A new, statewide remote worker certification program launched by Washington State University Extension is helping rural Washington residents seize opportunities in an increasingly digital workplace.

Created in partnership with Northwest businesses, technology groups, and employment agencies, the online course was developed to provide unemployed and underemployed workers with skills for success in the COVID-19 and post-pandemic era.

“Rural areas have been hard-hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19,” said Monica Babine, senior associate for WSU Extension’s Program for Digital Initiatives. “At the same time, changes in the workplace have created economic opportunities for people who have lost jobs, are unable to secure them, and want to stay in their communities, even as employers are increasingly recognizing the value of remote work.”

Last fall, Extension partnered with Microsoft, GWATA, the Association of Washington Business Institute, Confluence Health, the Columbia Basin Foundation, and Okanogan County WorkSource on a regional pilot of Utah State University Extension’s Master Remote Work Professional Certification.

Two cohorts of regional participants joined nine WSU Extension faculty in completing the four-week, $200 course. They gained work and career planning skills, including use of remote applications such as Canvas, Zoom, Trello, and Slack, online etiquette, and how to conduct a successful job hunt. Partner institutions provided funding, scholarships, and recruited students for the course.

Kristi O’Neill, community & business engagement coordinator for WorkSource Okanogan County, recruited more than a dozen unemployed and underemployed participants and received many additional calls from interested residents. Over the past several years, she has encountered hundreds of job seekers looking for opportunities in non-traditional, flexible work settings.

“With so many of our local jobs having changed overnight from in person to virtual, this training met an immediate need,” O’Neill said. “The confidence and hope that it gave participants, as well as the awareness of how to find and connect with new opportunities, really helped them be prepared to seek remote work.”

Learning success story

Oroville, Washington resident Justine Salazar benefited herself and her family through the course. A hair stylist, Salazar was out of work for months during the pandemic, and as a single mother of two school-age children, she found herself reevaluating her career prospects due to their need for remote learning.

Closeup of Justine Salazar
Justine Salazar

“All of the change and challenges from the last year made me feel very open to new opportunities,” Salazar said. She began the course last November with hopes that it would help her regain momentum in business.

Salazar had been interested in remote work for years and found the course idea exciting, but had no plans to apply for a new job. Learning how to use remote applications and connect with people professionally, “I really took away some valuable information and skills,” she said. A few months later, she landed what she described as her dream job, working remotely as the community liaison at WorkSource.

“This training really gave me that shine as a candidate,” Salazar said. “If you’re wanting to develop your skills, go in a different direction, or need a backup plan, this course could help you be the best that you can be.”

Planning a statewide offering

Extension’s evaluation of the pilot found that it benefited people in need of remote skills. When surveyed, most participants with no prior remote work experience said that their ability to use online technology and search for a job improved.

Closeup of Monica Babine
Monica Babine

“This was a very successful, cost-effective way to test the waters and identify a program that meets rural residents’ career needs,” Babine said. “Remote work has an ever-growing role in the future workplace. This training isn’t just important for rural residents today, it’s critical going forward.”

WSU Extension is now working with the Association of Washington Business Institute to develop a statewide offering and secure additional funding partners, and is also exploring expanded mentorship and a pre-session workshop to better prepare participants.

“Piloting and evaluating this course was a wonderful opportunity to benefit people across rural Washington,” said Christina Sanders, director of WSU’s Division of Governmental Studies and Services. “It would not have been possible without our incredible partners at Microsoft, the Association of Washington Business Institute, Confluence Health, GWATA, and the Okanogan County WorkSource.”

“WSU’s original land-grant charge was to provide education and technical training that empowers working people to build a better life and society,” added Mike Gaffney, director of Extension’s Community and Economic Development Program Unit. “This fits directly into our historic mission.”