By Mac Trammell
Although industry may be creeping away from the one-time factory hotbed of Buena Vista, a competitive national grant may encourage displaced workers to find a job near home.
In mid-September, the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board (SVWDB) received a $4-million grant that will create 600 registered apprenticeships from Frederick County in the northern-most tip of Virginia, south to Rockbridge County. That is an almost 300,000-person area.
The money comes from the American Apprenticeship Grant, a White House initiative to stimulate affordable access to education and job-training opportunities. There were 46 recipients of the grant and only two in Virginia.
Debby Hopkins, Workforce Officer and Project Director of Valley OJT (On-the-Job Training) for the SVWDB, explained the significance of the grant.
“You have to define the need in your area,” Hopkins said. “We knew that the climate was good for apprenticeships. The reason we think this one in particular is going to be successful is because manufacturing is struggling with how to keep high-skill occupations.”
She said that companies are reaching the point where the core of their long-time workers’ critical skills may be lost, considering that most of that core is aging toward retirement. These companies need a way to build their own high-skill labor, the way major league teams use a farm system to groom young talent to replace the old guard when it is time for veteran players to step away from the game. That’s where the apprenticeships come into play.
Buena Vista Director of Economic Development Brian Brown wants to acquire as much of that young talent as possible for the old factory town. He hopes the city can land anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the 600 apprenticeships. The grant provides laborers the opportunity to cultivate specialized skills that will be beneficial, not just now, but in the future, he said.
“These [apprenticeships] are very important in terms of skilled workforce,” he said. “These are the jobs that are the future of where we’re going in terms of workforce development and in terms of the industries we’re trying to attract.”
Hopkins noted too the importance of workforce development in growing a community.
“A lot of economic development folks don’t understand the ins and outs of workforce. The biggest thing they can do is to get an understanding of what registered apprenticeships can do for workforce.”
Hopkins defined a registered apprenticeship as “a structured method of gaining expertise in an occupation.” That method includes on-the-job training, mentorship by a sponsor company and a certain number of credit hours taken in theoretical instruction. Once an apprentice has completed the structured routine of training, he or she receives a “degree” of sorts, known as a journeyman credential.
According to Hopkins, colleges in the area will accept journeyman credentials for credit. That means that someone who has completed an apprenticeship can often earn college credit toward a degree in that field.
Most of the $4 million is going to offset the tuition costs of the mandatory credit hours of instruction. The rest will go into promotions and hiring staff to administer the grant.
Brown said that, to apply for an apprenticeship, applicants will have to meet certain qualifications set by the SVWDB, of which he is a member. He stressed that the program is important not only for Buena Vista, but for the individuals it will impact.
“The main thing with these programs is to bring people up a level within their ability to earn,” Brown said, “helping them follow the American Dream.”