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Editorial: Growth4VA initiative deserves a bipartisan discussion

Editorial: Growth4VA initiative deserves a bipartisan discussion

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The Great American Labor Shortage has dominated the cultural landscape in recent weeks, with supply chain problems leaving shelves empty, help wanted signs making bids for workers in shops, restaurants and restaurant windows, and headlines speculating as to the reasons why.

Yet even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a deeper problem existed, with businesses across the nation repeatedly sounding the alarm about a lack of workers to fill skilled manufacturing and technology sector jobs. The employment crisis brought about by the pandemic has cast starker light on those needs.

A campaign developed by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council in collaboration with college presidents and business leaders called Growth4VA proposes a long-term solution to this underlying problem. Our newly elected, re elected and returning state legislators of both parties should make this proposal a priority when they return to Richmond in January.

The goals set forth in the Growth4VA proposal are lofty, with ambitions to address many aggravating economic problems through a single, complex plan. Here’s what they want to do.

First, they want to create college programs across the state tailored to directly meet what Virginia industries need most in their employees. Growth4VA refers to these as “talent pathways.”

Under this vision, every Virginia college student who wanted one would have an opportunity for a paid internship along the way to earning a certificate or degree in an environment where jobs are plentiful and found in-state.

Support for the internships would involve tax credits for participating employers and aid to students for housing, transportation, equipment and other expenses.

Data compiling industry needs and gaps in workforce skills would be readily available through existing agencies and initiatives like GO Virginia, with a website that acts as a one-stop shop that all participants could use to find jobs and degree programs.

The Online Virginia Network, which offers online courses from a few participating universities, would be expanded to help adults seeking to finish degrees or gain new skills.

All of these notions are welcome and couldn’t be more timely, as ever-rising tuition costs and student loan debts fuel debate as to whether college education is a necessary or wise investment.

Second, Growth4VA wants to take steps to make college more affordable for lower- and middle-income families.

In detailing this part of the proposal, the plan underscores the state’s shortcomings in supporting higher education. In 2001, the General Assembly passed the Top Jobs act, also known as the Higher Education Opportunity Act, that recommended that the state pay two-thirds of the cost of education at public universities for students that are Virginia residents. This goal has yet to be realized. At present, the state pays 50%.

This means we lag behind our neighbors, hurting our competitiveness. While North Carolina and Tennessee on average provide more than $10,000 in state support per resident student, and Maryland almost $9,000, Virginia pays about $6,500, more than $2,000 lower than the national average.

According to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, the Old Dominion ranks 39th in support per resident student when compared to other states.

The solutions Growth4VA has proposed include increasing the funding for Pell grants, tuition assistance grants and workforce credential grants, and raising state support of higher education to the 67% called for by the Top Jobs Act. The group also wants to see the state provide direct support for student health services and increase state support at historically Black colleges and universities.

Among many measures to increase efficiency and cooperation between colleges, Growth4VA backs plans to use the influx of federal aid for spreading broadband infrastructure statewide.

Third, Growth4Va calls for deeper investment in university research with an eye toward encouraging more of the same from federal sources and the private sector, with an emphasis on furthering advances in medicine and meeting public health needs.

Fourth, Growth4VA specially states that the opportunities created through these initiatives should be open to students of all backgrounds.

Pursuant to this goal, the plan calls for reaching out to the state’s under-represented communities in order to promote and explain these talent pathway programs, with information readily available about cost and potential debt as well as graduate rates, likelihood of job placement and potential earnings.

The sum total of all this amounts to building connections between Virginia students and Virginia businesses, so the businesses can be assured of a talent pool full of candidates that have the right skills, and students don’t have to leave Virginia to land a better-paying job.

Some familiar names have signed on with this campaign. Carilion Clinic CEO Nancy Agee serves as vice chair of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council board and is actively talking up Growth4Va. VBHEC board chair Dennis Treahy is a past rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, and Tech President Timothy Sands also sits on the board, as well as Roanoke Valley business leader and philanthropist Heywood Fralin. Packed with CEOs and college presidents, the roster also includes University of Virginia’s College at Wise Chancellor Donna Price Henry; Mark Pace, president of E.C. Pace Co. in Roanoke; Commonwealth Care of Roanoke CEO Deborah Petrine; and Michael Quillen, founder of Alpha Natural Resources in Abingdon.

The proposal as outlined comes with an $880 million cost estimate, with $300 million designated to support degrees in career fields like health care that urgently need more workers, and the remaining $580 million going toward financial aid for students and institutions. Advocates say that the combination of the state’s $2.6 million budget surplus and the influx of millions in federal COVID-19 relief funds gives Virginia the once-in-our-lifetimes opportunity to make this investment.

A skeptic might say it all sounds too good to be true, and that’s understandable. Virginians in Southwest and Southside have been hearing promises for years about opportunities for better jobs that don’t seem to make much economic difference in practice.

This jobs initiative that aims to address so many underlying problems at once still deserves its day on the legislative floor.

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