Innovative grants help workers transition into new careers

By Ellie Ashford

More than 10,000 Virginians have earned workforce credentials to help them attain in-demand jobs and big wage increases, thanks to a state grant program that covers two-thirds of the cost of community college training programs.

Under Virginia’s New Economy Workforce Credential Grant program, one-third of the tuition for eligible non-credit certification programs is paid by the student, one-third is paid by the state when the student completes the training, and one-third is paid by the state when the student earns an industry-recognized credential.

The success of the program “has surpassed even our most optimistic expectations,” says Del. Kathy Byron, a member of the Virginia General Assembly, who sponsored the legislation creating the grant program in 2016. “This program is changing lives and transforming our workforce as a result.”

The budget just approved by the Virginia Generally Assembly includes $19 million for the next two years, a 25 percent increase in funding.

Wage increases

An early look at wage outcomes shows wages for grant recipients increased 25 to 50 percent statewide, says Craig Herndon, vice chancellor of workforce development for the Virginia Community College System.

Students who earned a credential in manufacturing through the program saw their annual salaries increase from about $37,000 to $48,700, Herndon says. People who earned a certificate in commercial driving saw wages rise from $24,000 to $32,500 on average, and in welding, salaries rose from less than $20,000 to nearly $30,000.

Much of the success of the program is due to “tremendous support from the business community,” Herndon says – from lobbying lawmakers to expand funding to working with colleges to identify training programs leading to in-demand jobs.

Among students who received a grant, the average age is 36, he notes, and most had no previous college experience.

“We’re reaching people we haven’t reached before,” he says. One-fifth of the students in the program had received federal aid through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) the previous year.

Expansion of the federal Pell Grant program to include non-credit credential programs would be even more helpful, Herndon says, as $1,000 for the student share on average is still out of reach for many.

Powerline workers

At rural Southside Virginia Community College, “the tuition help was huge for students,” says Keith Harkins, vice president of workforce and continuing education.

Since the program started at Southside in spring 2017, enrollment in eligible workforce credential programs has increased 30 to 40 percent, he says.

Of the 130 students who completed a training program for powerline workers, 118 benefited from the credential grants, meaning their cost was just $4,200 for the 11-week, full-time program, Harkins says.

Students who completed that program earned credentials from the National Center for Construction Education and Research, covering safe climbing techniques, a commercial driver’s license, certificates in basic traffic control, OSHA 10, CPR and chainsaw safety, as well as a powerline certificate.

“We’ve absolutely seen demand increase for powerline workers,” Harkin says, as baby boomers make up a large percent of the current workforce.

The state grants have also helped students cover the costs of certificate programs in precision machining, truck driving, welding, nursing assistance, medication aides and phlebotomy and other allied health fields at Southwide.

The college puts together an array of federal and other funding assistance to help students cover their one-third share of the tuition, and some companies pay students’ entire costs entirely.

Southside’s precision-machining program is operated in partnership with the Fort Lee Army base, with the goal of training soldiers transitioning to civilian life, Harkin adds. There are plenty of manufacturing jobs in the region at companies who supply defense contractors for which veterans are particularly in demand.

There’s more to the story! Read the full article in CC Daily.

Ellie Ashford

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.