Workers seek new skills as virus lingers

Unemployment spiked in Louisa County last spring after the coronavirus pandemic began. The rate had hovered around three percent, but rose to nine percent in April. It has decreased since then, but is not back to where it was. 

Some people looking for work in the county and surrounding areas are having to seek training opportunities to gain new skills. Human resources expert Tammy Feaster, co-owner of Spherion Staffing in Winchester, encourages employers to exercise patience as more people transfer into new roles. 

“We need to be creating a welcoming environment where we are dealing with a very high unemployment workforce, which means we have a lot of candidates transferring into skill sets they’ve never done before,” she said.

Caren Merrick, Virginia Ready Initiative chief executive officer, sees the same phenomenon. 

“They are having to find the courage to go back to school and learn a new skill,” she said.

She’s also noticed that employers are rewriting qualification requirements for positions to reach more candidates. 

“I see companies rewriting position descriptions that no longer require a bachelor’s degree but require a credential,” Merrick said.  

Some businesses were already re-evaluating role requirements prior to the pandemic, but Merrick said that they have been “challenged with the pandemic to do more.” 

Some businesses are merging their recruitment and social responsibility strategies to find new talent while helping those laid-off or furloughed during the pandemic. 

Virginia Ready works with business partners to reskill unemployed and underemployed populations by giving them the opportunity to earn the credentials they need to qualify for health care, technology, and trades-based careers such as power line installation, welding, and plumbing. 

Dominion Energy, one of Louisa County’s largest employers, is a founding business partner of Virginia Ready. 

“We really applaud the effort to support our community and try to help folks who were facing having lost jobs during the pandemic pivot and gain new credentials,” said Chrystal Neal, the company’s director of talent acquisition and workforce planning. 

Merrick acknowledges that pivoting to a new role takes courage and said that a mistake people often make is underestimating the value of their past work experiences and transferable skills such as problem solving and leadership. 

“If you’ve been able to hold onto a job, there are certainly skills you already have that will be valuable to you where you go and that your employer will find very valuable and will affirm and reward,” Merrick said. 

Neal added that people should not be dissuaded by a position title, but pay closer attention to the qualifying skills credentials listed in the position description. 

“It isn’t so much about the job title that you have because there are so many analogous and complementary roles that someone could have where he or she would have had the opportunity to hone the skills we’re looking for,” Neal said.  

Virginia Ready launched on June 29 and opened enrollment on Aug. 1. Since then, more than 500 people across the state have applied for its scholar program. Merrick said that 50 have graduated, and 30 already have jobs. To qualify for the program, people need to be Virginia residents and be unemployed or underemployed, though no proof of unemployment is required.

“We trust people,” Merrick said. “If they want to earn this credential, we want to help them.”

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