By Madeline Merrill
Virginia is undoubtedly a state steeped in history and tradition. In Charlottesville, our nation’s roots are ever-present, where students casually stroll past Jefferson’s Rotunda during class changes and drive up to Monticello at practically no inconvenience. With Richmond, Williamsburg, Alexandria, and everywhere within the Commonwealth’s borders, Virginians live in one of the most culturally rich states in the country.
But even though Virginia’s statewide culture is one with a palpable sense of tradition, it does not imply demographic stagnation. Jerry Stewart, the workforce development coordinator for the Virginia Beach Department of Economic Development, writes, “Virginia faces a looming skills gap for the largest collection of occupations in the state: middle-skill jobs. These occupations do not require a four-year degree, but some training and education beyond high school is usually recommended. According to the National Skills Coalition, nearly half of all jobs in Virginia are middle-skill and will account for 46 percent of all job openings in the state between 2010 and 2020. The gap? Only 40 percent of the state's workers have training required for middle-skill jobs.”
Monticello may be timeless--but the Commonwealth is changing and its policies must keep up with their constituents. Virginia’s public education efforts must be forward-looking when securing the jobs and the economy of tomorrow. The Commonwealth cannot continue to use the same educational framework to prepare our current students for life after high school as we did with their generational predecessors. The compositional make-up in Virginia’s schools is drastically different from 1970, or 1950, or 1850. The state needs to prioritize this conversation regarding “middle-skill jobs,” and remember that vocational learning is equally as valuable as college preparation coursework.
In public policy, the immediacy of deadlines often dictates policy actions. Right now, Virginia is in no dire straits. The Commonwealth thrives economically--at least, when compared with neighboring states and the nation as a whole. Statewide, Virginia experiences an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent, contrasted with the national average of 5.1 percent. The median household income in Virginia is $58,656--again, contrasted against the national average of $48,906. The statewide percentage of inhabitants below the poverty line is 11.7 percent, as opposed to the 15.8 percent of the nation. The numbers superficially look good.
At an initial glance, Virginia’s public education also fares well--the Commonwealth seemingly prepares their high school graduates for the jobs they need. In terms of statewide education, 90.5 percent of high school students graduate in four years. 43.4 percent of adults aged 25 and older have an Associate’s degree or higher--impressive statistics when contrasted with the other 49 states.
But most importantly for this policy discourse, 12.5 percent of youth ages 16-24 are not in school and not working--which translates to 129,665 youth across the Commonwealth without a job and without educational enrollment. Therein is where the statewide priority should be. Because this segment of the population will only continue to grow as our jobs require elevated training and continuing education beyond high school diplomas.
As policy has proven time after time, complacency and the status quo are not medicine for continual excellent results. Virginian educational leaders and public figures must continue to prioritize vocational secondary education, to create a pipeline of workforce development for our state’s youths, who will occupy the jobs of tomorrow. Policy makers cannot ignore these 129,665 youth who live without jobs and without educational prospects. Now is the time to invest in their future and provide a framework for success. Although Virginia’s neighborhoods and communities may be diverse, the Commonwealth faces a uniform, focused policy challenge--which is, how does Virginia educate and prepare their teenagers and rising adults for the jobs of tomorrow? The answer--start investing today in vocational high school learning and in youth workforce development.
Many educational experts believe investing in youth workforce development programs is the answer for training our next generation of workers in terms of etiquette, on-the-job skills, networking, and more. YEAR UP (a non-profit which aims to empower low-income young adults to transition from poverty to professional positions in a single year) and other similar programs attempt to create a smooth pipeline of students from high school to the work force. Managers of these non-profits collectively agree that jobs are about more than just skills--professionalism is networking, resume-dropping, firm handshakes, and etiquette. These youth workforce development programs offer students and participants the framework to succeed in life, post-institutionalized learning.
Governor McAuliffe cites job creation as his paramount priority agenda, and outlines his exact policies for job creation in the Virginia Board of Workforce Development Strategic Plan of 2015-2017. Governor McAuliffe terms his vision for Virginian economic growth as “EleVAte.”
According to McAuliffe’s plan, “Based on current estimates, by 2022, about 500,000 new jobs will be created in Virginia. In addition, more than 930,000 workers will be needed to replace Virginia’s retiring workforce. Many of these jobs will be in scientific, technical, or healthcare careers, and will require postsecondary education or workforce credentials. Careers in these fields are readily accessible for those who are trained, credentialed, and ready to work...the pipeline for the workforce of the future must be built today.” Given the retiring workforce populace and the influx of technology into the Commonwealth, jobs will be increasingly available to Virginians--but many of these jobs will require intensive training or specific education certifications. Thus, the workforce development system is a critical component in empowering Virginian youth for the jobs of tomorrow. Hence, the gravitas of continued support to programs like YEAR UP, to vocational training in the Commonwealth’s public high schools, and to keeping community college affordable and accessible.
The Commonwealth’s borders encompass the jagged mountains of Southwest Virginia, the swampy Tidewater, the metropolitan cluster that is Northern Virginia, and the living history that is Richmond. Virginia’s communities and our geographies are diverse--but our collective challenge is clear. Virginia must create jobs and support programs that facilitate acquiring skilled jobs for its youth if we want the Commonwealth to maintain its economic and educational advantage. Every child deserves a bright future, whether they move onto Stadium Drive in Charlottesville or commute to PVCC during their first year of higher education.
Madeline Merrill is a 2017 MPP candidate at the University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She serves as a Staff Writer for the Third Rail blog.