For adults who have been thinking about earning their GED or learning to speak English, now is the time to act. Strengthening the skills that employers are demanding is more critical than ever in today’s uncertain, rapidly changing economy.

For more than two decades, the unemployment rate in the Yakima Valley has remained persistently higher than the national average. Even as hiring has picked up in recent months, unemployment in our community remains nearly 2 percentage points higher than Washington state as a whole.

One clear lesson from the COVID pandemic and continuing economic turmoil is that increasing the skills of Yakima Valley’s workforce is essential to the well-being of both individual workers and our community. Unfortunately, here in Yakima County, 25% of adults have less than a high school diploma, leaving many of the fasting-growing and highest-paying jobs out of reach.

As someone who has worked with adult learners and nontraditional students for more than 30 years, I’ve seen first-hand how important it is to invest in increasing the skills of adult learners and providing strong programs leading to high school credentials.

In the past, communities often thought of adult education as just GED and English Language Acquisition. While those are still essential pathways for our community’s workforce, Yakima Valley College has launched additional opportunities for adult learners to boost their skills. Individuals looking to earn their GED or high school diploma can now simultaneously earn college credits in a career pathway they choose through I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education & Skills Training) classes. I-BEST gives adult learners flexibility in setting their own academic goals and can accelerate their entry into careers in health care, business, education or STEM fields.

While distance learning can seem daunting, at YVC we’ve found success in helping adult learners overcome concerns about access to technology by loaning out laptops and mobile hotspots. Distance learning can also provide more flexibility in accommodating work and family schedules since class content can be accessed anytime. Additionally, as faculty have adapted their teaching to the new online environment, adult learners have gained opportunities to learn to use new technologies, collaborate with classmates in multiple formats, and demonstrate knowledge in ways reflective of real world situations.

For those lacking a high school diploma, adult education can be transformative. Individuals with a diploma or equivalent make $9,620 more annually than non-graduates. That translates to an approximately 53% increase in income over a decade. That makes a huge impact in the lives of adult learners like Maria, a young mother who returned to school to earn her high school diploma and nursing assistant certification. Despite Maria’s worries about returning to school during a challenging time, she’s now on track to complete her certificate this winter and enter her dream career.

We know that not all of the jobs lost during the pandemic will come back. Now is the time to invest in reskilling and upskilling our workforce so that more workers have access to jobs offering family-sustaining wages. Doing so will fuel both economic mobility and a Yakima Valley that is more vibrant and resilient.

Marc Coomer is dean of YVC’s College and Career Readiness division, which offers a variety of programs for adult learners.