Virginia leaders recently received encouraging news about the state’s economy. By a January 25 Times-Dispatch Report, the Commonwealth’s recovery from COVID-19 continues to progress. The state’s unemployment rate was 3.2% in December, and about 80% of the jobs lost during the public health crisis have returned.
A key caveat in this positive picture is the labor force participation rate: the segment of Virginians aged 16 and older who are employed or actively seeking employment. This figure was 63% in December 2021, compared to 66.3% in February 2020.
In real terms, Joe Mengedoth, regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, told the RTD that about 190,000 fewer Virginians are working today than before the pandemic.
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“The question is, how do these people re-engage and how many will stay away permanently?” asked Mengedoth.
The Youngkin administration and the General Assembly cannot ignore this set of sidelined contributors. Elected leaders must build on the successes of both vocational and technical training programs. The G3 and FastForward initiatives provide financially viable pathways to high-demand employment opportunities.
Launched July 2021, G3 is a tuition assistance opportunity for students pursuing professions in early childhood education, healthcare, information technology, public safety, and trades specialized. Virginia’s 23 community colleges work to align their individual rosters of approved G3 programs with local employment opportunities.
To be eligible for G3, students must be eligible for state financial aid and have a household income no more than 400% of the federal poverty level. They will have earned a high school diploma or GED and completed a minimum of six credit hours at a community college.
Students are also required to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which supports a separate policy goal of increasing completion rates. G3 funds are “last dollar,” meaning they recover the difference on tuition, fees, and books not covered by other grants or scholarships.
Although not all students meet the G3 eligibility criteria, the presence of the program has helped boost overall enrollment and affordability at Virginia Community College System schools. According to recently published data, in fall 2021, 26,179 students enrolled in G3-eligible programs, an increase of 9% over the previous year. “If you want to come to school and get certifications or a degree leading to a career, we can help you find the money to make it happen – through G3 or other funding,” says the G3 FAQ section. .
Too many students enter a bachelor’s degree course, only to fail to graduate and rack up thousands more in debt. A January 2020 pre-pandemic report from the Virginia State Board of Higher Education had more than one million borrowers in the Commonwealth, owing an average of nearly $37,000. Beyond avoiding higher education choices that lead to crippling debt, FastForward has made real progress in the opposite direction: higher salaries. As of fall 2021, 6,836 students have benefited from the program’s short-term opportunities. They typically last six to 12 weeks, and the early parts of a G3 associate degree trajectory are often FastForward credentials.
Not all high-demand jobs require an associate’s degree, and data from the 2020-21 VCCS survey showed how a FastForward credential alone can make a financial difference. Average salary gains were $11,626 (on an annualized basis), with education ($27,806), information technology ($19,403) and welding/fabrication ($16,975) showing an even higher trend.
These programs are still in their infancy. Fast forward started in 2016, and the first batch of G3 students didn’t even get their associate degrees.
And while COVID has disrupted essential and in-demand careers, it has brought new work opportunities to the Richmond area. Phlow Corp., AMPAC Fine Chemicals, Civica Inc. and VCU’s Medicines for All Institute are working together to establish a local pharmaceutical development and production cluster.
Community colleges are a key part of the process: John Tyler Community College is considering a G3-eligible pharmaceutical manufacturing program in the skilled trades category, which would support local employers by training students for future jobs.
It’s a good step in a new direction.