A plan espoused by a coalition of business leaders across the state would pour $880 million into making Virginia the "top state for talent" by creating a statewide internship initiative, improving collaboration between industry and education, and providing financial aid and other incentives to make higher education more accessible and affordable. Community colleges like Virginia Western in Roanoke would play a key role. (Courtesy of Virginia Western Community College)

Earlier this year, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce surveyed nearly 7,000 businesspeople and asked: What factor has the largest impact on the state’s economy?

The top response: Workforce and education.

The top answer in 2017? Workforce and education.

And in 2013? Workforce and education.

For years, schools, businesses and nonprofits around the state have developed programs aimed at easing shortages of workers in key industries and stemming the loss of talented employees to other states. The efforts have often been local or regional in scope.

A proposal aired this month by a coalition of business leaders would create a coordinated statewide effort – at a cost of $880 million over the next biennium.

Growth4VA, an outgrowth of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, wants to address existing and projected workforce shortages by increasing degrees and credentials awarded in high-demand fields. It wants to boost collaboration between education and industry. It wants to create a vast network of internships and other work-based learning.

And it doesn’t want money to stand in the way – of students who can’t pay for credential programs, of employers that lack the infrastructure to offer internships, or of schools that want to hold the line on tuition but don’t think they can afford to.

“We must all work together if we’re really going to make Virginia the top state for talent,” said Nancy Agee, president and CEO of Carilion Clinic and vice chair of the council. “Sometimes it’s the willing who make that happen, and I think there is real willingness, real desire. We see the future, and we need to lay down the building blocks to get there.”

There’s precedent, as Agee pointed out during the online announcement of the proposal. In 2019, after winning Amazon’s HQ2 project, Virginia launched an initiative to dramatically increase the number of students graduating with technology degrees. Eleven universities signed onto a plan to create 31,000 new computer science graduates over 20 years. Virginia Tech had already pledged to build a $1 billion technology campus in Northern Virginia as part of the state’s winning bid for the Amazon project.

It’s time, Agee said, to apply that kind of performance-based model to address other workforce needs: teachers, nurses, data scientists.

Funding would come from the state’s budget surplus and unallocated federal relief funds, the group said. Of the total, $300 million would go toward developing talent and $580 million toward making educational opportunities more affordable and accessible through financial aid and tuition moderation. 

The ask is big but the money is needed, coalition members said.

They say Virginia lags surrounding states in the amount it contributes toward in-state undergraduate education: $6,519 per student, compared to $10,742 in North Carolina and $8,800 in Maryland. 

This is a “once-in-generations opportunity to invest in higher education and make Virginia the top state for talent in the United States,” Dennis Treacy, chairman of the council, said during the online announcement.

High school students participating in United Way of Southwest Virginia’s Ignite program can get internships at local businesses, like West River Conveyors in Oakwood. The program was launched to bridge a gap between schools and employers, said Travis Staton, president and CEO of the nonprofit. “Students did not have a clue what jobs are in Southwest Virginia, what skill sets and education requirements they needed to get those jobs,” he said. (Courtesy of United Way of Southwest Virginia)

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That same chamber survey from earlier this year asked whether the state does a good job of preparing the workforce that businesses need. Only 40% of respondents said yes.

If the state were to spend money to improve the situation, where should the funds go? the survey asked. Top answer: internships and other work-based learning.

Work experience is a key component of the Growth4VA plan, which would make an internship or similar experience available to any student who wanted one. It would provide financial incentives to companies that offered internships and aid to students who might not otherwise be able to afford such an opportunity. 

A recent survey of more than 15,000 of the state’s college graduates conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University and shared with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce found that fewer than half had completed one or more internships. More than half said their internship helped them get a job after graduation.

One goal, Growth4VA proponents said, is to connect students with employers while they’re still in school, to plant the seeds for staying in Virginia after they graduate. Another is to create a pipeline of qualified workers for Virginia companies.

Building the internship platform across the state should make it easier for schools and businesses to coordinate their efforts, and for students to find suitable opportunities, Agee said.

Providing money to support the changes is critical, some observers said.

Smaller employers might be open to hosting interns but might not have the financial or structural wherewithal to set up a program and pay an intern, Bobby Sandel, president of Virginia Western Community College, said last week during the annual Virginia Education and Workforce Conference.

Nor can all students afford to take internships, even paid ones, said Makola Abdullah, president of Virginia State University, who sat on a panel with Sandel. Internships can create more overhead for students, who might need to pay for a car, housing or work-appropriate clothing, he said.

One effort to watch is happening in Richmond, where Virginia Commonwealth University and ChamberRVA this summer received a $250,000 grant from a public-private partnership to increase the availability of internships in the Richmond region.

The funding came from the Virginia Talent and Opportunity Partnership, a program launched a year ago by the Virginia Chamber Foundation and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to increase connections between business and education, and to expand the availability of internships and other work-based learning opportunities.

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Making more internships available in high-demand fields doesn’t help students whose coursework didn’t prepare them to work in those fields.

The Growth4VA plan includes a push to align curriculum with workforce needs – to develop better connections between industry and education to ensure that degrees and certificate programs are preparing students to fill the jobs that are available.

It’s critical for educators to know what industry needs are, Sandel said. Virginia Western has created advisory committees to work closely with business leaders and has built programs based on what businesses in the region say they need.

