A new line of work
Workforce training program aims to fill gap for mid-skilled workers
As a single mother, Megan Yeager began working as a pizza delivery driver. Over the years, she rose to regional manager of a small pizza chain in the Richmond area.
But the pizza chain couldn’t offer her what she wanted in a career: vision and dental care, retirement benefits, career advancement opportunities and, most importantly, a secure future for herself and her 13-year-old daughter.
“She is my everything,” Yeager, 34, says.
While scrolling through Facebook exploring various career paths, Yeager found a reference to an 11-week power line worker training program offered through Southside Virginia Community College, and she grabbed it, hoping to land a good-paying job with benefits working for a utility company.
“I knew that the power line industry was male-dominated, but that didn’t worry me because I know I have the determination and passion to accomplish any goal I set for myself,” Yeager says. (The Associated Press reported in September that Dominion Energy Inc.’s 1,300 power line workers across three states include just eight women. And Charlotte, North Carolina-based Duke Energy tallied just five women among its roughly 2,500 power line workers.)
Yeager is part of a movement sweeping the commonwealth to build a talent pipeline for middle-skill jobs that don’t necessarily require four-year degrees.
Such jobs are increasingly more important, says Randall Stamper, assistant vice chancellor for grants and federal workforce programs for the Virginia Community College System (VCCS).
“There’s this formula in the workforce that’s been true for decades. It boils down to 1, 2, 7,” Stamper says. “For every one advanced degree that business needs, they need two people with a bachelor’s degree and they need seven people who have these middle-skill jobs.”
Providing Virginians with the opportunity and training for middle-skill jobs is the foundation of VCCS’ FastForward credential training program offered through Virginia’s community colleges.
Training is available for a variety of high-demand jobs in health care, information technology, logistics, transportation and education, as well as skilled trades such as welders and machinists.
For any business thinking about relocating to Virginia or considering a major expansion here, the paramount question is whether there will be workers who can do the job.
FastForward is often part of the conversation at the local level when those decisions are being made, Stamper says.
“One of the unique strengths of community colleges,” he says, is “to quickly stand up programs and customize them to industry needs.”
A well-publicized aspect of FastForward is that participants are expected to put “skin in the game”; in other words, put up some of their own money to get a chance at a good career and a better life.
Most credentialing programs take between six and 12 weeks and are structured so that students can earn their education credentials while they work.
FastForward operates under a unique pay-for-performance model for funding noncredit workforce training programs in high-demand fields.
“The cost of education is divided into thirds,” explains Lori Dwyer, vice chancellor of programs for the community college system.
“When a FastForward student enrolls, [he or she] pays one-third of the cost of tuition. When [he or she] completes the training, the college receives the second third of the funding from the state; when [he or she] earns that third-party-validated industry credential, the college is made whole again by the state by payment of the third [installment.]”
According to the Virginia Employment Commission, by 2026, there will be a need for 2.6 million middle-skilled workers in Virginia.
FastForward is one of the ways Virginia is trying to bridge this skills gap.
Since the program’s inception in 2016, about 20,000 credentials have been earned and one in four graduates saw an 85% increase in their salary after earning their credentials, community college officials say.
A single student can earn more than one credential in FastForward programs, and frequently does.
“The good news is that we have a completion rate of around 90%. These are short programs that have a direct employment outcome, so these students are very motivated to compete,” Dwyer says.
Dwyer says the program has been extremely effective in reaching the populations that the legislature intended when approving the program.
“At this point, 70% of students have dependents, and over half of them [are] minorities and about 40% of our credentials are distributed in rural areas that represent about 25% of Virginia’s population. So, it’s … really helping rural Virginia,” Dwyer says.
FastForward students are generally less economically advantaged than other community college students, Dwyer says, and are more than twice as likely to need government assistance and supplemental nutrition assistance.
Community colleges also have benefited from FastForward, she says.
“It is our fastest-growing area of enrollment,” Dwyer says. “It is a point of access for a number of Virginians who are looking for short-term training to reenter the workforce.”
That’s what Allen Miller wanted, although his training turned out to be not so short-term.
Miller graduated from high school in Lynchburg and then enrolled in Radford University in 2004, intent on studying information technology.
But he soon dropped out of college, after realizing that working in IT was not how he wanted to spend his life. He began a nearly 15-year odyssey that included odd jobs, construction work in California and finally employment at a small-town restaurant in Virginia.
Then, on a recommendation from an uncle, he contacted Chemung Contracting Corp. in Gainesville. The company’s portfolio encompasses work on major highways, bridges, airports and other projects.
At the time, the company was initiating an asphalt apprenticeship program with Germanna Community College in Orange County.
“They were looking for people who could pick up on multiple things, had the ability to work a lot of hours and go to school — all without burning out,” Miller says.
For almost four years, Miller, now 34, took two classes per semester under the FastForward program, working his day job from 6 a.m. till 4 p.m. and then heading off to class, where he took general education courses as well as job-specific instruction on electric motors, hydraulics, safety procedures and, of course, asphalt.
He earned certifications in a variety of fields as well as an associate degree in industrial maintenance.
“The program is set up for people to succeed,” says Miller, who lives in Barboursville with his wife and infant daughter and oversees a Chemung Contracting asphalt plant serving Culpeper.
He has a real sense of accomplishment in finishing the apprenticeship program at Germanna Community College and finding a job with a future, he says.
“It’s very calming and a big relief,” Miller adds. “Life is not always going to be perfect. But there are always paths to make yourself better and happier.”
One of the lesser known programs under the FastForward umbrella is the EducateVA/VCCS Career Switchers program, aimed at producing teachers.
This year a Career Switcher graduate — Andrea Johnson, chair of the English department at Salem High School in Roanoke — was honored as the 2020 Virginia Teacher of the Year.
Before deciding to become a teacher, Johnson worked at a Sussex County 4-H camp for several years. Taking a combination of online and in-person classes through Tidewater Community College, she was able to do coursework and still look after her two children.
If she had been required to return to college to earn her teacher’s licensure — she already held a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in government and a master’s from Virginia Commonwealth University in youth development and education — Johnson says she wouldn’t have done it.
“This way it was affordable, and I could still be a mom,” Johnson says.
“Across the country there are teacher shortages, especially in math and science,” she says, noting that EducateVA/Career Switchers helps close the gaps in those disciplines and others.
As for Yeager, she was offered a job by Dominion Energy soon after her graduation from the power line training program in May 2019.
She started as a groundman working with linemen in the construction department with Dominion Energy in July 2019. A month later, she was promoted to a job in the operations department as a service helper — a largely outdoor “heavy labor” job focused on providing tools to workers and driving utility trucks. (Yeager earned a commercial driving license in her power line worker training program — and learned to operate various types of heavy equipment such as excavators, backhoes, diggers and aerial lifts.)
Yeager, who seems to revel in the work, describes a typical event in her new job: “Tree fell down on the transformer,” she recalls. “The power was out to a neighborhood and operations responds to the calls and makes the necessary repairs to restore power back to customers quickly and safely.”