Workforce Training that Focuses on Unfilled Jobs

Workforce training in Martinsville, Va.
Violet Mabe, of Martinsville, participates in a Certified Production Technician class at the local community college. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

The Martinsville area, a manufacturing powerhouse as recently as the 1980s, has become the poster child for Virginia’s rust belt. Unemployment hit 20% during the bottom of the last recession, and still lingers at 6.8%. Ironically, the Martinsville-Henry County area simultaneously suffers from a labor shortage — a shortage of labor with the right skills, that is.

I addressed this issue back in August in “Is It Time to Blame the Victim,” which described the difficulty local authorities had in finding people willing to undergo the training required to fill hundreds of vacant jobs. Now the Martinsville Bulletin has published an in-depth look at the workforce dilemma.

There is a serious mismatch between workforce skills and the jobs available. As of last week, there were 1,325 jobs open in Martinsville and Henry County. Factors influencing the difficulty in filling the positions include the need for daycare, lack of transportation, and the inability of applicants to pass drug tests. “But a skills mismatch and need for training is the problem area officials most often cited,” states the article.

Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) and the New College Institute (NCI) battle a perception that education is unaffordable. Adults with families to support must make significant sacrifices even to earn a two-year degree.

One possible solution is to award certifications geared to the needs of particular employers, such as the Center for Advanced Film Manufacturing that grooms students for jobs at Eastman Chemical Co. That program offers a paid internship with Eastman and a guaranteed interview with the company. The company has hired more than 90% of the graduates of the program.

PHCC has launched a similar program with Radial, a logistics and distribution company. Kim Smith-Glisson, director of operations in Martinsville, explains the motivation:

As we grew the business in Martinsville/Henry County we did not want to have to continue to relocate our supervisors, our managers, our senior managers externally from outside of the area. We wanted to be able to develop the talent locally and continue to promote from within.

Drake Extrusion, a polypropene fiber manufacturer, announced a $6 million expansion in Henry County earlier this year, creating 30 jobs. CEO John Parkinson said additional job training is a necessity:

We’ve got a lot of people who are willing to apply for jobs, but they don’t really have the technical skills, the problem-solving skills, the ability to use computers on the shop floor and things like that, which is what we’re really looking for these days. Gone are the days when you’re just looking for people who can press buttons and watch machines.

Bacon’s bottom line:

 Two-year programs have their place, but they often take too long and impose too high a cost on adults who support families while acquiring new workplace skills. Community colleges and career colleges need to develop programs that deliver employers the specific skill sets their employees need. Likewise, employers need to get over the idea that job training is mainly a public responsibility. They need to partner with community colleges and help underwrite the cost of training programs that benefit them.

Meanwhile, Virginia needs to look at the panoply of job training programs — Nine state agencies distribute more than $340 million in federal and state funds for employee assistance and training — to see how effectively their programmatic models align with labor market realities. Are there obsolete and/or ineffective programs that can be shut down and their resources reallocated to programs proven to work?

The McAuliffe administration has sponsored creation of the Go Virginia program to develop a collaborative approach to workforce development involving business, local government and higher education. Whether Go Virginia delivers a focused approach to workforce training and education, or just adds another layer of bureaucracy, remains to be seen. But one thing seems evident: Training Virginians to fill unfilled jobs that already exist should be a lot easier than solving unemployment by recruiting new businesses to invest in the state.

Update: Patrick Henry Community College already has numerous certification programs that require less than a two-year course of study. See comments of PHCC’s Jim Bove here.

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10 responses to “Workforce Training that Focuses on Unfilled Jobs”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I believe that workers don’t want to be re-trained in some of these areas.

    they are intimidated by the fact that re-training requires basic core skills in math and reading that many never got in high school and that it’s a bridge too far for them.

    I was struck watching an interview with displaced coal workers who basically said coal mining was all they ever knew how to do – and re-training was more than they could handle and they just wanted to build/make things like they always did.

    I’m not sure how you deal with that but I still would think 2 years of retraining would be better than 3, 5 10 years of swinging in the wind getting barely enough entitlements to live on.

    but again – if your basic education is that you can barely read and write much less read and understand college level material or even technical manuals… then it’s a high bar… mentally and psychologically ..

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s the OTHER problem – otherwise known as generational challenges:


    Editorial: Will Richmond do anything about the school funding crisis developing in Southwest Virginia?

    “State funding accounts for about 70 percent of the school budget in many coalfield localities. That state funding is tied to enrollment. Fewer students means fewer state dollars; coalfield schools have already lost nearly 16 percent of their state funding and expect to see it drop even more. Norton school superintendent Keith Perrigan supplies this alarming statistic: “If the most recent decline in enrollment continues, the coalfields stand to lose over $10 million in state revenue by June of 2017 — in the span of just one year.”

