“If it were its own state — in educational attainment — [the rural areas] would be dead last in the nation. And the other Virginia — the Golden Crescent — would be number two.”
The chancellor of Virginia’s community colleges, Glenn DuBois, was describing an area covering three-fourths of the state’s geography and the more than 2.25 million people who live there. The area sweeps from the Eastern Shore through Southside, to Southwest and then up the Shenandoah Valley — an area DuBois refers to as “the rural horseshoe” which closely matches the territory of the Extremes. Half a million people here lack a high school education and overall graduation rates lag far behind Virginia as a whole.
The lower graduation rates are not due to lack of money. DuBois says, “it’s all the other stuff, all the doubt, all the cycle of under educational achievement generation after generation. Eighty percent would get a full ride on federal Title IV Pell money.”
Undergraduates who are eligible (based on financial need, tuition and other factors) can receive nearly $6,000 per year toward the cost of education. But most of the federal and state financial aid programs, about 98 percent DuBois says, only help students who are pursuing traditional college degrees, not post-secondary trade certificates. “We would like to change the rules, and are working with Congress to open up our workforce pathways for financial aid,” he says.
The widespread, generational reluctance of some to seek higher education in the Extremes stems, former state senator Roscoe Reynolds believes, from decisions made a very long time ago. Rural Virginia in the early 1900s had very many low-skilled factory jobs available working at companies leaving the northeast corridor and coming south, where land and labor were cheaper. Working at any of the textile mills or furniture factories, locals found it easy to earn a living by working hard at low-skilled jobs. Then, Reynolds, says, “education was not the important thing it has become today.”
Even as recently as 35 or 40 years ago, he says, locals thought ‘why get a high school diploma, when you can go to work in a factory and end up making more money without a degree?’ The fallacy of that mindset became all too clear later, when those same manufacturers that had relocated from the northeast found even cheaper land and labor offshore, picked up their businesses, jobs and paychecks and left.
Not all the factories and jobs moved offshore, though. Some employers, seeking workers with more refined skills and technical training, found better prospects closer to home. Jobs needing more skilled workers “didn’t just move to Mexico. They moved to South Carolina!” according to Virginia’s immediate past Secretary of Commerce and Trade, Maurice Jones. “That’s just the way the business cycle works, and the lesson should be we need diversification and most especially we need the strongest workforce around, because the jobs will come to the workforce.”
Virginia is now expanding its efforts to educate its workforce and to grant trade credentials, which are earned after high school. Courses typically last three months or so, and train machinists, technicians, pharmacy techs, welders, nurses aides, cyber security analysts, truck drivers, electricians, heating and cooling installers and repairers, plumbers and others, what DuBois calls “the middle occupations.”
Governments, state and federal, aren’t new to the concept of better training citizens to be productive, tax-paying members of the workforce. Virginia spends more than $350 million yearly in workforce training and development, reaching more than one million people across the state, according to Jones.
The plethora of programs is astounding. “There are 24 different programs, eight or nine state agencies, four different secretariats involved in Virginia. So, is there bureaucracy? Absolutely! If the world were mine or yours, we wouldn’t structure it this way,” Jones says.
“There is a lot of improvement that can be made.” Del. Danny Marshall of Danville, in the heart of Southside where the labor participation rate is more than ten percent lower than statewide, calls the multitude of workforce development programs “the bureaucracy of all bureaucracies.” He remembers another legislator asking a state agency how many clients were successful in obtaining jobs. “We don’t track that,” was the response.
DuBois and the community college system aim to improve the skills and productivity of Virginia’s workforce — and attract industries and create new jobs — with a jobs training effort that has three main goals: to cut high school dropouts in half, to double the number of post-secondary trade credentials earned and awarded, and to double participants in a program for foster youth. Notice DuBois’ emphasis on “post-secondary credentials,” not two-year community college associate degrees or four-year bachelors degrees.
DuBois says something startling, coming from the chancellor of a college system: “We’ve oversold the bachelor’s degree.”
Much more emphasis needs to be placed on what DuBois calls the 1-2-7 opportunities. To create jobs and attract new industries, states must offer the types of trained workers needed by businesses. DuBois says for every company hiring a person with an advanced degree, such as a specialized engineer (a “1” in his parlance), two others with undergraduate degrees are needed for support disciplines such as human resources, procurement, general business office work, etc., (the “2s”). And the 1s and 2s must be supported by the “middle occupations,” (the 7s), those truck drivers, machinists, plumbers, heating, ventilation, air conditioning technicians and more.
