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Saturday, May 18, 2024

City considers $2.5M to ‘change lives’ through digital job training for underserved communities

Matt Bauer with Connected Communities presents DigitalBridge Wilmington to city council Monday.

WILMINGTON — The city is looking to launch an initiative that would build-out a hometown workforce connecting residents to jobs. Specifically geared toward local employers’ needs, the nonprofit program would “bridge the digital divide” by offering computer literacy training to low-income individuals.

Matthew Bauer, vice president for Connected Communities WRC presented an overview of the proposed strategy to council at its Monday agenda briefing. Connected Communities — in collaboration with local partners StepUp Wilmington, Cape Fear Collective, Live Oak Bank and city staff — would implement its DigitalBridge platform, first initiated in Wake Forest in April.

Council members agreed the program is needed and could be beneficial to the city and its residents. 

Connected Communities is a branch of Wireless Research Center, a nonprofit formed in 2010, headquartered in Raleigh with offices in Colorado. It’s designed to enforce digital equity and helps underserved communities gain technical skills and access to higher-paying jobs.

DigitalBridge offers a proprietary learning platform that assesses skill level and guides clients on a career path for which they may not have otherwise been qualified. Individuals are matched with local, regional and national employers with on-site or remote opportunities. 

The program is free to those who qualify, which in Wilmington is roughly 70,000 people based on average median income and education.

The goal is to provide skills to individuals that only have a high school degree or GED; the program would guarantee a career after certification.

According to Cape Fear Collective’s data, industries with the most growth regionally include IT, software, life science and logistics, all requiring more than a high school diploma. 

In the Cape Fear region, about 42% of white adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 16% of Black adults and 12% of Hispanic adults have earned the equivalent. According to Cape Fear Collective’s 2021 “inclusive economy report,” a bachelor’s degree increases earning power by 50% compared to only a high school education. It can account for a $6 to $11 dollar difference per hour in salary.

Some jobs are attainable through certifications, a focus of DigitalBridge’s curriculum. Courses include business planning skills, Google Workspace 101 and digital marketing, for example. These core programs are the base to a skilled workforce, increasing attractiveness to employers.

If approved, the city would fund the first two years of DigitalBridge Wilmington with $2.5 million allocated from American Rescue Plan Act funds. Within the city’s initial ARPA framework, workforce development was discussed and funds allocated but an exact strategy hadn’t yet been determined.

The money would cover a physical location, at StepUp Wilmington within the Harrelson Center (20 N. 4th St.). It would also cover setup costs and two years of operation. Bauer explained the project could begin build-out in September and aim for a January 2023 launch.

“Talking about identifying census tracts and the impact this could have on our city,” council member Neil Anderson said Monday, “it could potentially change so many folks’ lives and their families’.”

It would not be a city-run program, only funded with city ARPA money to get the initiative off the ground. The goal is for it to be self-sustaining. Bauer explained his plans for continued funding include tapping into grant opportunities offered in the Digital Equity Act, possible corporate sponsorships and leveraging local partnerships.

Also, DIgitalBridge offers fee-based services for employers, such as “upskilling” and “reskilling” their current workforce. Companies could also contract DigitalBridge for business outsourcing.

“For example, we would have a contract with GE who says they need 25 data entry folks,” Bauer said. “We’re able to provide that as a service.”

According to city manager’s office communications director Jerod Patterson, the pandemic brought to the forefront how apparent a digital divide was locally. When Covid-19 forced at-home orders and social distancing, virtual programming, meetings, schooling and organizations became the norm, leaving behind those not as competent in digital literacy or unable to afford reliable internet at home.

“City council has both in its words and its actions demonstrated a real interest in helping to  bridge that digital divide,” Patterson said, “placing more of our residents in a stronger position for educational and economic success, as well as improving the resilience of our local economy.” 

There’s been an increase of 0.6% or 5,600 residents in the county living under the federal poverty line over the last decade. In the Cape Fear region, one in four residents live in poverty. Covid made it even more difficult for struggling families who lost income, had to stay home from work to provide childcare and faced rising inflation.

Anderson described the program Monday as a “flywheel,” with securing higher paying jobs being the impetus for overall improved and affordable quality of living.

To identify the skills gap, city staff received feedback from 15 local nonprofits, service providers and employers.

Cape Fear Collective estimates 9,600 to 17,500 new jobs in Cape Fear were added or will be added between 2020 and the end of 2023, with more than 1,000 suitable for entry- or mid-level skilled employees.

Bauer said the program would partner with businesses of all sizes across a variety of industries to determine employer needs. He said this way the training can be “laser-focused” to pair participants with work.

How does it work

To get started with DigitalBridge, Bauer explained, first involves outreach.

Mayor Bill Saffo challenged council members to send to Bauer the names of local groups or organizations they think could benefit from this program.

He also suggested utilizing city facilities in the lower income neighborhoods, such as Maides Park and the MLK Center, as hubs to engage the community.

“We have a responsibility to play in this as much as you folks do,” Mayor Saffo said.

Bauer said the one challenge he’s had with Wake Forest is getting the word out, but the program’s offices are not located in a high-traffic area the way Wilmington’s would be. DigitalBridge is set up on the historic Dubois campus in Wake Forest, “purposefully,” Bauer added. 

“We wanted to be in the neighborhood we wanted to serve first,” he said. “We have to do a lot more hand-to-hand outreach, going to churches, rotary meetings and literally knocking on doors.”

He said the opportunity in Wilmington has “more momentum out of the gate” partnering with an already established organization such as StepUp. The local nonprofit was established in 2003 and connects individuals with resources needed — such as professional attire, interviewing tactics, and job search techniques — to achieve career goals.

Once a resident is interested in training through DigitalBridge, a skills assessment is performed to gauge talents. Based on the outcome and the individual’s desired career path, training could take anywhere from one to 12 months, Bauer said. Throughout the timeframe, clients work alongside digital coaches, who have decades of experience in technical and business industries.

The classes offered range from in-person to remote learning, to provide added flexibility and make education more accessible, Patterson said.

With help from Cape Fear Collective’s data measuring and analysis, the program’s success would be constantly reviewed.

“For example, [area median income],” Bauer said. “We’re looking to raise that significantly while decreasing the number of folks living at or below poverty.”

He also explained data would confirm if individuals earned a higher paying job upon completion of the program and how that benefited the company that hired them.

Bauer said he’s already been in contact with a number of local employers — Live Oak Bank, MegaCorp, Novant Health, nCino, GE and Monteith — that are eager to participate.

“On calls last week with companies and larger entities they asked, ‘When can we get started? We are so desperate for this talent and training and employees,’” Bauer said. “I feel employer readiness in the community is solid.”

City council will vote to approve funding for the program at its Aug. 16 meeting.

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