These are trying times. Maine people, employers, workers and students are facing many challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is promising that Maine is gradually reopening its economy. People are beginning to look ahead and move forward. We are hopeful that Maine will get back to work and move forward with our new normal soon while adhering to new health and safety standards, and that Maine’s economic recovery is swift and strong.

When it comes to employment, the workforce we knew before COVID-19 has changed dramatically. Before the pandemic, Maine had historically low unemployment rates. Open jobs were tough to fill.

Many organizations, including ours, were working with businesses, educational institutions, and the state to tackle the biggest challenge Maine employers and our state’s economy faced — growing the size and skill level of Maine’s workforce.

We are committed to staying this course.

Regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, growing Maine’s workforce is still a top priority for the success of Maine people and our state’s economy. This requires continued collaboration and effort, starting with Maine’s youngest learners, supporting them throughout their education, and reaching adult learners and those who are under- and unemployed.

A host of programs that help position Maine people for success have come together in recent years under the umbrella of MaineSpark. The MaineSpark coalition is working toward a common goal: that 60 percent of Maine people have education or workforce credentials by 2025. Whether it is a traditional college degree or a certificate or credential demonstrating mastery of a skill, postsecondary education better positions Maine’s economy, employers, and citizens for success.

Many jobs that are deemed “essential” during the pandemic are in skilled trades that require career and technical education. These jobs are in fields including health care, construction, auto repair and maintenance, plumbers, welders, and electricians, to name a few. Jobs in these fields continue to grow. They are well-paying and still in high demand. Working toward making sure opportunities are accessible for Maine people in these fields is critical.

To that end, and to boost Maine’s economic recovery as soon as the pandemic passes, we need to continue to make sure we are reaching all Maine kids. This includes those who are at risk of slipping through the cracks and youth in racially, socio-economically or geographically underrepresented populations.

We are excited to share that our organizations partnered to fund four $5,000 MaineSpark grants totaling $20,000 to innovative initiatives promoting postsecondary success for underrepresented student populations. Recipients are Oxford Hills Community Education Exchange, Project Launch, Rural Aspirations, and the University of Maine at Machias.

These awardees have initiated programs to help connect students’ aspirations with making postsecondary education a reality for them. The programs they have launched to achieve this goal focus on increasing parent involvement in college and career readiness, and supporting school counseling innovation, including projects that increase the effectiveness of school counselors and school counseling teams to address barriers to underserved populations. They also focus on increasing business engagement in college and career readiness through internships, mentorship programs, career days, and more.

Each program is helping to successfully transition students to higher education, succeed in postsecondary education, and achieve a degree or credential. Helping underrepresented students realize their highest potential helps grow the size and skill level of Maine’s workforce, and helps Maine communities, employers and our state’s people and economy thrive.

We are proud to support these programs through MaineSpark.

We also are proud that together, MaineSpark partners are making progress in reaching the 60 percent by 2025 goal. Since MaineSpark’s inception in 2016, the percentage of Mainers with a degree or credential has grown from 43 percent to 45 percent.

MaineSpark partner initiatives across the state are truly transformative for the individuals and families they reach and the communities they impact. Continued innovation and support for existing and new programs is critical to Maine’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery and positioning our state and people for success — now more than ever.

Wendy Ault is the executive director of MELMAC Education Foundation. Jason Judd is the executive director of Educate Maine.