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Lee County School District makes hard advances in soft skills program

A new program from The School District of Lee County helps local residents brush up on all-important soft skills.

Marliss Brockington, a program coordinator for The School District of Lee County says the skills taught at Upskills Village are both for people entering the workforce and "people who have been in the workforce and want to improve their interpersonal skills."
Marliss Brockington, a program coordinator for The School District of Lee County says the skills taught at Upskills Village are both for people entering the workforce and "people who have been in the workforce and want to improve their interpersonal skills."
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Soft skills like critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving are needed in every career. But they often aren’t taught the way technical, industry-specific skills are.

The School District of Lee County is working to change that with its Upskill Village micro-credentialing program offered through the district’s Adult & Career Education Department. Through the free program, Lee County residents can earn a micro-credential and digital badge in eight soft skills: oral communication, empathy, critical thinking, resilience, intercultural fluency, collaboration, creative problem-solving and initiative.

The free courses are offered online and in-person and can be taken by Lee Country residents ages 16 and up. Funding for the program came from a grant received by the Lee County Economic Development Office from the American Rescue Plan Act’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.

“We’re trying to make Lee County residents more employable by giving them skills that set them apart or make them more job-ready and qualified to enter the workforce,” says Marliss Brockington, an adult education teacher on assignment and the program coordinator for The School District of Lee County. “But these skills are not just for people who are entering the workforce; they’re also for people who have been in the workforce and want to improve their interpersonal skills.

“Everyone who takes these classes walks away with so much knowledge about themselves and how to deal with people,” she continues. “They’re really fantastic classes, and there’s a huge need for them.”

Vania Garcia, a learning resource specialist in the ESE department at The School District of Lee County and an instructor in the Upskill Village program, has taught oral communication, empathy, collaboration and creative problem-solving classes for the program and has seen students of various ages and from all walks of life. Light-bulb moments are common during classes.

“I do not believe many people think they truly need this until they’re in the class and go, ‘Oh, I actually don’t know how to do that’ or ‘It’s really hard for me to share an office space with people I don’t know how to communicate with,’” says Garcia. 

Students also learn how these skills are useful both at work and at home. “We’re actually in a world where we are building relationships everywhere we go,” says Garcia. “A very aha moment where you could see it click for them was when they started going, ‘Oh yeah, I do that with my spouse’ or ‘Yes, I have that kind of relationship with my family members.’”

Local employers helped the school district shape the program’s curriculum, and the classes can also be offered as on-site training programs tailored to a particular company’s or organization’s needs. “We can cater it to any employer looking to offer these skills to build better employees, and they’re free,” says Brockington. “If you want to improve your business, don’t overlook the importance of soft skills. They’re crucial.”

Angela Hemstreet, director of employment services at Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida, understands that importance. While staff members at the organization are passionate about what they do, speaking about it in public doesn’t always come naturally. That’s why Goodwill staffers received oral communication training through the Upskill Village program last December. “I wanted the oral communication training for them to help them prepare to overcome that fear of public speaking,” she says.

Hemstreet saw employees work through their discomfort during the course’s interactive exercises. “They made a big difference, because they had to practice right there and were thinking on their feet,” she says. “I feel like I watched them get more comfortable as they were forced to practice.”

Her goal for employees? To be able to speak about the organization and what they do there when attending chamber events or interacting with community partners. Several employees came to her after the training to say that it had helped them do just that.

“Not every single person came and told me that, but those who were very nervous before now came back and said they were better prepared,” says Hemstreet. “For me, that was the evidence I needed.”

Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida has already scheduled a second Upskill Village training course on intercultural fluency in September. “Soft skills are so important, because most of us are dealing with people, not machines,” says Hemstreet. 

And no matter where you are in your career, brushing up on these skills is never a bad idea. “There is always a gain in learning,” says Garcia. “It’s a way to get out of your comfort zone, and that is something that we need to strive toward, getting out of our comfort zone and finding maybe what we are lacking.”



Beth Luberecki

Nokomis-based freelance writer Beth Luberecki, a Business Observer contributor, writes about business, travel and lifestyle topics for a variety of Florida and national publications. Her work has appeared in publications and on websites including Washington Post’s Express, USA Today, Florida Trend, and Learn more about her at

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