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Collaboration key to creating skilled workforce, Spokane education leaders and employers say

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 6, 2020

Community Colleges of Spokane Chancellor Christine Johnson was among area school officials who spoke at a virtual workforce summit hosted by the Spokane Journal of Business.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
Community Colleges of Spokane Chancellor Christine Johnson was among area school officials who spoke at a virtual workforce summit hosted by the Spokane Journal of Business. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

Community collaboration is the key to creating a competitive workforce and driving economic recovery amid the coronavirus pandemic, area employers and school officials said during a virtual workforce summit hosted by the Spokane Journal of Business.

Employers and academia converged online Wednesday for a discussion on creating a pipeline of skilled employees through education and career development programs.

The coronavirus pandemic has led Spokane Public Schools to realize classrooms extend beyond the “walls of the schoolhouse” and the ability to create partnerships and experiences for students to expose them to potential career paths will be instrumental in preparing them for the future, Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard said.

A challenge facing Spokane Public Schools is how to provide students with hands-on, project-based experience that is part of career and technical education curriculum during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, adding it’s a challenge for schools nationwide.

“But the reality of it is there’s just some things we can’t replicate, depending on the course of study in the scale that we’re trying to provide those students. So, it’s absolutely a challenge,” he said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to be really creative about, and we’re actually looking for partners in the community and how we can potentially pull kids into small groups and get them – to the greatest extent possible – some of those hands-on learning experiences.”

Community Colleges of Spokane is responding to a shift from in-person classroom instruction forced by COVID-19 by expanding its online curriculum, said Christine Johnson, chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane.

“We’ve always had a very robust online program, but we’re doing more,” Johnson said. “We recognize it’s a total shift to the digital economy. We’ve had to retool some of our employees who were not teaching online. We’re also working with our partners in different ways.”

Johnson noted Community Colleges of Spokane’s cybersecurity program as an example of a partnership between academia and the private sector. Employees from Avista Utilities and the city of Spokane were among the first to attend a pilot class for the cybersecurity program at Spokane Falls Community College.

Eastern Washington University also aims to be more flexible in how it delivers education to students wanting an on-campus experience as well as online classes, said David May, EWU’s interim president .

“We’re not going to be able to do everything online, whether it’s because of the skills that need to be developed or because of licensure requirements, but we’ve shown that we can do (online courses) and students are never again going to accept, ‘we can’t do it’ as an answer to their question,” he said. “So we’re going to have to meet students in a different place.”

Elaine Damschen, Mainstream Electric, Heating Cooling & Plumbing president, said she would like to see more cooperation between the trades as well collaboration between small businesses and higher education.

Damschen also suggested self-assessments for middle and high school students to gain insight on potential career paths. Students interested in learning trades could then go on ride-alongs with the company to see if that type of career path is right for them, she said.

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