On April 23, Dr. Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), came to Rappahannock Community College as part of a statewide “Town Hall Meeting” tour. His presentation, “Closing the Commonwealth’s Credentials Gap,” gave area business owners a summary of the system’s efforts to provide a skilled and competent workforce, as well as the opportunity to contribute their own views on workforce training needs.
Nationally, Virginia ranks as the fourth best state in which to do business, and the sixth best in terms of an educated workforce. However, this education is very unevenly distributed. Virginia’s urban population ranks second in the United States as regards education, while its rural population — particularly within the “Rural Horseshoe,” stretching from the Eastern Shore across southern and southwest Virginia, then sweeping up and across the western mountains to Virginia’s northernmost tip — trails in at a shameful fiftieth.
“Creating new opportunities and expanding existing ones won’t happen without a new perspective in Virginia’s higher education,” states DuBois.
The “bachelor’s or bust” approach, he feels, is less important in terms of employability than certification in various general and specialized skills.
These credentials (468 of which are available from Virginia’s community colleges, including such specialties as electrician, welder, nurse aide, industrial technician, plumber, pharmacy technician, truck driver, Cisco certified network engineer, and Microsoft and Oracle database administrator) are both affordable and cost-effective — “the fastest way out of poverty.”
They are obtainable in months rather than years, and are “stackable” — that is, about one-third of them can be credited toward a degree of some kind. “How can these skills and competencies help your business?” asked DuBois during the discussion period. “How can they help your region? How can we help each other in this work?”
Virginia’s certificate offerings, however, are only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of such programs available across the nation. “Other states already invest in the training that leads to these credentials … but not Virginia,” says DuBois. “Change is needed”—particularly in the area of funding. Perennially underfunded community college budgets do not allow for the growing need for workforce training. Job openings exist, but employers have difficulty finding applicants with the right skills to fill them.
Legislation passed in the General Assembly this year gave the VCCS the task of creating a plan that will make increasing the variety of credentials it offers a high priority, thus allowing Virginia to become more competitive with her sister states. But to achieve this goal, Dubois emphasizes, input from all regions of the state is needed. It is hoped that the Town Hall tour will identify workforce needs in each region as well as bringing together business, industry, legislative, and community leaders who can pool their knowledge and resources to further that objective.
In the meantime, RCC continues to offer award-winning training for employers. College president, Dr. Sissy Crowther, notes that, “even with limited state funds, we regularly craft custom programs like the training series recently launched for King George County employees.” According to Crowther, the community colleges are astute at working with employers to identify training needs and partner resources to deliver it. “State funding specific for workforce training through the community colleges would hugely enhance the quality of employees for the commonwealth’s businesses.”