MSU Denver launches Skills Lab in response to job loss, COVID-19 pandemic

Imagine a website specially tailored to the local job market, one that singles out opportunities in growing fields, identifies the required skills — and then offers sessions by university faculty or with industry-supplied software for free.

The staff at Metropolitan State University of Denver did imagine such a service, built it and launched it on the first of September. The program called Skills Lab was designed by MSU Denver’s Innovative and Lifelong Learning office to respond to the job loss and upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Colorado lost 208,000 jobs between February and July, which was a 7.4% drop,” said Terry Bower, associate vice president of the Innovative and Lifelong Learning office. “I pretty much knew I wanted to create some kind of skills offering for the community.”

Bower and her staff studied other job and training websites to help shape their approach.

“When I went to those job sites, it was really hard to navigate. You put in some information and a whole bunch of stuff comes up. You have no idea where you fit in,” said Bower, who previously worked at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “I wondered, couldn’t MSU Denver try to curate some offerings aligned with job growth and demand and make it really simple and straightforward?”

To do that, the staff worked all summer to collect state and federal employment data and talk to chambers of commerce and people with the Georgetown University workforce center.

“They all kept pointing toward these specific industries,” Bower said. “The next thing we did was talk to our industry partners in those fields to validate what we’re doing, to find out what jobs they were having a hard time filling, what are the skills for those jobs, what should we be offering and what haven’t we thought of.”

As a result, Bower and her staff believed they were on the right track. The result is 10-hour sessions each in the following fields, all identified as high-growth:

  • E-commerce: This refers to any form of business transaction conducted online, such as online shopping, online auctions, payment gateways, online ticketing and internet banking. Colorado expects e-commerce employment to grow by 8 percent by the end of 2021.
  • Cybersecurity and information technology: As of May 2020, there were 2,432 IT and cybersecurity-related job openings in Colorado, MSU Denver said. The state is expected to have high growth in IT and cybersecurity jobs.
  • Data science: As of May 2020, there were 740 data science-related jobs in Colorado, according to MSU Denver. The state is projecting a growth rate of 14% by the end of 2021.
  • Health and human services: As of August 2020, there were 1,050 health and human service related job openings in Colorado. The state projects the field will grow by 12% by 2021.

The team added another skills lab called “essential office skills,” which allows people to learn more about software programs regularly used in most workplaces. So far, the university has received a total of 1,593 registrations for all the labs, with the essential office skills as the most popular, followed by data science, e-commerce and then IT and cybersecurity.

Darrin Vohs, vice president of information technology at Molson Coors, was one of the people Bower and her staff consulted about the skills program. Vohs thinks the program is taking the right approach.

“The way I look at it, schools and training programs tend to churn out lots of people with generic skills or generic training,” Vohs said. “But many companies and industry, really, are looking at more niche-type skills.”

Referring to the labs the university is offering, Vohs said those are “huge, huge growing areas,” especially e-commerce.

“In the COVID era, e-commerce is booming. Even lots of traditional, brick-and-mortar companies are very aggressively hiring in the e-commerce space,” Vohs said.

Bower said she and her staff talked to people like Vohs to understand what specific skills companies are looking for.

“The focus of the training is to take the skills and figure out how to apply them,” Bower added. “What we heard from all of our employer partners was that we need people who know these software tools, know these skills and can apply them to real-world situations.”

Successful participants will receive a digital badge saying they completed a lab and identifying the areas in which they are deemed competent. Bower said people can add it to their resumes and online profiles.

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