In 2016, the General Assembly made a critical investment to keep the commonwealth’s workforce strong. Lawmakers passed the New Economy Workforce Credential Grant Program, a bill supporting “FastForward” short-term career training in high-demand fields. The programs were designed to be completed in 6 to 12 weeks, with students footing only one-third of the cost.
Fast forward to 2020 and Virginia’s investment is paying dividends. Amid unprecedented unemployment, as job opportunities shift, Virginia’s community colleges are able to adapt.
The Community College Workforce Alliance (CCWA) is a partnership between the John Tyler and Reynolds community colleges to help fill workforce needs in central Virginia’s 12 counties and four cities. Through relationships with chambers of commerce, economic development offices, workforce investment boards, community partners and employers, CCWA is the key regional steward of FastForward credentials.
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Virginians once stuck in minimum- or near-minimum wage jobs have a chance to reach living wages and fulfilling career pathways. As COVID-19 sparks unprecedented unemployment claims and affects major industries, CCWA knows some job seekers will need to reposition their careers and skill sets.
The FastForward infrastructure is there to support those changes. But like much of higher education, these workforce credential programs thrived off of in-person environments. Back in January, almost none of CCWA’s offerings were virtual.
“We needed to look at all our classes, but particularly those FastForward [ones], because those really are a vehicle for getting people into the workforce very quickly,” said Elizabeth Creamer, CCWA’s vice president for workforce development and credential attainment, in a recent interview.
Now, many are hybrid or fully online and those options likely will continue going forward, Creamer said. Other careers like truck driving still require some hands-on settings. Large lectures could be shifted online. But on-the-road content suddenly needed lower ratios of students to instructors, social distancing, personal protective equipment and cleaning protocols.
“We’re watching to see what works for the students,” Creamer said. “What are they enrolling in? What are they succeeding in? What certifications are they obtaining?”
At the same time, CCWA and other workforce divisions also have to track where the jobs are. Even amid COVID-19, some programs still have maintained strong employer pathways, including manufacturing, logistics, transportation, and construction and trades.
After a two-month hiatus, in late June, truck driving students were back out on the road at the John Tyler campus. Creamer said moments like that one have felt heroic and we agree.
Virginia’s community colleges and their employment partners deserve credit. They are juggling historic changes in instructional settings and shifts in the workplace, all while staying committed to that key mission: helping Virginians land living-wage jobs.
— Chris Gentilviso