Kris Johnson. Courtesy of the AWB.

In the last few months, dozens of Washington students have gone online and signed up for accounts on a new matchmaking website.

But it’s not what you’re thinking.

The matchmaker is the Washington Workforce Portal, and it aims to connect college-age students with real-world job experience in their local communities. The portal has launched pilot projects in Spokane and the Tri-Cities, with plans to expand throughout the state.

For the students and employers that have already signed up to use it, the portal is not only a resource to meet a current need but also a bullish bet on Washington’s post-pandemic future.

More than a year into the worst pandemic in a century, recovery is still farther away than anyone would have hoped. And yet there are signs of optimism. New infection rates are falling; vaccine distribution is gaining momentum. We’re not there yet, but we can start to envision life on the other side of this ordeal.

One of the ways we can work now to prepare for the post-pandemic job market is by helping to equip young people with the knowledge and skills they will need to find a career in a world that will look different than it did just a year ago.

Even before the pandemic, Washington faced workforce-development challenges. A growing skills gap created a situation where too many jobs were left unfilled because employers couldn’t find qualified applicants, while too many young people struggled to find careers.

Without action, that trend might accelerate coming out of the pandemic in the same way the pandemic has accelerated other trends, such as the growth of digital commerce and working from home.

But the skills gap doesn’t have to grow.

The Washington Workforce Portal was created by the AWB Institute, the nonprofit workforce development arm of the Association of Washington Business. Work on the portal was underway before the pandemic, and the program launched last fall in Spokane and this February in the Tri-Cities.

In each of the two pilot communities, the portal has local support from higher education partners and from the employer community, with Greater Spokane Inc. and the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce helping to lead the effort in their respective regions.

Use of the portal is free for students, educators, and employers. To date, 14 colleges and universities have joined the effort. More than 20 employers have posted internships for summer 2021 including in-person, virtual and hybrid experiences. And more than 100 students have registered profiles in the portal, with demand expected to rise as we move into spring and the typical internship season.

For higher education partners, the portal is meeting a real need.

“I hear time and time again from employers that they are looking for employees who have had applicable job experience by the time they graduate from college,” Sandra Haynes, chancellor of WSU Tri-Cities, said last month during a virtual press conference announcing the launch of the portal in the Tri-Cities.

Rebekah Woods, president of Columbia Basin College, said the portal will expand opportunity for students from diverse backgrounds.

“More than 40 percent of our students are first-generation college students. By using this portal to increase the visibility of local internships, we are opening doors of opportunity for them that they may otherwise not have,” Woods said.

As we move into spring and begin to prepare for the end of the pandemic, it’s the perfect time to throw open the doors of opportunity for all Washington students. If you’re an employer or a student, check out the Washington Workforce Portal today. Let the matchmaking begin.

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.