A community college program to teach fundamental job skills to Maine workers has been transformed into a broad effort to help businesses and employees weather the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

As of last week, more than 10,000 Maine workers and students had earned badges in COVID-19 readiness through the program.

The Maine Community College System started working on a “microcredential” program a couple of years ago, said Dan Belyea, the system’s chief workforce development officer. The idea was to provide baseline training in a range of fields, such as pharmacy work and medical coding for insurance claims, but with significantly less time and commitment required than for a full college-level course. Successful students would earn badges, certifying that they had mastered the fundamentals in the field.

Then, when the pandemic spread a year ago, Belyea said, the system decided it had to figure out how to deliver essential knowledge about dealing with the coronavirus to businesses and employees.

Around the same time, Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the industry group HospitalityMaine, had been gathering information about how to deal with the pandemic from government, public health and industry sources. He said some sort of central collection of information was needed to help those in restaurant and lodging businesses sort through sometimes conflicting suggestions on how to safely take care of customers and workers.

“We knew we had to do things right, because if anyone got sick in your establishment, you’re in big trouble,” Hewins said.

But an equally big question was how to get that information out to workers and managers in the industry.

Hewins and Belyea got together and developed a short course that an employee could take online to learn how to adopt pandemic basics – the times when it’s essential to wash hands, for instance, or what constitutes proper physical barriers between employees and customers.

The free online course – hosted on HospitalityMaine’s website – takes anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes to complete and ends with a quiz to make sure the student understands the lessons. And that’s how the student earns the badge, which is digital and can be added to a worker’s resume.

And there are “microcredentials” in other areas, Belyea said, built around de-escalating situations in which a customer refuses to wear a mask, or dealing with stress caused by the pandemic.

As of last week, more than 10,000 people had earned badges in COVID-19 readiness, Belyea said, and now the community colleges are about to launch another course for teachers and school custodians focusing on proper air filtration in public schools. Another, for the ski industry, focuses on running a ski area during the pandemic – when skiers should be allowed in the lodge, for instance, or how to safely handle fitting people for ski and boot rentals.

Belyea said the basics of the badge program, such as setting up the computer program to provide the training and testing, aren’t breaking new ground, but it was gratifying to get the information out quickly and have it focused on essential knowledge in a crisis.

“It’s not like this was really rocket science, but it was a matter of putting it all together,” he said.

Travis Ferland, owner of the Rangeley Inn, said he posts the COVID-19 readiness badges that he and his employees have earned near the entrance to his lodge and hopes it will help put customers’ minds at ease about the steps being taken to keep them healthy.

“We’ll all feel more comfortable” knowing workers have a deeper understanding of how to care for their and customers’ well-being, Ferland said.

Ferland has cut back on operations during the pandemic, limiting the number of rooms available for guests and shutting down the tavern, but he wants to make sure the inn will continue to operate safely until vaccines are widely distributed and, he hopes, tourism rebounds to normal levels.

The COVID-19 course, he said, came out at a key time last spring, when the pandemic was spreading rapidly and there was a lot of uncertainty about how to operate a business safely.

“We were all trying to figure out what our best practices were going to be and how we were going to operate during the pandemic,” he said.

The course reinforced some of the messages Ferland was giving to his employees, he said, and suggested practices that he was unaware of at the time. It offered greater detail and clear explanations of why the practices are important to follow, he said.

If he does any new hiring, Ferland said, he plans to make sure new employees take the course. The fact that it’s free is a help to a business struggling with a reeling tourism economy.

Hewins said that’s also key to the industry as a whole, and he hopes to build on the success of the COVID-19 readiness program once the pandemic is under control.

He and Belyea are working on a new program focusing on customer service to make sure the tourists who come back later this year and the next are treated well.

“We want to build back ‘the Maine style,’ ” he said.

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