When a comprehensive workforce training plan for the Austin area was unveiled by community leaders in 2017, the unemployment rate was hovering around 3% and a major aim was simply to help local people get good jobs and avoid being left behind amid the booming economy.

Three years and the start of a global pandemic later, the regional business climate has taken a sharp turn for the worse.

Unemployment in the Austin metro area is at a seasonally adjusted 5.4% — after spiking to a 30-year high of 12% in April — and about 70,000 local people are out of work, double the typical monthly average.

But the 2017 workforce training plan, updated for the era of social distancing, has undergone something of a transformation as well — and it’s now being viewed as a potential lifeline to help the region recover from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“The new part (of the plan) is rapid retraining in a digital environment,” said Tamara Atkinson, executive director of Workforce Solutions Capital Area. “We want to provide pathways out of poverty for those impacted workers in our community” who lost jobs because of the pandemic.

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