October 22, 2020

By ROLAND FLEMING

A new program that will partner students with small business owners is being offered to alumni at Conestoga College and Wilfrid Laurier University and it will not cost them anything.

The Digital Innovation Skills Certificate (DISC) program will accept 60 students aged 18 to 29, who will be split into two sections of 30. They will be teamed with 10 local small businesses. The program runs for a duration of 11 weeks and is subsidized entirely by Ontario’s Youth Skills Connection fund. To be eligible, students must have either a degree or diploma that is not business-related.

Although Conestoga and Laurier are partners in the project, any graduate with a degree or diploma can apply. The program is focusing on non-business graduates in order to help those who may be struggling to find employment. The program will be of mutual benefit to local business owners and potential students.

“We are offering really in-demand skills that are solving a really important problem on both sides, both for students and small business owners,” said Jeff Mitchell, the DISC program co-ordinator.
Many local business owners either do not have the knowledge or skills to compete on the digital market, or if they do, don’t have the time to devote to building their online sales. These businesses will find themselves increasingly at a disadvantage if they do not adapt to the digital age.

“The candidates we’re looking to support are … businesses who are struggling to achieve real growth digitally,” said Mitchell.

The process of choosing those businesses is still being conducted, but they plan to partner with a range of different kinds of business, whose size will range from about five to 40 employees. Every small business owner who participates in the program will get a team of five to six students who will be managed by a coach from a local digital marketing industry. As participants of the program, small businesses will have an initial consultation with the DISC leadership team.

“The outcome of that consultation will be the creation of a problem package that really defines the digital needs of the small business owner,” said Mitchell.

The program seeks to fill the digital gap for these businesses while providing relevant and marketable skills to graduate students looking for work. Students participating in the program will be learning three key components in order to execute a digital marketing and e-commerce project that will strategically impact the growth of these local small businesses.

“We’re talking about using these skills to bring in real dollars for real businesses,” said Mitchell.

The first component will teach students how to build an online store using Shopify. Shopify is a platform that businesses can use to create an online store, and is a partner of the DISC program. Upon graduation students will be able to work as freelance sales representatives for Shopify.

After learning how to build an online store, students will also learn how to drive traffic to that store through a digital marketing module. Hubspot is a digital marketing tool that students will engage with and is also a partner of the DISC program.

“They will gain an understanding and mastery in things like content production, leveraging social media to amplify your messaging, and using search engine optimization,” said Mitchell.
“I think they’ll really hit the ground running with timely, current skill sets, from some really great partners … a chance to apply knowledge and skills in a real small business environment,” said Sheila McGlashan, manager of part-time studies and special projects at Conestoga College. The final component will be to learn project management skills. This component of the program is being custom built by Conestoga faculty.

“Our role is to facilitate the project management module to provide a foundation to help the students plan and execute a project contextual to the defined digital skills for small business in today’s marketplace,” said McGlashan.

Students will use all of these skills to complete a capstone project to promote digital growth in the business. Each business partner will be granted a $2,500 budget for the capstone project that the students will be developing. Students who complete the program will receive a graduate certificate from Wilfrid Laurier.

Students can apply now to be part of the first class beginning on March 6. Applications can be filled out at www.discwr.com. There will be some competition for entry into the program, as more than 70 students have already applied. The second offering of the program this year will begin the first week of June.

For students interested in learning more about the program, information sessions are being held on Feb. 2 and 9 at Shopify in Waterloo.

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