Western Virginia, hard hit by job losses in fading industries including tobacco and textiles, has struggled along with the rest of the country during the recent economic recession. Thanks to Virginia Tech and grants from the federal government, some $10 million in projects aimed at bolstering the ailing region have shored up companies and retrained workers.
“You hear a lot about people who can’t find work,” said Doloris Vest, president of the Western Virginia Workforce Development Board, a group charged with growing a dynamic workforce development system that stimulates economic development. “What you don’t hear about is employers who can’t find employees with the right skills. There’s a mismatch between job-seekers’ skills and the needs of the employer.”
Two of three big projects spearheaded by Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development put a laser-like focus on making workers employable, whether they’re just starting a career or have endured the trauma of job loss.
Participant Nora Smith, for instance, said she remembers how welcome it was to visit a job fair in Salem, Va., and be asked, “Would you like some free job training?” At that point, Smith had been unemployed for several months. “I said, ‘That sounds pretty good.’ ”
Smith may not be the stereotypical blue-collar worker whose factory has closed or pink-collar worker whose industry has imploded. She holds a master’s degree and planned to be a teacher. Thanks to the green-jobs grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, she’s now studying alternative energy management at Virginia Western Community College and working part time as an assessor and technical writer for the Volunteers for Energy program.
Chad Chenier, a former carpenter and also a student at Virginia Western Community College, credits the same grant with training that will give him new opportunities. He has already found work providing energy assessments for buildings such as churches, college buildings, restaurants, and call centers. The combination of hands-on job experience and classroom training makes him optimistic about the future, he said. “Even with just the experience from that job, I’m confident about where my future is going.”
“We offered a lot of hope to people who thought this was the end of the road,” said Vincent Randall, program specialist with the Western Virginia Workforce Development Board. “We were able to customize solutions for every individual.”
The second worker-training project deals with making health-care workers proficient in the new world of electronic medical records. Some of those trained are students; others are already employed in hospitals or medical offices. By the grant’s end, 700 participants will have been trained. Demand for trained workers will exceed capacity, according to projections.
The third project rounding out the $10 million effort involves the transportation manufacturing industry. This initiative helps industry become more competitive by developing new products and instituting new efficiencies and green practices.
“These improvements are designed to be felt immediately on the shop floor and moved into the marketplace,” said John Provo, director of the Office of Economic Development. “Companies will be able to make lighter, more fuel-efficient trucks and reduce idle times to meet new emissions standards.” Firms receiving grant money in the first round were Volvo Trucks North America, Salem Vent, Volvo Logistics, Dynax America, and Metalsa.
“We’re getting ready for a whole new round of funding that should result in new products, new processes and – most important – new jobs,” Provo said.
A key thread running through all three projects is their collaborative nature, Provo said. “None of the projects could succeed without Virginia Tech faculty expertise, and central to their success is our joining forces with nonprofits groups such as Community Housing Partners, educational institutions such as community colleges, and government bodies such as regional planning commissions.”
It’s payday for everyone when a worker finds a job.
“It’s been so fulfilling to me personally because you work with folks who may have been out of work for such a long time,” said Rhonda Womble, program specialist for the New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Investment Area. “And to have this opportunity to go back to school and have their tuition and books paid for and to see them go through the training and a job search and find a job, it’s an amazing experience.”
John Provo, director of the Office of Economic Development, talks about $10 million in grants helping Western Virginia's economies.
Two of the three grants secured by Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development – a $3.8 million project to train workers for new, green jobs in construction industries and a $4.7 million effort to spur broader use of electronic medical records – deploy most of the money to community colleges.
The colleges develop more relevant curricula, while Virginia residents take advantage of free or subsidized training. Virginia Tech faculty experts provide guidance and quality control.
In the third project, a $1.5 million grant sends money directly to companies in the transportation equipment manufacturing sector for research and development. The money also helps to institute new, greener processes in factories. Some of the money is employed by Virginia Tech researchers to provide technical services on the companies’ shop floors.
Where did the money come from? The U.S. Department of Labor funded the jobs-training projects, while the U.S. Economic Development Administration underwrote the manufacturing effort.
The Office of Economic Development is leading the grants, which involve collaborations with many partners throughout the region.
Electronic medical records
Transportation equipment manufacturing
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