Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin seems to be preparing to put his stamp on state government in some legacy-defining ways.

I don’t refer to any of the things that drive most news coverage – Youngkin’s push for abortion restrictions, or his administration’s transgender policy or the revised standards for teaching history.

Instead, I refer to some less polarizing but not necessarily less important aspects of state policy: the intersection of encouraging job creation and finding workers for those jobs.

So far, we’ve only seen glimpses of what Youngkin seems to be planning but they are big and tantalizing.

* Increasing the number of dual-enrollment students: When Youngkin spoke in Bristol in late October as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series, he dropped one big piece of news: He wants to see every high school student graduate with either credentials or an associate degree. “You’re going to hear more about this in December as we frame this out but I’ve already started to warn everyone this is coming,” he told Cardinal News during a follow-up interview. It’s fair to say this would be radical, transformative and lots of other words like that.

Not every program arrives fully formed, like Minerva from the head of Zeus, but even some partial move in this direction would require a significant increase in the number of dual-enrollment programs where high school students can earn community college credits at the same time. “I believe we have the capacity to expand that [dual enrollment] extensively; there’s no reason why it couldn’t be incorporated in our graduation requirements,” Youngkin said.

* Creating a new agency for workforce development: A few weeks later, Youngkin’s labor secretary, Bryan Slater, told a meeting of community college officials in Roanoke that the governor would propose a new state agency to centralize the 1,500 workforce training programs that are currently spread across multiple agencies. That announcement sent community college officials into a tizzy and the governor’s office didn’t want to say much more, but it seems clear something big is coming when Youngkin presents his budget amendments in December.

When asked about this, the governor’s office sent this statement from Slater: “As the Governor has been saying, workforce development is not operating like it should. With over 113 workforce providers, 250 training providers, and 1500 training programs across the Commonwealth, we need to centralize our workforce training by creating a centralized hub of key programs to manage and drive key components across state government and manage them strategically. We are working to create a workforce operations structure that reaches more Virginians, prioritizes workforce development, measures performance, creates accountability and efficiently trains and places Virginians in jobs.”

These two things – more dual-enrollment students, a single agency for workforce development – are part of a bigger whole that deserves some attention. I can’t say that Youngkin is singularly focused on job creation because he obviously has other interests as well, but it’s clear that when he’s not out campaigning for Republican candidates in other states, Youngkin is very focused on two things. The first is the number of unfilled jobs in the state, said to be roughly 300,000. Any governor would want to see that figure lower. The other is something that I’ve not heard other governors talk about: the state’s out-migration trends.

As I’ve written about in the past, more people are moving out of Virginia than are moving in. That’s been the case since 2013, so it’s now a well-established trend. Virginia is still gaining population, but only because births outnumber deaths and net out-migration. With falling birth rates, though, that may not last. Virginia’s net out-migration is a somewhat obscure figure but a telling one. “It’s a metric that I follow every day,” Youngkin told Cardinal News. “I don’t believe you can have a long-term vibrant economy unless you have a growing economy, which means a growing workforce and a growing population. … The trends over the past eight years have been horrific. People vote with their feet and wallet.” At first, the age cohort with the biggest out-migration was those over 60 – retirees turning into snowbirds and generally moving South. More recently, though, we’re seeing net out-migration in every age cohort. (I examined all these figures in more depth in a previous column.) More worrisome, the age cohort with the biggest growth in net out-migration was 18-30 – those just entering the workforce. Here’s yet another statistic that rings alarm bells in the governor’s office: Since 2015, Virginia is now seeing net out-migration among college grads.

Others may have different economic theories about population growth, but this is Youngkin’s: Population growth equates with economic growth. (Some may dispute that but those of us in rural Virginia certainly understand the flip side: Population decline definitely equates with economic decline.) From Youngkin’s point of view, if more people are moving out than moving in, then we either need more people staying in Virginia or moving into Virginia to counterbalance that. That means we need more jobs to either hold or attract those people. (This isn’t simply Youngkin’s philosophy; this was part of the impetus behind the creation of the GO Virginia economic development initiative, which got started under then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.) We start, though, with that deficit of 300,000 jobs that are already unfilled – so by Youngkin’s math we need to create more jobs than that (his official goal is 400,000).

That drive has animated much of Youngkin’s policy. It apparently factored into his desire to get involved in the selection of the next community college chancellor, which for a time led him to suggest that he might have to fire the entire community college board if he didn’t get his way. When the board went ahead and hired someone, that chancellor-in-waiting soon abruptly withdrew. We still don’t know exactly why but it’s fair to surmise that Youngkin felt his resume was too thin for the job at hand.

Now we see the two proposals the administration has already previewed: the centralization of workforce training programs and a push for more dual-enrollment students. The purpose of the former is obvious: create a more efficient system to get more people trained for those 300,000 to 400,000 jobs. The purpose of the latter may be less obvious so let’s spell it out: The governor wants to get more people into the workforce sooner. Why wait two years for a high school graduate to earn an associate degree and move into the workforce, or go on to a four-year school and then move into the workforce? What if more high school students already had the requisite credentials or associate degree so they enter the workforce right away? That’s what this is about – cutting the time between high school graduation and entry into the workforce, which has the effect of filling those jobs sooner rather than later.

There are lots of questions to be asked here, some philosophical, some practical. How many high school students can handle that kind of workload? How many know at that age what they want to do, anyway? That’s just the beginning. Some say that pushing college-level work into high schools helps save students money – by eliminating whole years of tuition payments. Others point out that dual-enrollment students can’t qualify for the type of student aid that’s available to regular community college students, so there is some cost-shifting involved. Increasing the number of dual-enrollment students may be a worthy idea, but it raises financial questions that aren’t easy to answer. Somebody has to pay; who will it be? Right now, many local school systems cover some of the cost with students covering the rest. Will local school systems now have to pay more to cover more students? Or will the state foot some of the bill?

It also would mean the need for more instructors at the community college level. Youngkin seems to understand this point. “I have to say it’s going to be a huge lift,” Youngkin told us during his interview in Bristol. “It’s going to require expansion at the community college level. We don’t have enough instructors. We need to engage business interests in the 30, 40, 50 credentials that are the ones they want. That’s what we want people to focus on, not credentials that don’t translate into a job. But there’s no reason that every high school student in Virginia couldn’t graduate with a credential.” If Youngkin can pull this off – even if he can only pull off some of this – that would constitute a major change in the state’s educational structure. Some are focused on history standards, and I don’t mean to diminish those concerns. I grew up in an era when Virginia’s history textbooks taught us propaganda and sometimes outright lies about our past (see my previous column about abolitionist John Underwood for more on that), so I’ve seen firsthand how easy it is for politicians to manipulate curriculum to fit their preferred political message. However, the changes that Youngkin is moving toward to accelerate getting high school graduates into the workplace are consequential in their own right – and potentially expensive. We’ll find out in December just how much Youngkin is prepared to invest to carry out these ideas, but whatever those figures are, these are the reasons behind what he’s doing.

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Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.