By Shahina Suleman
You probably won’t find many people who disagree with you when you say that good workplace skills are a necessity. However, few people realize exactly how much goes into effective workplace training and curriculum. Throw a pandemic into the mix, and suddenly you have a brand-new set of challenges!
This is exactly what we faced at PTP Adult Learning and Employment Programs in 2020. Our Elevate program seemed to be well in hand, and our students were thriving. Then, like the rest of the world, we found ourselves facing a difficult choice: give up on Elevate completely until the pandemic subsided or recreate the program, essentially from the ground up, in a very short time frame.
One thing I knew for sure was that I could not bring myself to sacrifice the many benefits Elevate students got from the program. Any alternative we created would have to somehow provide equal value. Thus began our journey to a new, digital curriculum.
Elevate: a new path to workplace essential skills
Originally, Elevate was a ten-week, face-to-face program preparing entry-level workers to thrive in the food and beverage industry. We covered a lot of ground, from practical, how-to-do-the-job knowledge (preventing foodborne illness, following good manufacturing practices, staying safe in the workplace) to employability skills that made it possible for individuals to take the wheel of their own career paths. (In other words, how to get—and stay—meaningfully employed.)
The value of soft skills in these training sessions cannot be underestimated. While industry-specific knowledge is invaluable, the ability to manage time, plan tasks, problem solve on the spot, and communicate effectively is what takes “job potential” to “career potential.”
When it became clear that in-person training would no longer be possible for quite some time, I found myself needing to use the same soft skills I’d been fostering in my students. In addition to creating a digital curriculum for the very first time, we were having to adapt and find equivalencies for an existing, heavily interpersonal framework. All while maintaining an equally educational and worthwhile experience.
I found it invaluable during this time to invest in my own education. I enrolled in Online, Together, a six-week course that gave me irreplaceable knowledge and confidence I desperately needed to formulate and deliver the new, virtual Elevate curriculum.
Online, Together also gave me food for thought on creating a digital framework using a trauma-informed lens. This time was not easy; at a certain point I was leading class in the morning, only to switch hats in the afternoon and become the student again. It was true on-the-go learning, and I found myself making adjustments to certain aspects of Elevate in real time, based on new ideas that popped up in my student brain.
In addition, I also had to understand and develop new teaching materials and assessments to align with Canada’s new Skills for Success framework. There was a lot of coffee involved!
Key components for success
As our first digital course ended, I found a few things to be vital to my students’ success in the new version of Elevate:
• Setting clear expectations at the beginning of the course helped them stick to the schedule.
• Keeping the learning process enjoyable (i.e. not boring) helped them to stay engaged.
• Emphasizing personal ownership of their experience boosted self-confidence. That meant giving them a certain level of responsibility and autonomy they wouldn’t necessarily see in an in-person setting, but they absolutely rose to the challenge.
It’s also important to remember that in the Canadian workforce, there are sometimes cultural aspects at play that can’t be ignored. Workers coming from other countries may be used to different social norms. Looking your employer in the eye at the first meeting, for example, seems like common sense to the average Canadian. However, some cultures see this as a sign of disrespect. Workers from those cultures, without the help of a skills trainer, might go into an interview looking only at the floor and be perceived as rude, hurting their chances at landing the job. This is just one of many examples!
On reflection, the experience has only reaffirmed my belief that there is a deep need for essential skills in every professional setting. Collaboration, innovation, problem solving, and communication all play essential roles in a successful career. Getting a job is one thing, but maintaining the right attitude and adapting oneself to the winds of change are the keys to meaningful, sustainable employment.
I also saw something unexpected: my students embraced the new way of learning. There was anxiety and discomfort for some at the beginning, but their competency of digital skills visibly grew, and their self-confidence grew as a result. I learned that simply by believing in them and providing (lots of) comfort and encouragement, I could give them the boost they needed to take on new challenges. As a result, they felt empowered to ask questions and take initiative when needed.
The Elevate program is such an amazing training, and I’m forever grateful to PTP for my part in it. Workplace skills, both practical and soft, are a means of opportunity, economic stability, and the potential for meaningful employment that leads to sustainable career paths. Now I also have the honor of offering my students digital skills they may not have learned elsewhere, along with an experience that builds their accountability and self-confidence in new and unexpected ways.