Workforce worries

Efforts are underway to plug holes in training programs

  •  | 
Print this page by Robert Burke
Article image
Gov. Terry McAuliffe holds a roundtable discussion on
economic and workforce development at
Danville Community College.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants to train an extra 50,000 people in high-demand jobs skills by the end of his term, a feat he believes will make the commonwealth more attractive to growing businesses.

By comparison, just over 53,000 workforce credentials were awarded last year in Virginia in the STEM-H (science, technology, electronics, math and health) skill sets the governor is targeting.

Maurice Jones, McAuliffe’s secretary of commerce and trade, calls the governor’s goal audacious. “I think having that out in front of everybody is really going to be the catalyst for us,” Jones says.

Maybe not so much a catalyst as a kick in the butt, because Virginia is apparently not as good as it could be at workforce training. A 159-page report released in December by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission finds that Virginia’s training programs can be difficult to use and sometimes don’t offer lessons in the job skills that employers need.

Some programs are underused and poorly marketed. Only 16 percent of the employers polled by JLARC reported using any of the public workforce development services. Many instead used private-sector temp agencies.

McAuliffe, though, ever the state’s hyper-salesman, acted way ahead of the JLARC study’s public release, proposing changes to the state’s workforce programs last summer under his New Virginia Economy Strategic Plan. The question now is: Will the administration’s sweeping makeover succeed?

The JLARC report
The JLARC team surveyed 120 local chambers of commerce, 17 employer associations and 15 regional workforce boards. It also held focus-group interviews in five areas of the commonwealth. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction out there.

Employers find the state’s workforce programs “complex and disjointed,” according to the report. Career and technical education (CTE) programs offered in high schools and community colleges put an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes, which are in demand. But only 3 percent of high school CTE courses statewide are in the health sciences, a field that represented nearly a fifth of job openings in 2013, the latest year data was available for the study.

Plus, Virginia’s apprenticeship program is underused, and its management is split between the Department of Labor and Industry and the Virginia Community College System. In fact, management of the various programs is poorly handled, according to JLARC, largely because no single body has authority over workforce training. The Virginia Board of Workforce Development “does not have sufficient statutory authority” to manage the various programs that make up workforce development in Virginia. In short, nobody’s in charge.

Even figuring out how well the workforce programs work is a challenge because many of them fail to measure things such as employer satisfaction with employees’ training. Tracey Smith, who led the JLARC staff that produced the report, says Virginia’s workforce programs have suffered from “a lack of clear leadership” and an inconsistent approach to dialogue between businesses and the state and local entities that are supposed to provide training. Some regions do better at this than others, she says. “There’s no forum on a regular basis for them to talk,” she says. “This can’t be successful without the business community’s input.”

The governor’s plan
Jones, who is McAuliffe’s point man on this issue, says changes already are underway — both in what the administration can do on its own and in General Assembly legislation. He cited a few executive branch initiatives — one that would consolidate the apprenticeship program under the Department of Labor and Industry. “Right now, we basically have the program run through two different agencies, community colleges and the Department of Labor. If you’re a business … you have to get approval from both departments. That takes more time and makes it less attractive,” Jones says.

The governor’s plan also calls for shifting some of the federal dollars the state gets for workforce training toward the certifications that businesses want. Jones says the governor proposes to “reprogram” $3.4 million “to make sure that money goes into training and education leading to certification. That’s going to be a huge change,” he says.

The administration also is supporting efforts to revamp the Virginia Board of Workforce Development. A bill introduced in this year’s legislative session by state Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Clarksville, would require quarterly meetings and the hiring of an executive director who would be supervised by the governor’s chief workforce development adviser — Jones, the secretary of commerce and trade. The bill also would  require annual reports on the performance, measured against state-level metrics established by the adviser, of the state’s career and technical education and workforce development programs. It would also mandate regular collaboration between the Virginia Employment Commission and the Virginia Community College System. Ruff’s legislation and a nearly identical version in the House of Delegates were both approved in early February without any opposition. (The legislative session had not ended when this issue went to press.)

That bill is aimed at one of the major issues identified by the JLARC report — the state doesn’t have a single entity in charge. Even Jones’ description of the state’s current approach to workforce training emphasizes how disconnected it is despite the millions of dollars being pumped in from mostly federal sources. “Some of the changes we’re going to make are going to require some pain,” he says. “We need to make it more business driven, we have to have a system that’s actually producing the talent that businesses demand,” he says.

Community colleges’ role
Another piece of legislation backed by McAuliffe and the VCCS is another Ruff-sponsored bill to create a community college training grant program that would give schools $1,000 for each student who completes a noncredit training program at the school and then gets an industry-recognized certification or license in a high-demand field in the region served by the college. In testimony to the Senate Finance Committee’s education subcommittee in late January, Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the VCCS, called that bill “a game-changer proposal that directly links pay for performance.”

DuBois credited the JLARC study for putting a focus on the workforce issues, even though a VCCS spokesman earlier this year criticized part of the report, saying it gave inaccurate information about what community colleges offer. The VCCS was seeking $7 million in this year’s budget for the new grant program, and DuBois says it could produce up to 7,500 new credentials. The noncredit training that would produce those credentials currently is not funded by the state. The VCCS-backed legislation would provide $1 million in need-based financial aid for students pursuing those credentials.

