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Jeran Culina   ·  

How Virginia’s FastForward Program is Transforming Workforce Training

Jobs that require skills training are the backbone of the American economy. These jobs include highly skilled, in-demand jobs in healthcare, medical technology, IT, software, trades like plumbing and electricity, clean energy, and advanced manufacturing. Nationwide, most jobs require skills training beyond high school, but not a four-year degree. At the same time, there is a lack of access to this kind of training - and that hurts workers, businesses, and the economy. National Skills Coalition has been shining a light on this skills mismatch for decades; and has led efforts to provide state policymakers with information about their states’ projected skills mismatch with a goal of increasing investments in postsecondary education. NSC’s most recent research shows that in Virginia, 49% of jobs require skills training, but only 41% of workers have the skills needed to fill these in demand jobs. In 2015-16, compelled by the urgency of the skills mismatch facing their state, VA community college system leaders brought together a handful of workforce-oriented legislators and shared the research with them with the intention of spurring investments in skills training.

At the time, non-credit workforce training programs (which can equip people with the skills needed for many in-demand jobs) were not funded adequately through state appropriations and many programs were self-supported.

After several discussions between VCCS officials and lawmakers, language was included in the 2015 budget directing the Chancellor of the VCCS to conduct a study and develop a report to the General Assembly that would make recommendations for what the state could do to address the skills mismatch in key industries. This prompted a statewide listening tour over the summer of 2015, during which Chancellor Glenn DuBois engaged businesses, associations, economic development, leadership of the Virginia Board of Workforce Development, the Secretaries from Commerce and Trade and Education, and the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia in a series of twenty-two town hall meetings across the Commonwealth. More than 1,500 Virginia businesses and community leaders gathered at these meetings to identify Virginia’s most pressing workforce challenges and recommend solutions that the 23 community colleges could implement. The workforce division of VCCS gave presentations about the skills mismatch and on their work offering training programs, coaching, and credentialing options that prepare people for in-demand careers.

The result was a report outlining what it would take to address the skills mismatch. The report focused on the need for Virginia to invest public funds in short-term, accelerated training programs at the colleges that would lead to high-demand industry credentials.

Those town hall conversations revealed, and the research verified, that Virginia wasn’t producing enough credentials to meet their state’s talent pipeline needs because of four significant barriers:

  • The Skills Mismatch: Virginia businesses could not find enough qualified in-state candidates to fill the vacancies they had in careers that needed training beyond high school but not a two- or four-year degree.
  • The Interest Gap: Too few people pursued these careers because of outdated societal stigmas, misunderstandings about how well they pay and the advancement opportunities they offer, and simply not knowing how to secure the credentials necessary to pursue them.
  •  The Affordability Gap: The financial aid that supported Virginians pursuing traditional degrees was unavailable to those pursuing short-term training. Moreover, those who most needed and wanted the credentials could not afford the training.
  • The Competitiveness Gap: Businesses needed a workforce that could grow, learn, and change to compete in a global economy, and they were not afraid to relocate to find it. Virginia had limited tools to help an existing business upskill its workers, even when it was beneficial to the Commonwealth.

The study proposed $40 million to fund the new workforce programming needed. Using the study to guide their legislation, Delegate Kathy Byron and Senator Frank Ruff co-sponsored the bipartisan legislation, known as the New Economy Workforce Credential Program.

The bill would cover two-thirds of the cost of training, while the learner took on the remaining third with the state reimbursing one third upon training completion, and the second third upon credential attainment. The legislation allocated $4.5 million in the first year and $7.5 million in the second year. The legislation passed both houses unanimously and Governor McAuliffe signed the bill in March of 2016. What would eventually be called the FastForward program started in July of the same year. Demand for training was so high, the originally allocated $4.5 million was used up within six months. To bridge the gap, VCCS pulled funding from the following year's budget. Demand continues to be high in 2024. Since 2016, FastForward participants have earned more than 53,900 credentials, propelling students into high-demand careers in fields like skilled trades, transportation, manufacturing, healthcare, IT and more. The program has a 95% completion rate and a 72% credential attainment rate with most learners exiting the program into full-time employment.

VCCS tracks this kind of data to sustain its funding. In addition to data about enrollment, program completion, wage growth and job placement, VCCS tracks student demographics to report on outcomes by race, ethnicity, and other variables.

Due to these impressive outcomes, the Virginia legislature has continued to increase funding. In the most recent state budget, the FastForward allocations will increase to 24 million by FY26 – enough to help the college system catch up to growing demand: enrollments are increasing by about 20% every year.

Initially, VCCS leaders suspected the FastForward program would attract former students who, for assorted reasons, were unable to complete a program or earn a credential. In fact, FastForward serves an unexpected demographic: most of the students were totally new to the community college system. VCCS leaders say this is a population unlikely to have enrolled without tuition assistance. The average FastForward student is 34 years old, with dependents, and no college experience. The vast majority work while completing their training. Most of the colleges provide FastForward students with a dedicated career coach tasked with helping them navigate non-academic barriers to success and completion - including affording the one third tuition costs that students take on. Colleges do not get reimbursed for the program if students do not complete it, so career coaches, faculty, and staff are critical partners in ensuring resources are offered to students to encourage completion and credential attainment.

Business advocates of FastForward

FastForward has been an option for students since 2016, but it took and continues to take a lot of effort to ensure all workforce system stakeholders understand the legislation's impact.

At the onset of conversations around short term training funds, VCCS and other partners engaged in an educational awareness campaign to help business partners to understand the colleges’ workforce-oriented curriculums - including short term programming and noncredit offerings. Businesses were inspired to work with educational partners in articulating in-demand skills into credentials. As businesses understood how the new tuition assistance program could supply them with the talent and skills they need, with most programs lasting just 6-12 weeks (allowing for quick turnaround into job placement) they became champions of the program – advocating for the bill when it was introduced and continuing to be ardent supporters of the legislation every session.  

What’s next?

VCCS continues to work together with area employers to create talent pipelines.

One such effort was highlighted in NSC’s infrastructure playbook.  Infrastructure employers across the state were facing labor shortages projected to grow exponentially because of the aging infrastructure workforce and impending retirements. Employers desperately needed to train a new entry-level workforce who could get on a career pathway and specialize over time. Yet there was no coordinated training effort in the infrastructure sector until the creation of the Virginia Infrastructure Academy.

Since that initial partnership, which built the academy structure across the state’s 23 community colleges, the academy has built out specialized programs on individual campuses that correspond with in-demand jobs in that area. For instance, Tidewater Community College is ramping up wind technician programs for jobs building and maintaining turbines for the windfarm that Dominion Energy, the state’s electric utility, is building off the coast of Virginia. While at Southside Virginia Community College, a public/private partnership has established a training program for industrial solar technicians that is now expanding across the commonwealth to other colleges.

By continuing to invest in FastForward, Virginia is not only addressing its current workforce challenges, but also setting a model for the rest of the nation on how to build a skilled and resilient workforce.