Legislators focus on workforce training in technical careers

February 09, 2016

RICHMOND — The “new Virginia economy” will need trained workers.

A proposed credential tuition assistance grant would provide up to $3,000 per training program to fill the skills gap for “middle tier” jobs, such as machinists, technicians, welders, or plumbers, that require post-high school education but not a four-year degree.

Virginia faces a shortage of these certified employees coupled with a high number of factory workers set to retire, many unemployed or underemployed people, and a wounded rural Virginia pocked with empty factories or lots from which industries used to fuel towns.

“We have never offered assistance for skilled trades, ever. There was a time when business provided their own training specific to certain things. As I said, technology has changed a lot of that,” Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, said Tuesday about the bill she’s been working on for years.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration supported and worked on the bill, which is matched with $25 million in the proposed $109 billion budget being whittled from each side of the General Assembly.

“Frito Lay hardly has any workers, but they have a lot of machinery that requires someone who knows how to operate that machinery, and it’s all the ability to understand computers and IT and other things like that,” Byron said.

The money would follow the student, who would pay one-third of the program cost. Grants could be used at community colleges and other education centers.

While the CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association Brett Vassey said about 30,000 jobs are expected to open up as certified factory workers retire, Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones said 175,000 people are unemployed in Virginia.

“I’ve seen statistics that if you add unemployed plus under-employed that number really goes up,” Jones said.

Middle skills jobs are expected to be 46 percent of all openings from 2010 to 2020, according to a 2014 National Skills Coalition report produced from Virginia Bureau of Labor statistics.

More than 20 bills proposed to adjust education from preschool to post-secondary are spread throughout the General Assembly — evidence of the desire from constituents and businesses to connect.

Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, who is carrying a related bill, said in an interview last month too many young people who might prefer well-paying technical jobs were corralled toward four-year degrees.

“We’ve got an imbalance. The reality is we, as parents, are stupid,” Ruff said. “We think our kids ought to go to college. Sometimes we don’t even listen to our kids. We push them and push them and push them to go to college because we’re told that that’s the route of success.”

Both McAuliffe and Republicans who control the General Assembly speak of overall economic development as a high priority. Jones said workforce training is a key component in spreading that effort statewide.

“This, for rural Virginia, is without a doubt the biggest thing we can do. Because if we’re going to really attract folks from outside of rural Virginia to set up shop in rural Virginia, we’ll have to give them confidence they’ll have the talent,” Jones said.

Broad economic development needs a wide view, Jones said, including infrastructure investments, such as broadband connectivity, encouraging entrepreneurship and targeting specific sectors, such as cyber security.

The bipartisan “Go Virginia” program championed by General Assembly leadership would create regional councils to “enhance private sector growth.” Matching bills passed the House of Delegates and Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, an example of an incentive.

“I think there is consensus building about that fact that we gotta do this in a multitudinous, interdisciplinary fashion, but I will tell you, we’ve gotta do this for years, to really make resilient sustainable progress,” Jones said.