is the system’s oldest and largest with about 6,400 students.

Jim Whitten is the dean of the workforce development program at SMCC. When COVID-19 required changes to in-person learning for traditional, degree-seeking students, Whitten says SMCC, also acted quickly to provide services to those seeking workforce development opportunities. Among the options—free access to 500 professional education online licenses.

“We were able to shift gears with workforce and really focus on opportunities for people that were unemployed, underemployed, recently laid off, furloughed. While they are home, they can take these courses online. The licenses are vast and varied,” he tells WorkingNation.

Hundreds of Upskilling Options

In partnership with Metrics Learning, the online offerings include business, customer service, data and analytics, desktop publishing, finance, human resources, and information technology.

Whitten says the license courses are self-paced. To participate, students must be residents of Maine, at least 18 years of age, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and be under- or unemployed. Once registered, students can take as many courses as they like over a six-month period.

Whitten notes learning new skills can reap future rewards. “So you’re upgrading your skills while you’re home and furloughed, which will then benefit you in your career. And it will also benefit your company when you go back.”

Phlebotomy is the study of skin puncture and processing blood samples.

According to Whitten, the field of health care is Maine’s largest employer.

He says, “There are opportunities for workers to grow and move up. These entry-level training programs are going to allow people to get jobs in hospitals and medical practices.”

Free courses include training in medical coding, pharmacy technician, and phlebotomy.

Accredited Training Pathways

Funding for some workforce training programs comes from the Maine Quality Centers. “It is funding that is legislatively approved. Traditionally, that goes directly to the community colleges for us to develop customized short-term workforce training solutions for companies,” Whitten explains.

In response to the pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills adjusted the requirements for that funding’s use.

“The governor’s edict let the colleges have the right to develop anything we wanted for the individual, not just a specific company’s needs. Normally a business has to apply for these funds. We manage it, develop the curriculum, deliver it, and provide the credentialing. But this was different. This was ‘Alright. We’re going to just open it up to anybody that needs something right now’,” says Whitten.

The 16-week, accredited pharmacy tech training was implemented because of the change in requirements. Unlike the license courses, the pharmacy tech training has limited enrollment. Whitten says, “Within two days of offering the training, all 24 slots were full. We hope to offer another training in September.”

Win-Win for Everybody

The community college system is also reaching out to the high school graduating class of 2020. Whitten says, “Tangential to this, we’re offering a gift throughout all of our campuses. One free, online, traditional, credit-bearing course.”

Whitten says he is passionate about boosting his state’s workforce. “It moves people along the spectrum. If they can get into a better position, it makes everyone better. Also, if you have people that are underemployed or unemployed and they get training, they then go back to work. They’re paying taxes which goes back to the revenue base of the state. It’s a cycle of economic development.”

He adds, “It’s the altruism in us as educators. We really believe people want knowledge and want to be successful.”