On March 5, 2021, Ohlone College and the City of Fremont announced the start of the Earn and Learn Fremont (ELF) Pilot Program aimed at helping local residents who were laid off because of COVID-19 jumpstart new careers in advanced manufacturing. Just 6 weeks later, on April 16th, 17 students completed the program and did just that—100% of participants now have jobs in the high-demand, high-paying manufacturing sector.

“We are excited to be an integral part of this program in giving local community members the tools and skills they need to transition back into the workforce while building a more inclusive and diverse labor force,” said Dr. Eric Bishop, Superintendent/President of the Ohlone Community College district. “This program also bridges a path to higher-skilled opportunities in Smart Manufacturing.

The program itself was a partnership between regional industry, academia, workforce boards and city departments. The Alameda County Workforce Development Board (ACWDB) and San Jose’s Work2Future provided federal funding and made sure the program was reaching Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)-eligible job seekers, while the City of Fremont’s Family Resource Center provided wraparound support services to help participants as they transitioned careers.

“With this first-of-its-kind pilot program, Fremont is developing a concerted and sustainable strategy to build a much-needed skilled talent pipeline for the advanced manufacturing sector while helping low-income workers who have been economically impacted by COVID-19 quickly pivot to a stable, promising new career,” said Fremont Mayor Lily Mei in a previous interview. “We are excited about the long-term impact this program will make in this first cohort’s lives and hope to expand this program in the future.”

At the same time, Ohlone College’s Smart Manufacturing Technology (SMTech) Program provided the “Learn” component. In addition to receiving paid work experience at Fremont-based medical device company Evolve Manufacturing Technologies, Inc., participants earned an industry-recognized Certificate of Competency by completing a short-term, virtual, occupational skills training course through Ohlone’s SMTech program.

To ensure technology needs were not a deterrent to completion, participants were also provided free laptops for the duration of the program. Additionally, if participants choose to continue their education, they can apply the three credits earned through ELF to one of SMTech’s degree or certificate programs.

Located at the heart of advanced manufacturing territory in Fremont, Ohlone has always been at the forefront of addressing the large skills gap that exists in the region’s advanced manufacturing sector. It is that need that sparked the development of the Ohlone’s SMTech program after a two-year employer and stakeholder engagement effort. Ironically, it was this same program that provided the framework necessary to quickly develop a 6-week training track for ELF participants.

“Ohlone College’s mantra is students first and the college prides itself on providing opportunities for student success and progression into industry,” says Dr. Rose-Margaret Ekeng-Itua, professor of engineering at Ohlone College. “The Smart Manufacturing Technology Program at Ohlone seeks to bridge the socio-economic gaps and inequities in our communities by providing training that leads to high-demand, high-paying jobs for members of the community especially those from historically marginalized groups."

Like everywhere in the United States, the City of Fremont’s Economic Development Department witnessed firsthand the disparate financial impact of COVID-19 on certain sectors such as retail and hospitality, and with that certain populations such as women and minorities who are typically employed by that sector. At the same time, demand for local talent in advanced manufacturing was swelling as the need for rapid COVID-19 test kits, ventilators, and COVID-19 treatment equipment increased. With over 900 manufacturing companies and 30,000 manufacturing jobs, the City of Fremont and Ohlone saw a way to make a real impact on the region.

“We knew that there was an opportunity to connect those who have been laid off or stuck in low-wage, high-turnover jobs with the robust employer base and promising career pathways that exist in Fremont,” says Tina Kapoor, economic development manager, City of Fremont. “We began working on this program in November 2020 by beginning conversations with Evolve Manufacturing Technologies, Inc. who needed more employees; local workforce development boards serving low-income individuals; and Ohlone Community College to create a unique program that could not only provide real opportunity to participants but also fill a critical workforce need.”

Just five months later, the ELF program was inaugurating its first class.

“Given the diversity of partners involved, things came together very quickly,” says Ekeng-Itua. “The key was getting to that shared vision of not only what the outcomes were but the process of achieving those outcomes. Even with all the complications created by COVID, having the right partners in place made this all possible."

Going forward, both Ohlone and the City of Fremont are hoping to replicate the success of the ELF program with other employers.

“We believe that the ELF Pilot Program can be used as a model to help more displaced workers pivot to careers that lead to economic self-sufficiency and are currently looking for more interested employers who would like to implement this program at their company,” says Kapoor. “We are hopeful that the right formula which led to the success of the pilot, and the positive experience of the employer and participants will lead to more companies willing to partner in a way that supports both students and the regional economy.”

“I am so proud of our ELF students,” says Ekeng-Itua. “They have triumphed despite the pandemic, acquired new skills, and been hired into real jobs at Evolve Manufacturing. Their stories are stories of hope, strength and the American Dream.”