March 26, 2015
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
A state official on Wednesday sought local assistance in figuring out how community colleges can best help businesses meet their workforce needs.
Virginia Community College System (VCCS) Chancellor Glenn DuBois met with roughly 50 local business people, educators and government officials while visiting Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC).
New state legislation is directing the VCCS to develop a plan to increase the number of workforce certifications, licensures and credentials people earn to meet the needs of Virginia employers.
There will be an estimated 1.5 million job openings statewide, including new jobs and vacancies due to retirements, in the next decade, DuBois said, citing figures provided by state Commerce and Trade Secretary Maurice Jones.
However, DuBois said executives with companies statewide have told him they are having trouble filling current entry-level jobs because they cannot find workers with the required skills.
That is where community colleges play an important role because many of those jobs, while requiring some level of education beyond high school, do not require a bachelor’s or master’s degree, DuBois said.
More than 450 industry career certifications are available through the VCCS and PHCC has access to them all, according to Rhonda Hodges, the college’s vice president of workforce, economic and community development.
A major concern, those at Wednesday’s meeting indicated, is convincing young people to pursue such jobs and the certifications needed for them.
Larry Ryder, a former Hooker Furniture Corp. executive who now is on the company’s board, suggested a marketing effort targeting high-schoolers.
The earlier, the better, noted Henry County Public Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton, who suggested targeting middle-schoolers and their parents. DuBois echoed that sentiment.
Cotton mentioned that so-called “vocational careers” have a stigma among some people.
But “we’ve oversold” students on job opportunities available to them, said Sean Nix, talent director for Monogram Foods.
Students must realize, Nix said, that in today’s economy, they may have to pursue jobs that are not their first choices, but they might earn more money at those jobs than they could at their first choices, he said.
Still, “unless they see the (opportunities for) jobs in the area,” they are not going to want to be trained for them, Ryder said.
Many parents have encouraged their children to go to a four-year college or university to pursue a bachelor’s degree, DuBois said. Yet many parents now are upset because, due to economic factors, their college-educated children are unemployed or underemployed, he said.
Cost factors also could convince parents to encourage students to pursue a vocational or industrial certification, he indicated. He mentioned the average cost of earning a credential through a community college is roughly $3,800 while the cost of earning a four-year degree can be more than $100,000.
Charles Fraley, human resources manager for Eastman Chemical, suggested ensuring that students learn something valuable to their career pursuits, not just memorize answers to exams that could have little effect on them in the long term.
The main complaint that Fraley said he hears about school from Eastman interns is that “we’re not learning to learn. We’re learning to pass a test.”
People who seek jobs must be prepared to work hard, according to Nix. “A fundamental issue that we haven’t solved,” he said, is the “problem of removing mediocrity and laziness out of the workforce.”
DuBois said the VCCS likely can develop some type of certification for “soft skills,” such as showing up for work on time, giving 100 percent effort to the job, working as a team and communicating well with others.
Several people at the meeting mentioned a need to help veterans convert high levels of skills they learned in the military for civilian jobs. For example, drivers of military trucks could benefit from “fast track” training to become certified through the Department of Motor Vehicles to drive regular trucks, said Chris Pope, manager of the Virginia Employment Commission office in Martinsville.
William Wampler, executive director of the New College Institute, said the state should provide PHCC more money so President Angeline Godwin can “unleash her faculty” to “do innovative things” to help students learn.
Comments made during the meeting, and similar ones being held at other community colleges, will be used to develop the VCCS plan, officials said.
DuBois said the report is due Sept. 1 and a final draft should be finished by the summer. He said he will send a copy of the draft to meeting participants so they can “sign off on it” before the official report is sent to the governor and the General Assembly for next year’s legislative session.
“I don’t want it to be my report,” he said. “I want it to be Virginia’s report.”
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