Community colleges across the state have adopted the FastForward model, which offers six- to 12-week credential programs in 40 high-demand fields including logistics, health care and welding. The programs meet the needs of both employers who want to fill openings quickly and students who want to build skills for their next job but maybe can’t go back to school full time, he said.

Dr. Bill Hazel, former secretary of Health and Human Resources and now the senior deputy executive director of the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation, said an even earlier start is crucial.

“You really need the foundation of K-12 to make this work,” he said. “It’s not one or the other, it’s both.” 

Kids have to be able to visualize themselves in these jobs, he said, and so they need to know what their career options are – and they must be prepared with the right high school courses.

The Northern Virginia-based foundation is on a mission to increase the number of students who go into health sciences fields, and it is helping nearly four dozen school systems across the state develop high school programs.

(The foundation is named for the same Claude Moore whose name is on the complex that houses Virginia Western’s culinary arts program; he grew up in Roanoke.)

In Southwest Virginia, the foundation has been working closely with the Blue Ridge Partnership for Health Science Careers, an employer-led consortium of business, education and economic development leaders created several years ago with a similar goal.

“There’s a recognition across the board that things can be coordinated a little more intentionally,” said Cynthia Lawrence, director of workforce development at Carilion and a founder of the partnership, which covers GO Virginia’s Region 2.

The group has attracted attention from across Virginia; Hazel thinks that it could serve as a model for a statewide initiative.

In the coalfields and surrounding counties, the push to connect students with careers is starting in middle school.

“Students did not have a clue what jobs are in Southwest Virginia, what skill sets and education requirements they needed to get those jobs,” said Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, which covers a region that stretches from the New River Valley to the coalfields.

Even among teachers, he said, there was a lack of understanding about the jobs that exist in the region, and about how their instruction in the classroom connected to those jobs.

A $100,000 anonymous gift and a GO Virginia grant helped United Way launch and then expand Ignite, a program that is now available to 30,000 students in all 19 school systems in the nonprofit’s service area.

Middle-schoolers visit employment expos and write career and educational plans that follow them through high school. Older students can land summer internships. Teachers tour local companies and learn how to translate coursework to the workplace.

And schools can watch for disconnects between what students say they want to do when they graduate and what jobs actually need to be filled.

“We can see, oh, gosh, we’ve got a lot of kids that aren’t interested in nursing, we have a lot of nursing jobs in this region, we see a gap that’s coming — we’d better start working with our health care systems to build an awareness of health care occupations and build up that talent pipeline,” Staton said.

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There are already programs doing good work around the commonwealth, Agee acknowledged. But they’re fragmented, and the Growth4VA plan calls for a statewide strategy.

“There are certainly plenty of opportunities,” she said. “But in some ways they’re uncoordinated — it’s who you know versus a really organized collaborative effort.”

The business community is asking for this, and the colleges want to do it, said Don Finley, president of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. “But you can’t scale it up without investment, and you can’t scale it up without the collaboration that Nancy talked about,” he said. “We’re talking about a big-time scale-up across the state.”

Lawrence and Hazel believe that a statewide approach is critical for health sciences in particular. It’s a heavily regulated industry, meaning that consistency in training and credentialing – and help from the state to achieve it – is vital.

“That’s what we’re trying to do in health sciences, and then workforce writ large,” Lawrence said. “We’re trying to marry educators, employers and now government in not a restrictive way but in an enabling way, in a facilitation way.”

There will be no room for turf battles, participants agreed.

“We need to be able to work together, to learn from each other to solve our problems,” Abdullah said.

The pandemic has shown that higher education institutions can change on a dime if necessary – not something they’ve been known for, he acknowledged. He pointed to community colleges, with their focus on ever-evolving workforce preparedness, as an example to follow.

“In four-year institutions, we’ve been a little less nimble in the past,” he said. “We can be more nimble. We can follow the road of our community college brethren in moving forward.”

Staton said he hasn’t been part of the Growth4VA discussions but would welcome the chance to share what United Way has learned. 

One takeaway, he said, is that the spirit of collaboration has to extend through all levels of learning if the process is to be seamless for students.

He’s seen students earn an industry credential in high school that doesn’t count toward a community college program, or students graduate from community college but then be stymied by trying to transfer their credits to a four-year school. 

“What we’ve got to do is work with all of these folks at the table … and make sure they’re on the same page, and make sure that we are treating students as the customer, and making it clearly visible for them to say, if I want to work for Amazon when I get out of college, I need to do this in high school, this in community college, that rolls up to this in college and then gets me there,” he said.

“Those pipelines really need to be strengthened and articulated and built, because right now they’re fragmented.”

Sandel agreed. Community colleges are working with their four-year counterparts to create more seamless transfer of credits, but work remains. “We do a lot of transfers, but there are still a lot of courses that are more difficult to transfer,” he said.

Details about just how the Growth4VA plan would work haven’t been made public. The proposal was intended to be a big-picture idea, Agee said, offered as a framework to begin discussions with the General Assembly and governor – and, soon, with the governor-elect.

Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County – who’s on the House Appropriations Committee and who was a driving force behind launching the health sciences initiative in Roanoke-area high schools – said he would be inclined to support the plan. How his colleagues in Richmond will respond could depend on those details, he said.

“It’s an aggressive plan,” he said. “But I think it’s probably looking down a path that we eventually need to go down. We’ve got to fill these worker shortages, and we have to produce people who are qualified and have expertise in the fields of need.”

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.