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Virginia Journal of Education

Not Everyone Needs a Four-Year Degree

Virginia’s trailblazing Workforce Credential Grant helps young Virginians achieve the ‘American Dream.’

By Randy Stamper, Amanda Christopher, Jim Babb and Craig Butterworth

Luke Storey grew up in Southside Virginia and has always been something of a ranch hand, working the fields and farms that crisscross the rural landscape. He’s become a bit of an agricultural expert in the process, almost by default: There hasn’t been much else to do. Job opportunities have historically been relatively scarce in this neck of the woods.

But Storey, 19, got word of Southside Virginia Community College’s Power Line Worker training school, and things began to change quickly.

“I was tired of working on different farms, insulation businesses and stuff like that,” he says. “I knew I wanted something different and better, and I knew it was going to be hard to get a job in this industry without some sort of training. So I signed up.”

After 11 weeks of intensive training, Storey became one of more than a dozen members of the school’s inaugural class. He graduated, earned a handful of certificates and credentials and, more importantly, he found a good-paying job.

“While I was in the program, I started applying to jobs and I got an offer to work with Southside Virginia Electric Cooperative, which was my number one choice,” he says. “We graduated on a Thursday and I started work the next Monday.”

Though he’s still training, Storey says he’s looking forward to his first real climb up a utility pole. And he’s unafraid, saying, “With just about every other outdoor job, you don’t have to work because you’re staying home with your family. But, linemen are out there, putting your power back on, no matter what the weather conditions are.”

Being gainfully employed and doing something he likes, Storey says, have also done wonders for his self-esteem: “It makes me feel better knowing that my paychecks are coming in and that I’m paying a lot of my bills on my own and not having to rely on my parents because I know it’s hard enough for them having to pay for themselves, let alone me and my sister.”

A New Option, New Success Stories
Storey is just one the success stories coming out of Virginia’s “New Economy Workforce Credential Grant program,” a first-in-the-nation, performance-based strategy to match young people with the competencies and credentials that businesses are seeking in their employees. Passed by the 2016 General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Terry McAuliffe, the program slashes student costs by two-thirds for targeted workforce training programs and opens a new path to in-demand jobs for thousands of people who might not have gone to college otherwise.

The program, referred to as WCG, was implemented statewide last July, led by Virginia’s community colleges. It saves prospective students serious money. Instead of being asked to pay the entire cost of a training program at enrollment–the standard practice for many years—students pursuing identified high-demand credentials are charged only one-third of the cost. Under a unique pay-for-performance plan, the state pays the college the other two-thirds: one-third when the student completes the program, and the final one-third when the student earns the industry-recognized credential.

“There were folks who were ready and willing to take the training, but who just could not afford it,” says Dr. Craig Herndon, vice chancellor of workforce development for the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). “Now, we’re able to help those who didn’t know we exist to get the training they need to land jobs with family-sustaining wages.”

These workforce training programs are based on competencies rather than traditional credit hours or seat time. Often lasting only three to six months and focused on specific skills needed by businesses, WCG programs are offered in fields such as health care, information technology, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and skilled trades, among others. The resulting credentials provide a gateway to tens of thousands of vacant jobs that pay an average of $30,000 to $50,000 per year, often more.

Since the program’s inception, more than 130 training programs have been approved for funding by the State Board for Community Colleges, in concert with the Virginia Board of Workforce Development. The average cost of these programs is about $3,000 with, again, students responsible for paying one-third at enrollment; when they complete the training and credential exam successfully, the commonwealth pays the rest of the bill. The only eligibility qualification is that the student must live in Virginia (they may not be a resident of another state, nor move to Virginia to take advantage of the program). Students must also sign a promissory note, agreeing to pay the second third of the cost if they drop out or do not successfully complete the training program.

The WCG program took off faster than anyone expected. Just nine months after last July’s launch, more than 4,000 Virginians had enrolled, over half of those had completed their courses, and 1,300 had already earned industry-recognized credentials that have helped many of them secure good-paying jobs.

Importantly, WCG’s design ensures that the credentials earned are directly aligned to jobs that Virginia businesses are eager to fill. Colleges must submit proposals to the State Board for Community Colleges to receive approval for funding, making the case that there are current and projected jobs available in the college’s service region that the training and credential are aligned to. This maximizes the likelihood that students will be employed when they complete their training programs and earn their credentials.

