Here’s something every voter should know: There’s a massive disconnect between politics and policy.
Campaigns are about show business. Governing is the real business, and often the two have nothing to do with one another. Remember whatever silly issues dominated the 2017 governor’s race? Probably not. Then again, you probably don’t hear about the issues that really take up the governor’s time.
Gov. Ralph Northam has an embarked on eight-stop “listening tour” across Virginia “to hear from Virginians about the needs of workers and employers.” This sounds perfectly boring, which is probably why there was only one member of the news media present at the first of those stops last week at Virginia Western Community College.
The governor spent more than an hour listening to business leaders from the Alleghany Highlands to Wytheville talk about their difficulty in finding workers. What happened in that room had nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with three practical problems:
1. Employers have lots of well-paying jobs they can’t fill because there aren’t enough qualified workers in certain trades.
2. There aren’t enough qualified tradespeople because there’s a stigma in some quarters about going into the trades — the notion that “everyone must go to college.”
3. Some people who would benefit from a credentials program at a community college simply can’t afford to enroll — either because they can’t afford the tuition, or they can’t afford to quit their current job to enroll, or because the classes offered don’t match their work schedules, or because they don’t have transportation, or because they come from families where any education beyond high schools was considered out of reach.
Here’s another big disconnect, particularly between all those companies in point No. 1 that have jobs available and the people in point No. 4 who could fill them but can’t readily get the training. Politicians spend a lot of time talking about their theories about how to “fix” the economy — here are some of the actual problems that may or may not fit their ideological world view. So, it was good to see four members of Roanoke City Council at the event – Mayor Sherman Lea, and council members Bill Bestpitch, Joe Cobb and Michelle Davis — but disheartening that no other elected officials were. For their benefit, and anyone else interested in public policy, here are some of the things we heard.
n A representative from Volvo Trucks in Dublin says she has 70 positions open in various skilled trades and they typically take a long time to fill because it’s so hard to find workers qualified. She faulted the educational system. Volvo has a big demand for auto painters, yet that’s not a skill taught in either local community colleges or high schools, she said.
n Likewise, Dan Hughes of Graham-White Manufacturing in Salem said his company — which makes components for the transportation industry – “has a hard time growing because we can’t find enough people.” The region rightly spends a lot of energy trying to figure out how to grow the economy, but if major employers say they could grow — but can’t — because there aren’t enough skilled workers, well, that should tell us something. We could fill the rest of this page with similar comments from other employers, but here’s just one more:
n A representative from one major construction firm said his company has a hard time finding electricians, plumbers and sheet metal workers. He said when his company tries to work with schools “we hit a tremendous amount of resistance from guidance counselors” who he said refuse to talk up the trades as a worthwhile career. One figure commonly cited was that someone coming out of high school with a welding certification could soon be making $80,000 a year —instead of going to a four-year college and emerging with $80,000 of debt. And yet, said John Rainone, president of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge, “the stigma [against trades] is still with the guidance counselors.”
n How big is the demand in certain skilled positions? This big: Todd Putney of Medical Facilities of America said “we don’t need 10% more nurses coming out of Virginia Western, we need to double or triple that.”
n So how do we do that? Here was one major frustration voiced by multiple speakers: There are lots of people who could fill these jobs but they can’t get the training. “We have an entire forgotten population of students,” said Davis, who spoke not just from her experience on council but as executive director of the Boys and Girls Club. Some come from backgrounds where college was always considered out of reach and there’s no family support for education beyond high school.
n Others simply don’t know what careers are available — and graduated from high school without any particular plan. There was a lot of discussion about how to start talking about potential careers with students as early as middle school or even elementary school. That’s where the complaints about guidance counselors kept coming up. Many have an outdated concept of what manufacturing is about today. “Manufacturing is not just welding,” Hughes said. “We have computers.”
n The problem isn’t just getting high school students acquainted with the certain fields; it’s getting adults into community college to acquire those skills. The average age of a Virginia community college student is 26; but the average age in certain credentials programs is 35-39. Many of those students can’t fit into a standard school schedule. Some have jobs they have to work around. Or no jobs at all, which means cash flow is a big concern. Rainone said many students need programs that can be completed in less than 26 weeks — because that’s when their unemployment benefits run out.
n Some people who would benefit from community college programs are simply priced out. Many community colleges in this part of the state have scholarship programs, but many adult students have challenges beyond simply paying for tuition – such how to feed their families if they’re going back to school and not bringing in an income. Here’s a telling point: Some community colleges now have food banks for their students.
We don’t know what policies Northam will advocate once his listening tour is done, but these are some of the things he heard that will inform those policies. And not a single one of those fits easily on a bumper sticker.