Education, at a business pace

By Michael Grady

An Arizona college brings collegiate knowledge and skills into the marketplace

When local employers began hurting for staff in the post-Covid economy, Yavapai College’s Regional Economic Development Center jumped in to help.

“Across the industries – construction, hospitality, retail – the people they do find lack soft skills,” REDC Director Karen Jones explained. ‘Soft skills,’ like dressing appropriately and workplace communication, are important. But local employers can’t afford to take new hires offline to learn them. “So we’ve developed a teaching library of 30 soft skills. Employers direct new hires to the learning modules online, and they can study them online after their kids have gone to bed.”

The program typifies the REDC approach: College resources helping local industries – at the speed of business.

“YC’s Regional Economic Development Center seeks to enhance the quality of life in Yavapai County,” Executive Director Richard Hernandez explained. “We do that through job creation, business and workforce development, innovation and regional collaboration.”

The REDC was founded in 2013 to help local businesses with data – demographics and emerging trends. They still do that, but they found they could offer a lot more by being proactive. “We have to go where the workers and businesses are, see what they need and how they can access it,” Jones said. “These people are busy. We can’t roll out a program and say, ‘this is what we have.’ We have to go to businesses and ask, ‘What do you need?’”

That service-oriented approach has led REDC programs to every corner of Yavapai County, where their business knowledge and State- and Federal-level expertise has created timely solutions. Training programs are one example. Local employers are now using REDC courses on everything from reading blueprints to OSHA compliance.

“We’re working to connect them to certificate programs,” Jones said. “So workers can continue into a management course or an A.A.S. certification.” That can make an employer more attractive. “Businesses are already offering signing bonuses. But the idea that an employee could improve their own skill set while on the job is a pretty good hiring incentive.”

Lessons from the pandemic

The REDC showed its versatility during Covid-19. When the economy froze overnight, they responded with a wealth of resources.

“The pandemic caught everyone by surprise. But our collaborative relationships allowed us to quickly offer services,” Hernandez said.

They held video seminars on emergency grants and other resources to sustain struggling businesses; they organized virtual job fairs for the unemployed; and worked with partners to build a dedicated website, www.azbusinesses.org, to connect the two. The REDC’s Small Business Development Center converted their counseling resources from cultivating new start-ups to helping local businesses survive.

“We worked remotely with clients to assist them with access to Federal, State and local disaster funding,” SBDC Director Jeri Denniston said. “In the early part of 2020, changes occurred weekly to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan process and then the Paycheck Protection Program application process.”

The SBDC team flexed and stayed current with the changes, assisting 182 clients for a total of $4,258,173 in disaster funding. The REDC continues helping local businesses as COVID recedes.

“Initially, the prevalent business needs were gaining funds for working capital to pay rent, utilities and salaries,” Denniston explained. “With re-opening, the main challenge continues to be finding and retaining workers.” The SBDC has staged 46 events, including webinars with marketing tips, to help business owners attract customers and provide clean, safe workplaces for employees and customers alike.

Growth on the horizon

Like their business clients, the REDC has its own vision for the future.

“We want to be a full-service business incubator,” Jones said. Plans are on the drawing board for a huge expansion. “We want to host corporate trainings and regional conferences, and act as a think tank. We want to have ‘hotel space’ for corporate employees to work remotely, and we want to be a place where two kids from Embry-Riddle can work an idea into something real.”

But even as it grows, Yavapai College’s Regional Economic Development Center will still measure success the same way.

“We want to be a leader in local economic development,” Hernandez said, “and an organization that delivers on its promise to improve the quality of life in our community.”

This article originally appeared here.

Michael Grady

is the public information officer at Yavapai College in Arizona.

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