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Christman: Improving access to improvement

Virginia employers want to hire people.

They want workers who have completed post-secondary programs or who have earned certificates, licenses or other industry-recognized credentials.

Community colleges are ready with curricula designed to train workers and deliver required credentials.


Meanwhile, qualified, low-income people seeking skills simply can't afford the training they need to advance.

Passing the JOBS Act would connect all three - and grow Virginia's economy.

Jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree are known as "middle-skill" jobs, and they are a critical and growing part of Virginia's and America's economy.

According to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics by the National Skills Coalition, about half the job openings between 2012 and 2022 are for middle-skill jobs. Currently, they account for 49 percent of Virginia's labor market, but only 40 percent of the state's workers are trained to fill them.

As a result, key industries are unable to find enough trained workers. This skills gap keeps the state economy from growing, employers from hiring and people from improving their prospects.

Federal education policy unwittingly contributes to the problem. Many education and training programs that could act as a pipeline for people seeking middle-skill jobs don't meet the federal requirements for financial aid or Pell grants - either because the programs are short-term or because they don't award academic credit.

This hits low-income people the hardest because they're the most likely to pursue career-advancing skills in health care, manufacturing or other high-demand, middle-skill occupations, and most likely to require non-loan financial aid like a Pell grant.

Some Virginia businesses and community colleges are working together to close the skills gap.

For example, through the Virginia Marine Skills Trades Training Program Consortium, five Virginia community colleges are collaborating with Newport News Shipbuilding, Southeastern Maritime Transportation Center and the Virginia Community College System to train marine electricians, marine painters, outside machinists and marine welders.

More than 350 students have successfully trained through the program. Ninety-eight percent of students complete the program, and 94 percent are hired. Salaries start at $32,000 with full benefits. The problem? The average cost of the program is nearly $5,000. Without a Pell grant to offset costs, the training is out of reach for most low-income students.

To solve this problem, we have to adjust our definition of a student. Not all students live on a leafy campus and attend college full time while earning a four-year degree.


Many are adults who already work full- or part-time jobs and are pursuing a license or certification in order to improve their prospects for employment, move up in the labor market or earn more money. Their interest in postsecondary education is driven by their desire to find success in the labor market, but prohibitive up-front costs are a real barrier.

Virginia's community colleges are responding to the realities of the labor market and are able to quickly adjust curricula to serve these students and meet the economy's demand for middle-skill workers. But to effectively close the skills gap and funnel trained workers to businesses that need them, federal financial aid policy has to keep up.

Fortunately, Sen. Tim Kaine has introduced the JOBS Act of 2015 (Jumpstart our Businesses by Supporting Students).

The JOBS Act addresses the skills gap by extending Pell grants to people who want to complete short-term, eight-week job training programs. Institutions would be required to align programs with the skill-demands of employers in their states and ensure that the programs result in a recognized postsecondary credential.

The bill would also encourage colleges to connect short-term credentials to career pathways and ensure that people with low literacy and math skills have the support they need to succeed.

Congress should pass the JOBS Act and extend Pell grants to these career-oriented students. It's one way to ensure that America's workers can afford access to qualified training, and it's a solution to safeguarding American businesses' ability to hire the talent they need.

Scott Christman, a research fellow with the American Apprenticeship Round Table, has worked in the apprenticeship community for over 25 years. He lives in Poqouson. 

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