Potential employers know this 1-2-7 rule very well, and the lack of the 7’s, the middle trades, keeps many industries from locating businesses — and jobs — in the Extremes areas. When businesses invest in a new area, DuBois says, “they need to see the pipeline that will produce the 7s, and that’s what they’re not seeing. The 7s have become the major infrastructure in business recruitment.”
The legislature and the governor have set aside $20 million in the 2016-17 budget to allow community colleges to greatly expand programs to train high school and college grads in the middle occupation 7s. These trade certification programs will grow statewide, especially in Northern Virginia, where the need is greatest, and will be structured to produce the needed skilled workers.
The legislature also created a permanent funding formula in state law, which will give community college presidents a continuing and permanent financial incentive to scale up programs to produce the middle occupations. And it created a student grant program that will pay two-thirds of the cost for a student to gain a trade credential, if he or she successfully completes the course and is awarded a certification. This is thought to be the first program of its kind in the nation.
DuBois believes the program has great potential, especially for unemployed coal miners in Southwest Virginia. He acknowledges that instead of making a typical miner’s wage of $80,000 per year, in five years with the proper credentials, many former coal miners and others could be making about $60,000 and would gain an entirely new career path, one actually in demand in today’s modern economy. “I think we’ll be a Plan B for a lot of people,” DuBois says.
DuBois predicts newly credentialed workers will find multiple employment opportunities in four main areas: logistics, information technology, advanced manufacturing and health care.
Economic development and GO Virginia
While the governor’s office and state agencies proclaim the successes of their jobs creation efforts in the media, nearly every day issuing news releases announcing both large and small jobs gains, those news releases don’t typically mention the festering unemployment scattered throughout the Extremes. Disregard the official, published “seasonally adjusted unemployment rates” publicized by state and federal governments. Those reports ignore those who have stopped looking for employment, who have given up or moved away in search of better opportunities. Focus, instead, on those who actually have jobs, who are working, earning and productive.
Those numbers reveal another view of the Extremes:
So while state government publicizes its successes in attracting new jobs and industry to Virginia and claims credit for nearly every position filled, the business community quietly and effectively took action to do more, designing and advocating for its own legislative package to encourage and train the unemployed or under-employed to learn the skills businesses need to create new jobs and opportunities. Businesses and industry created and sold to the governor and legislature a collection of proposals called “GO Virginia,” yet another economic development package designed to grow jobs and industry.
GO Virginia, though, is different in that it is to be largely overseen and directed by local and regional business leaders with “significant private-sector business experience.” They, joined by seven legislators and three cabinet secretaries, will decide how to spend the $ 35.5 million dollars included in the state budget for GO Virginia.
While its purposes may be laudable, it’s nearly impossible to understand specifically what GO Virginia might seek to accomplish. The enabling legislation contains a number of hazy, undefined objectives, such as “to facilitate regional collaboration,” and “to incentivize and encourage cooperation…on regional strategic economic development and workforce development efforts.” Activities to be eligible for grants of state funds include “high-impact collaborative projects…that promote new job creation, entrepreneurship and new capital investment; leverage nonstate resources…foster research...and commercialization activities…encourage cooperation… [and] promote other economic or workforce development activities….” When asked for specific examples of how the $ 35.5 million in state funds might be used, a principal lobbyist for GO Virginia responded “…the vague language is there for a reason — to allow the regions to identify their competitive challenges and their own prescriptions for solving those.”
As the enabling legislation neared final approval, Governor McAuliffe, who initially said he was “all in” for GO Virginia, decided he wasn’t satisfied with how members of the regional citizen boards would be appointed. He proposed, and the legislature accepted, changes that give the governor authority to make more board appointments. And the General Assembly also at the last minute amended the legislation so that any grants of state money can only be made if the legislature gets its say, by voting a second time in the future to approve disbursements.
This arrangement — requiring political approval before monetary grants are made — matches exactly a major criticism some have of the Tobacco Commission: that decisions are made by politicians seeking advantages for their local districts, rather than according to a carefully considered, long-term, statewide strategic plan with broader goals in mind.
Next Sunday in part four: Final thoughts and recommendations.