McAuliffe supports the training grant bill, and Ruff expected it to pass the House, too. The same bill passed the Senate last year with unanimous support, but was left in a House committee until the JLARC report was done, he says. “That study confirmed much of the problem that I was trying to address,” he says. “I believe we should be successful this year.”

McAuliffe already is trying the cash-incentive approach with community colleges. A program announced in December puts up $500,000 in direct incentives for seven colleges. For every student with an industry-recognized certification the schools deliver, they will get $1,000.

The participating schools are the Blue Ridge Community College, Germanna Community College, Thomas Nelson Community College, Virginia Western Community College and the three schools that make up Southern VA Works — Danville Community College, Patrick Henry Community College and Southside Virginia Community College.

Some of the high-demand credentials cited include project management, and welding certificates and a commercial driver’s license. Those are the kinds of courses that community colleges already offer, says David A. Sam, president of Germanna Community College, which has locations in the Fredericksburg region. He says the school will use the new money to expand its capacity and hire more trainers.

Both the proposed grant program and the state-level oversight of how workforce training is provided could help even out the offerings available around the state. That was one main criticism from the JLARC report, that the kinds of courses offered and the connection to what businesses really want was uneven, with some regions better than others.

Community colleges and high schools use advisory committees to get advice on what courses to offer, but, according to the JLARC study, “the quality of their contributions varies greatly. Advisory committees do not meet regularly in all regions and are not always composed of employers.”

Germanna has a lot of employer contact, Sam says, with advisory committees for all of the career and technical programs. He also has a committee of local CEOs who advise him directly. The school holds an annual meeting to discuss local job trends and find out how its graduates are doing. Sam is skeptical of JLARC’s criticisms of how some schools connect with local businesses. “I’m not sure what problem they’re trying to solve there,” he says. “If some of my fellow presidents aren’t doing that, I’d be surprised.”

The renewed attention on how schools deliver job training is a good thing, but he’s wary on that point, too. “One of my concerns about the JLARC report is, if it means increased bureaucracy, that doesn’t really help. If it means better coordination, where you don’t have too many chefs trying to make the stew, then that’s good.”

Coordination between agencies
There are already a lot of chefs, though, and the JLARC report emphasizes that they don’t always work well together. For example, the state’s one-stop workforce centers, managed by the Virginia Board of Workforce Development, give people around the state a place to get help finding a job or learning about career training options. Yet about a third of the centers have little or no staff representation from the Virginia Employment Commission. So, people who go to a VEC office might not find out about available options in skills training and education.

Another big problem is the lack of information about what happens to students after they leave community college or other training programs. “That’s been a challenge for as long as I’ve been in the business,” says Sam at Germanna Community College. “When they go out into the job market, we need to know: Did they pass a certification or licensure test? We need to know how well they’re doing on the job,” he says. Community colleges try to survey employers, but Sam says they get “minimal responses.” Improving this feedback loop is part of McAuliffe’s plan.

For people on the front lines, improving the way Virginia provides workforce training and education will take more than just reorganization. At the Danville Public Schools Adult & Career Education Center, for example, managers know what employers want; they just can’t afford to provide it. “One of the biggest issues, I hate to say it, is the lack of resources,” says Jackie Rochford, the center’s program coordinator. The Danville region has one of the highest unemployment rates in the commonwealth so it needs the jobs that workforce training could bring more than most. “We’ve been in a situation where … adding programs has been impossible,” Rochford says. One program that local employers want, for example, is precision machining. “It’s a very expensive program” and the city of Danville would have to come up with half the cost, she says. It’s possible that program will be added in 2016 if the city can obtain funding, she says. Danville Community College already has a precision machining program, but its classes are usually full, so Rochford’s students can’t get in.

Plus, Rochford says that, in high unemployment regions like Southern Virginia, students who complete job training tend to go elsewhere, often to employers in North Carolina. Local companies who need these workers often can’t pay as much as companies elsewhere. “That’s a Catch-22 when you talk about a region like ours,” she says. “If we train them in the high-tech areas, those jobs aren’t here.”

In other parts of the state, there might be some challenge in recruiting people to seek the job training McAuliffe wants. Statewide unemployment just dropped to 4.8 percent, so many people won’t feel the same pressure to retrain. Some of the state’s most populated regions, in fact, have jobless rates well below the state average. Jones, though, thinks a lot of people are underemployed, working part-time jobs or jobs that don’t pay well enough. As for funding, Jones says the main focus of McAuliffe’s approach is wise spending of the dollars it has. “We’ve got to make sure we’re using it in a strategic and targeted way,” he says.

According to figures that McAuliffe and Jones frequently cite, by 2022 there will be about 500,000 new jobs in Virginia in addition to vacancies created by the retirement of current workers. Many of those positions will be in scientific, technical and health-care fields. Not everybody needs a four-year degree, Jones says, but almost every worker will need some kind of post-secondary education or workforce credentials. If this revamping of the state’s job-training program succeeds, it will be a powerful recruiting tool. If it stumbles, the state’s attempt to move away from being too dependent on federal spending won’t work so well, and Virginia’s economy will suffer.

Jones acknowledges that going back to school or studying for an industry certification takes time and money, and there’s a risk that a job might not be waiting. Yet for both job seekers and the state, “the bigger risk is to not be prepared.”

showhide shortcuts