Which is just what Kouri Tweedy did, going from holding two part-time jobs with no career path to three credentials and a full-time job in the health care field in a matter of months. Tweedy, a 24-year-old student at Central Virginia Community College (CVCC), admits that school was not her favorite thing and that her employment history was unstable, but she wanted to start on a career path. She first heard about the WCG program at her local Virginia Employment Commission Office and decided to apply.

“Through WCG and financial assistance for noncredit training, Kouri took classes at CVCC over a four-month period, paying less than one-third of the tuition rate.” When it was all said and done, she earned the following certifications: Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, EKG Technician, and Phlebotomy Technician by the American Medical Certification Association.

“For the money and time spent, you can’t beat coming out with three certifications and walking into a full-time job,” Kouri says. “It was a lot of work in a small period of time but totally worth it. I’m finishing my internship and have a job thanks to a teacher recommendation.”

She’ll make more money in her new career than in her two previous part-time jobs, using her newly earned certification as a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant to work with patients, conduct lab work, provide emergency medical services, and assist doctors.

“I’m sure the medical field is where I want to continue,” Kouri says. “I want to continue taking classes and hopefully one day become a nurse practitioner. The WCG was my gateway to that path. It really opened my eyes to realize how important education is and showed me that if you push through it, you will go places, both personally and financially.”

She still can’t believe the WCG opportunity came her way and credits the teachers at CVCC for helping change her mind about school: “They cared that each one of us passed the certification exams. One of my teachers had more than 25 years of experience in the medical field. She was very hands-on.”

WCG’s History
The WCG program is Virginia’s response to the changing workforce needs of Virginia’s businesses. In 2015, the General Assembly, recognizing the high number of jobs that require more than a high-school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree, directed Virginia’s Community Colleges to develop a specific plan to expand the number of workforce training credentials and certifications to meet the demands of Virginia's workforce.

WCG was established to:

• create and sustain a demand-driven supply of credentialed workers for high-demand occupations by addressing and closing the gap between the skills needed by workers in the Commonwealth and the skills of the available workforce;

     • expand the affordability of workforce training and credentialing; and

     • increase the interest of current and future Virginia workers in technician, technologist, and trade-level positions to fill available and emerging jobs here that require less than a bachelor's degree but more than a high school diploma.

Dr. Glenn DuBois, chancellor of Virginia’s Community Colleges, spent the summer of 2015 meeting with business, civic and educational leaders across Virginia to discuss the realities of the 21st-century workplace. These discussions confirmed recent research showing that the workforce training needs of Virginia families and businesses were outpacing the Commonwealth’s existing policy structure and resources.

Comprehending that misalignment requires an understanding of the staffing ratio consistent throughout today’s workplace – the 1-2-7 ratio. In general, for every one job that requires an advanced degree, there are two jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, and seven jobs that require postsecondary training that leads to an associate’s degree or industry-recognized credential beyond a high-school diploma, but not a four-year degree. Those missing sevens, felt throughout Virginia’s economy, are exactly the jobs the WCG program works to fill.

What’s Next
Approaching its second year, WCG will continue to expand quickly, and Virginia’s community colleges are adding elements to ensure that students are successful both in the classroom and in the job search. This summer, each college will hire a full-time workforce career and credential coach, who will work closely with students enrolled in WCG programs to help ensure they complete their training, earn their credential, and then find and keep a job in their chosen field.

Additionally, colleges will continue to expand their use of financial aid to support WCG programs, Because WCGs are not traditional, credit-based programs, they do not qualify for federal financial aid. Recognizing this, the 2017 General Assembly and VCCS identified $2 million in state funding to support WCG programs for those students and their families who cannot afford to pay for the first third of program costs. This means that qualifying students can pay as little as 10 percent of the first third. In some cases, that means that the student’s share could be as little as $100, sometimes even less.

Moving forward, more programs will be added under WCG, and a statewide outreach campaign will be launched to let more students, families and businesses know about this outstanding opportunity.

“We’re not resting on our laurels,” says VCCS’s Herndon. “We’re just getting started, because Virginia is counting on us.”

Stamper, Christopher, Babb and Butterworth are staff members at the Virginia Community College System.



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