    In theory, localities could make up the difference — if they could. However, the decline of coal has also meant the decline of one of the coalfields’ biggest sources of tax revenue. A decade ago, the coal severance tax was Wise County’s second biggest source of revenue — $5 million, or about 12 percent of the county’s revenue. Now it’s down to just over $1 million, or about 3 percent of the county’s revenue.”

    so here’s the pain – in economically-depressed areas of Va – not only do the adult unemployed need access to re-training but if something is not done about school funding – the sons and daughters of the displaced are going to not have sufficient education – either – and longer-term generational failure will ensue with opioid disaster in the wings.

    the question is – and I put this to Don and TMT as well as others. Does Virginia have a responsibility to go help these counties with money from the richer counties?

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    “Does Virginia have a responsibility to go help these counties with money from the richer counties?”

    Yes, and the Commonwealth is already doing it with the large amount of state aid presently sent to these rural, low-income districts. If a school division is losing students, it needs to lose employees and costs. The county or city needs to consider raising real estate taxes. Perhaps, state law should be amended to permit consolidation of school systems among two or more counties or cities.

    According to state data, Fairfax County Public Schools had 50,679 students eligible for free or reduced price lunches as reported in October 2015. Those kids total more than the total student population of all other Virginia school divisions except for Chesterfield, Henrico, Loudoun, Prince William and Virginia Beach.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    should the state be paying for workforce training for the unemployed in those places, TMT?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Good and tough question. I need to think about this for a while.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I understand that many public school systems and community colleges offer adult education courses that could be used for retraining. I think it might well be reasonable for the Commonwealth to provide some type of tuition reimbursement – maybe not 100% — for adults who enrolled in, attend and pass these classes as bona fide retraining. It might be useful to require approval from the state unemployment agency to root out as much fraud as possible.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        when you say the “Commonwealth to provide” – you mean taxpayers, right? and that’s over and above what taxpayers already provide for K-12?

        so…. do you think kids that graduate from K-12 but lack the training to qualify for a real job should also qualify for workforce training paid for by the State (taxpayers)?

        I’ll tell you where I am.

        I think you are presented with this dilemma:

        either you provide – to both adults and K-12 kids what is needed in the way of education for them to get jobs –

        or we’ll still be paying for their entitlements – MedicAid, Unemployment, food stamps, etc.. and we’ll do that – for their entire lives – whereas if we train them – we may not.

        It’s sort of the giving fish versus teaching how to fish – parable.

        but it does require – subsidies from taxpayers in the parts of Virginia where they have the economic ability to pay… to do that.

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          Since retraining benefits the locality, I could see a requirement for some level of local matching funds in order to qualify for state funds. But then, I like checks and balances.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    The U.S. Department of Labor has set aside $6 million to fund a Radford-based organization promising to help disadvantaged workers across Southwest Virginia get the training and jobs they need.
    The New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Development Board will spread the money across more than 30 counties and cities, from Bristol to Botetourt, over the next four years in a new program called “Pathways to the American Dream.”
    Some of the funds will go toward traditional workforce training projects, such as hiring career coaches that will work hands-on with unemployed and underemployed workers, as well as those who have a job but lack the training required for promotion.

  6. Jim Bove, Public Relations and Marketing Manager for Patrick Henry Community College, responded to the post by email. I include relevant excerpts here. — JAB

    I wanted to correct a few things for you so that you can help us inform and educate those who might be interested in participating in some of these trainings.

    As you mention, two years (or more) is very, very difficult for many people to spend to participating in career training. Most Virginia community colleges purposely have programs that are far shorter for that very reason. Here at Patrick Henry Community College, most of our workforce credential programs can be completed in a semester or less (typically 12 weeks or less). That is something that we struggle to get people to understand that, in fact, you do not need an associate or bachelor’s degree to create a significantly much better career and future for your entire family.

    One of the other big concerns is price. We actually have a great deal of financial resources available for students who qualify for assistance. Additionally, the new Economy Workforce Credential Grant passed by the General Assembly (read about it here) and signed by Governor McAuliffe earlier this year provides funding assistance for students to complete these short-term workforce credential programs.

    Our Center for Advanced Film Manufacturing is a program that we partner with Eastman to provide. It can be completed in two semesters and includes a paid internship. We also have the program with Radial here at PHCC (the article said NCI), too, so we are constantly partnering with our local businesses and resources to provide concise workforce training that can lead to a job and/or lead to further education if the student desires.

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