WIP Dr. Mardy Leathers

Using online training to put people to work and launch careers

A conversation with Dr. Mardy Leathers, director, Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development
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In this episode of Work in Progress, Dr. Mardy Leathers, director of the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development discusses an innovative new career training program available to all the state’s high school juniors and seniors.

More on the new Launch Missouri’s Workforce initiative a little later, but first an update on how the state’s workforce has bounced back from the job loss caused by the COVID pandemic.

I first met Dr. Leathers in July of 2020 when I interviewed him about the state’s plans to help the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic rejoin the workforce. We discussed the free training programs being offered to all Missourians who were jobless and collecting benefits.

Through its Return Strong Missouri program, the state partnered with online learning platform Coursera to give unemployed Missourians free access to 3,800 courses to help them “develop the knowledge and skills to become re-employed.”

By all accounts, the program was a success.

“We’ve restaffed about 94% of all the jobs that we lost during the pandemic. We are at 40-year lows for unemployment. Our U-3 is at 2.8%, that equates about 82,000 Missourians who are currently receiving an unemployment benefit. That’s from a peak of nearly 800,000 Missourians in the onslaught of the pandemic,” Leathers tells me.

The program was such a success, explains Leathers, the state has extended its offer of free Coursera classes to all Missourians.

“Any Missourian who’s over the age of 18 and eligible for work in the United States has access to a 12-month license for Coursera, including for incumbent workers who are working, but want to skill up. For instance, in Missouri, 94% of all of our job postings – of which there’s about 218,000 – Microsoft Excel is in the job description. So, if you haven’t taken an Excel class in a while, or you want to beef up, guess what, Coursera can help you do that. Maybe you’ll need to learn how to manage a remote team. Guess what, Coursera can help you do that,” he tells me.

This is part of the state’s overall plan to get Missourians on a path to a good career, no matter their age.

According to Leathers, “What we’ve tried to do is democratize access to skill development by a number of ways, whether it’s through our certifications through our partnership with our community colleges, our apprenticeship expansion.”

“Certainly, Launch Missouri’s Workforce is a big part of that. We see it as a way to continue to increase the different options available for Missouri citizens who want to skill up and grow in their careers.”

Launch Missouri’s Workforce: Virtual and Hands-on Career Training for High Schoolers

Launch Missouri’s Workforce combines virtual career learning with in-person labs, arming high school students with the skills training they need to get industry-recognized credentials for today’s in-demand jobs. Leathers explains that virtual program doesn’t supplant hands-on learning, but instead allows anything that can be taught virtually to be taught first, then in-person labs and workshops will supplement that training.

Launch Missouri’s Workforce is offering career pathways in eleven industries vital to the state’s economy.

“Missouri’s a pretty diverse state. We’re a midwestern state. We’re right in the middle of the country, so transportation logistics is a big deal. Aerospace. We’re a big defense contractor. Most of the Boeing defense planes are created right here in St. Louis. But we also look at health care. We look at technology jobs, both on the IT side, but also across all sectors – whether it’s cybersecurity or networking or a managed services help desk. Those cross all sectors,” he tells me.

“What we want to be able to do is say these are the industry sectors that are prevalent in Missouri. If you are going to live and work in Missouri, we want to make sure you have the tools and opportunity to be successful. We now believe that this will help us be another arrow in our quiver to help empower and skill up Missouri youth,” adds Leathers.

While any high school junior or senior can enroll, it is particularly valuable to the 20,000 students who are not able to attend a classroom physically. “Maybe they’re homeschooled, or maybe they do not have access to participate in more of a traditional physical learning environment. All the public schools in Missouri have to provide a virtual learning option. One area, though, that had been missing over the years was career and technical education programming,” explains Leathers.

“Many will say, ‘How can you offer career and technical education? It’s competency-based. It’s hands-on learning. How could you do this virtually?’ We see it as really the opposite of that. We see it as an opportunity to increase access for those that are interested in career and technical education fields, interested in exploring industry-recognized credential opportunities that who otherwise would not have, would have a barrier by simply not being in any physical classroom,” he adds.

Leathers explains how it works.

“During the semester you’re taking a course, it’s the traditional 16- or 18-weeks from the high school calendar. Along that way, though, you’re going to have some measurable skills gains, you’re going to earn industry-recognized credentials. At the end of a semester, you may complete a course in industrial maintenance, for example, but you may have one or two industry credentials, in addition to having gone through that coursework. It does follow a very standard curriculum that you would have in a physical environment, you’re just doing most of it virtually.”

The podcast goes in depth on the benefits of the program to the students and to the Missouri economy. You can listen here, or download and listen wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 239: Dr. Mardy Leathers, director, Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development
Host & Executive Producer: Ramona Schindelheim, Editor-in-Chief, WorkingNation
Producer: Larry Buhl
Executive Producers: Joan Lynch and Melissa Panzer
Theme Music: Composed by Lee Rosevere and licensed under CC by 4.0
Download the transcript for this podcast here.
You can check out all the other podcasts at this link: Work in Progress podcasts

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