Op-ed: Workforce training helps the local economy

Virginia’s current funding formula for higher education, which focuses on for-credit programs leading to academic degrees, doesn’t afford community colleges the resources to ramp up the short-term, intensive training demanded by employers in fields like cybersecurity.

Published January 17, 2016, in The Virginian-Pilot

By Edna V. Baehre-Kolovani

DURING BUSY PERIODS just before the start of the semester, Tidewater Community College staffers – myself included – volunteer to help answer phones in our Information Center.

I’ve learned a lot from this experience, more than I could ever learn from reports and spreadsheets. Two key takeaways: 1) Students wait until the last minute to apply and enroll in classes, and 2) a two-year associate degree isn’t necessarily what they are looking for, or what they need.

One woman called asking about medical billing and coding — not our two-year degree in health information management but something more short-term, with entry level earnings that can sustain a family. Another caller, a laid-off worker, wanted to get into solar technology. A soon-to-be Navy veteran was looking for a career in emergency management.

The answer for them, and for many adults in our region, is workforce training. It’s quick, it’s targeted, and it’s easily available — except when it isn’t.

That’s why Gov. Terry McAuliffe has proposed $24.6 million in his biennial budget to support workforce credentialing in Virginia’s community colleges. I believe this funding would create a better path to the middle class for workers, help employers fill critical jobs and boost Hampton Roads’ lagging economy.

Last summer, more than 1,500 business leaders turned out during town hall meetings to express their support for more short-term training programs. Virginia businesses struggled to fill more than 175,000 middle-skill jobs last year due to a lack of skilled workers, and I’ve heard from many Hampton Roads businesses who support the governor’s proposal.

Leigh Armistead, president of Peregrine Technical Solutions, told us that there are many more cybersecurity jobs than there are skilled technicians to fill them. “They don’t all need Ph.D.’s or even four-year degrees, just the right training,” he said.

Caliper Inc. specializes in human capital and outsourcing solutions in engineering, information technology, industrial, the trades and other areas. Robert Green, their president and CEO, said that the urgent needs of their clients are going unmet.

Sumitomo Machinery America in Chesapeake is already working with TCC to train their employees. “Advanced manufacturing in Hampton Roads is demanding more and more skilled workers,” said James Travers of Sumitomo.

It’s the same story in our shipbuilding and repair industries, which need workers who can perform demanding trade and technically specialized jobs. “The majority of these jobs don’t require a four-year degree,” said Bill Crow, president of the Virginia Ship Repair Association.

While we have seen some layoffs in this industry recently, employment rose more than 26 percent between 2005 and 2014, according to Old Dominion University’s “State of the Region” report.

Boosting workforce funding, I believe, would be a shot in the arm for the Hampton Roads economy. Consider these findings of the ODU report:

  • Though our unemployment rate looks low, the Hampton Roads workforce is actually shrinking. “This ‘drop out of the labor force’ phenomenon cannot be seen as good news for our region,” the report states.
  • North Carolina is investing in short-term workforce training at its community colleges, spending $91 million just in 2014. Can it be only a coincidence that the state’s two major cities – Charlotte and Raleigh – saw double-digit gains in civilian employment between 2007 and 2014, while Hampton Roads had a double-digit decline?
  • In December 2014, Hampton Roads was still about 22,000 jobs below its pre-recession level.

Yet our existing businesses have jobs they can’t fill. And new businesses need confidence in the workforce to relocate or start up here.

Virginia’s current funding formula for higher education, which focuses on for-credit programs leading to academic degrees, doesn’t afford community colleges the resources to ramp up the short-term, intensive training demanded by employers. To be effective, we will need expert instructors, specialized equipment and classroom facilities.

Short-term workforce training will have a measurable return on investment. Statewide, more than 10,000 high-demand credentials will be earned, leading to well-paying jobs. When these people start earning more, it will increase state income taxes and consumer spending.

I said it in 2013 after TCC’s first regional jobs summit, and I’ll say it again today: We need workforce solutions that will enhance the quality of life for citizens of Hampton Roads. Increasing workforce credentials is a big step forward.