When Charles Griffin saw the flier at work for a Manufacturing Technician class, signing up was a no brainer. He builds refrigeration coils at a nearby plant and having this certificate could mean doubling his hourly pay.
“Compared to what I’m at now, I would increase by maybe $15,” explained Griffin during one class on a recent weekday night.
He’s here at John Tyler Community College, fiddling with wires and doing math, along with a dozen other students. Students like 35-year-old Johnny Evans who has four kids at home and dreams of the day he’ll make more than $13 an hour.
“If I made more money, ” Evans speculated, “one of the first things I would do is probably plan a summer vacation for next summer...basically I don’t do it for me anymore, I do it for my kids. Just make sure their way of living is comfortable and better than my way of living.”
Virginia’s Democratic candidate for governor wants to make classes like this one free. He’s targeted programs that connect people to well paying and in-demand jobs, like earning a commercial driver’s license or becoming a certified nurse assistant.
But what many don’t realize is that Virginia already offers those programs at deep discount.
Griffin gets up at 4 a.m. to go to work until 1:30 p.m. Then he reads over his notes and prepares for his evening class.
“Then I’m here until 8:30. I try to go home, grab a bite. Talk to the kids for a little while,” Griffin said. “Then I’m dead beat up. I’m in the rack.”
Despite being willing to put in the work, Griffin had never signed up before because the price tag for the Manufacturing Technician course was $2,400. Luis Gonzalez, a mechanic with a mortgage, says that’s a lot of money to have on hand.
“It’s really hard for me to get that, maybe I would put it on a credit card instead of being able to pay it just cash, ya know?” said Gonzalez.
But now, neither have to take on debt to earn the certificate. The class is only $800, a figure small enough that their employers are willing to pay.
That’s thanks to a state grant system called Fast Forward.
Students pay a third of the cost up front. If they complete the class and earn their credential, the state pays down the remaining balance.
Pay for Performance
It’s not simply free workforce training, it’s a pay for performance system. And it puts the pressure on community colleges and students to get things right.
Jeff Kraus is with Virginia’s Community College System. He said while there are plenty of states that provide free workforce credentials, Virginia’s experimental grant program is different.
“We don’t get paid for them just trying the program, we get paid when the program helps them succeed. And that’s a really high bar of accountability, but it works out great,” Kraus said. “It works out great for that individual, works out great for the employer. And I think the big win is for the Commonwealth as a whole.”
Which programs are eligible changes in different parts of the state. For instance in Danville as the population ages and the opioid epidemic grows, doctors have become less willing to prescribe drugs for pain. Instead, there's been a growing demand for massage therapists.
"So all of the sudden you had these facilities that are serving all these people and they need certified massage therapists," explained Kraus. "And it was a big need, it sort of popped up out of nowhere. It was in great demand at the time and Danville community college put that program in motion."
It became one of the high demand programs in the region, and suddenly the program was offered at a reduced rate.
Most of Virginia's revenue comes from the personal income tax. More workforce credentials means higher incomes, and that means more funding for schools and roads.
And that’s a thought process both candidates for Governor in Virginia can get behind. Republican Ed Gillespie says workforce development is key to economic growth and he’d like to get private business more involved.
Democrat Ralph Northam wants to take things further and fully subsidize not just credential programs, but also associate’s degrees.
What Northam doesn’t have clear answers to is how to pay for that expansion. The current limited grant program is just over one year in, and colleges have already had to get an advance on funding.
Lawmakers allocated $5 million for the program for the first year and $7.5 million for the second. Community colleges have already tripled how many credentials they’ve handed out. If the pace keeps up they’ll tap out funding.
There is bipartisan support to keep the program going, but policymakers are still waiting on critical wage data before they deem things a success.