Building the framework to support Virginia’s infrastructure industry

That whirring sound above your head isn’t 13,800 volts of electricity moving through the powerlines. What you’re hearing  is the next generation of changemakers in the skilled trades sector buzzing about the possibilities and evolution of infrastructure.

Gone are the days when infrastructure simply referred to the physical roads, bridges, rails and tunnels which made streamlined transportation possible. Now, infrastructure represents both the tangible and intangible framework of our society.

Virginia’s infrastructure needs

Infrastructure, which has been fueled at the federal level with a multi-billion-dollar piece of legislation, represents those traditional elements as well as solar, wind, cybersecurity and all the related trades and skills that make up the supply chain – like logistics, welding, construction, manufacturing, maintenance and more.

In the last two months, Governor Northam’s administration has announced major infrastructure expansion projects on top of existing ones – projects like Dominion Energy’s offshore investment in wind that has already made a splash this year.

In response to the Virginia Clean Economy Act, signed in 2020, the entire infrastructure industry is evolving a range of processes, updating technologies and shaping the very fabric that supports every facet of Virginia’s infrastructure.

 Virginia’s workforce demands and challenges

As Virginia responds through legislation and public policy to the challenges inherent in an aging infrastructure, that’s not all that’s aging. Many industries in Virginia are seeing an older workforce that is at or nearing retirement age. The problem: there are currently not enough younger skilled workers to replace them.

“Right now, it’s a very competitive landscape, and we’re not the only ones looking for talent,” Darius Johnson, vice president of employment engagement and development at Dominion Energy said. “Lots of other companies are facing the same type of workforce transitions.  Finding talent at the beginning stage of their journey is difficult. But there lies the opportunity.”

Some of the most basic infrastructure positions open and projected to open in Virginia can be fulfilled with on-the-job training, workplace certifications or a combination of the two. As the number of skills increases and the level of responsibility evolves, advanced training, certifications and degree programs may be required to fill these roles.

In addition to an aging workforce, businesses also are dealing with retention challenges and overall succession planning. But through partnerships with local community colleges, certified apprenticeship programs and an overall collaboration between industry and training providers, there is potential to meet and exceed the demands of the field.

Introducing the Virginia Infrastructure Academy

In every corner of the Commonwealth, there’s a community college offering the short-term credential training needed to fill many of Virginia’s infrastructure needs. Virginia’s Community Colleges comprises 23 colleges and 40 campus locations, offering career and technical classes which lead to certificates and associate degrees and dovetail into apprenticeships. It’s the kind of training designed to drive workers directly to a business’s door.

To ensure a seamless transition from the community college to a business, there are many conversations that happen behind the scenes.

“On an ongoing basis, we host advisory committees with representatives from local companies within a given industry,” said Keith Harkins, chief workforce officer at Southside Virginia Community College. “We talk about what we’re doing from a training perspective, what our graduates are missing once they’re on the job and how to fix that for future classes.”

With these conversations come relationships and collaborations that make projects like the newly announced Infrastructure Academy possible.

Through the Infrastructure Academy, backed by the Lumina Foundation and state dollars, Virginia’s Community Colleges are building a pathway of postsecondary education and training in heavy construction and maintenance, focusing on road, bridge and tunnel construction, broadband expansion, and on- and off-shore wind and solar energy infrastructure and distribution. Much like those two 620-foot wind turbines Dominion Energy has installed off our coast, there are winds of opportunity on the horizon.

From conversations with industry leaders in preparation for the academy launch, in the next 10 years, it’s projected that the infrastructure industry in Virginia will comprise between 30,000 and 50,000 positions. The “Big Dig” Bay Bridge tunnel expansion project alone is expected to require upwards of 4,000 workers, with Dominion Energy’s offshore project adding another 2,000.

Attending one of Virginia’s Community Colleges is more affordable and accessible than ever thanks to legislatively funded programs like FastForward (a workforce credential grant program) and G3 (the last-dollar tuition assistance program that allows eligible students to train for in-demand careers for free). With the accessibility and reach of the community colleges – and the opportunity for businesses to inform curriculum design and delivery – resources can be streamlined to create efficiencies.

“One way we’re supporting the rapid evolving industry and hiring needs is through online curriculum that will allow students to work as their schedule allows – giving that option to students well-suited for an accelerated program. It’s our sense that this pivot will provide an additional pipeline to prepare workers more quickly,” Martha O’Keefe, chief workforce officer at Germanna Community College, said. “Take heavy equipment operator, for example. We have the capacity to offer that online, and we’re currently partnering with a number of sister colleges to offer and manage that online content. We provide the foundational learning, while the colleges have their own simulators to ensure students have the hands-on skills needed. This is how we can deliver skilled workers at scale.”

In 2019-2020, there were almost 38,000 students served by Virginia’s Community Colleges for workforce training alone. Through online, in-person, weekend and evening offerings, there is a valuable resource in every Virginia community to help meet the demands of the infrastructure industry.

“The community college system is uniquely poised to handle infrastructure training and education more effectively than anyone,” David Peterson, executive director of the Solar Hands-on Instructional Network of Excellence (SHINE) said. “This kind of training, it’s more of a pull than a push. The need is here in the community. The colleges are providing the skills for a job already waiting. This is a watershed moment – the earliest steps of transitioning to a cleaner energy economy.”