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New North gener8tor Upskilling helps those hit hardest by pandemic

Posted on Jun 1, 2021 :: Technology
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Before she came upon the New North gener8tor Upskilling Program, Rachelle Katchenago was struggling through the challenges of the pandemic job market and bouncing between temp jobs.

Completing the program marked the beginning of a new and improved outlook for the Neenah resident. Katchenago completed free courses in sales and customer service offered through the program’s partnership with LinkedIn Learning. In November, she landed a full-time role as an account services representative with EatStreet, and in April, she shared her success story on “Good Morning America.”

Katchenago is just one of many who have benefited from the free program created by New North, Inc. to help workers hit hardest by the pandemic’s economic fallout. When the challenges to those working in the hospitality sector became clear, New North worked quickly to launch the program, tapping startup accelerator gener8tor to lead the initiative.

New North began conversations with gener8tor in July, and five weeks later, the first cohort was up and running, with the help of partnering organizations Microsoft, the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation and Thrivent.

“We were really trying to move as quickly as the crisis and trying to deliver the resources as efficiently as possible to a group who was disproportionately impacted to help them get back on their feet, while also keeping it modest enough that we could run a cohort and get them one-on-one attention that we like to offer through our accelerators,” says Joe Kirgues, co-founder of gener8tor.

The program offers participants self-paced virtual curriculum from Microsoft, LinkedIn and GitHub to learn skills for in-demand jobs, earn industry-recognized certifications and access job opportunities. It includes one-on-one concierge support from the gener8tor team on the skills content as well as coaching on interview skills and resume-writing and virtual access to a network of peers for support and community.

That support is key for a group that has experienced extra hardships throughout the pandemic. “The big part of what we’re trying to make people feel comfortable with through the program is, you have a safe place to come in and learn not just the skills of being in a new career but the culture of it,” Kirgues says.

The first two programs focused on sales and customer service training, with the idea that many of the skills people gain in the hospitality and retail sectors could transfer well to digitally enabled sales or customer service roles. In addition to customer service and sales, participants could be suited for financial analyst, graphic design and coding positions, Kirgues says.

The program saw a 50 percent-plus job placement rate for the first two cohorts, with 63 percent in the first group and more than 50 percent in the second group landing jobs, numbers gener8tor keeps working to improve. Some participants secure jobs before they’re even finished with the program.

A third cohort, dedicated to IT administration skills, graduated May 20. Rebecca Deschane, vice president of talent development for New North, says the latest program drew individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, including people with some IT experience, those with none and some individuals who had already completed previous cohorts.

As it was designing the program, New North wanted to make sure it would reach underserved populations and minorities, a goal it has achieved. At least 50 percent of the participants were female in the first two cohorts, and 36 percent came from underrepresented groups.

“We were really thoughtful about helping to make sure that women and minorities … were aware of the opportunity and then connecting them to the upskilling program,” Deschane says.

Shayna Hetzel, community and social impact investment director at the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate & Social Impact, says that goal, in part, is what inspired American Family to partner on the initiative. The Madison-based company is dedicated to helping people learn new skills that provide opportunities, she says.

“That doesn’t just mean for our own employees, but for our community members and our neighbors to get the opportunity to get back to work during the time of an ongoing pandemic where the need is great,” Hetzel says.

American Family had worked with Microsoft and gener8tor in the past, launching a startup accelerator with Microsoft in 2014 and working with gener8tor in 2018 to launch gBETA Social Impact to provide a platform for emerging nonprofits and for-profit companies with a social impact focus. Hetzel says gener8tor Upskilling takes the accelerator model and applies it to people.

The insurer also puts in sweat equity, with American Family team members helping program participants with resumes and interviews and leading information sessions on job skills. One of the first cohort graduates joined the American Family Connect team after finishing the program.

Hetzel says she hopes to see the program continue to build density and velocity, as the need for digital skills will only increase. “Digital skills aren’t going away. We’re an insurance company, but truly we’ve shifted to, we’re a technology company that specializes in insurance,” she says.

The program’s reach continues to grow both within the region and outside. The NEW Manufacturing Alliance launched a program similar to gener8tor Upskilling with the help of an investment from Microsoft. It uses LinkedIn Learning to offer data analytics training to manufacturing professionals — a NEWMA Industry 4.0 study funded by Microsoft revealed data analytics as companies’ top tech need.

In addition to completing LinkedIn Learning courses, the training includes content experts who can expand on topics, and the program culminates with participants completing and presenting a capstone project.

“I really wanted to make sure that there was going to be that takeaway. You’re going to be responsible for utilizing what you learn in some type of project, something that will add value to you as well as your employer,” NEWMA Executive Director Ann Franz says.

Outside of the region, gener8tor Upskilling is serving as a template for similar programs throughout the nation. It offers programs in Wyoming, Indiana, Virginia, Alabama and Alaska, a list Kirgues anticipates will continue to grow. 

“I don’t know anywhere else in America that we would have felt comfortable going from first discussion to a program in four weeks,” Kirgues says of Northeast Wisconsin.

New North is working with statewide partners and regional economic development organizations to see if there’s a way to make gener8tor Upskilling available on a statewide level. Workforce remains the No. 1 challenge the economy is facing, and the organization wants to continue to provide upskilling opportunities.

Deschane is confident the New North is the region to lead the charge. “I think for Northeast Wisconsin, it’s really about our willingness to partner with entities, from a public-private sector partnership. There’s that willingness to collaborate and to share ideas and to identify who has that skill set they can bring in and add to an idea to make it successful,” she says.