You often hear it said that there are not enough good paying jobs for West Virginians. That’s only partially true. It’s accurate to say that many other areas of the country have greater economic opportunities, but that does not mean there are no jobs here.
In fact, one of the big struggles in West Virginia’s economy is finding trained and reliable workers for the jobs that do exist. Our state’s labor participation rate is only 53 percent, a full ten points lower than the national average.
Talk with employers and they will tell you how much trouble they have hiring and maintaining a trained workforce. That’s why the state Legislature’s passage of SB 1 is so important.
The legislation, if signed into law by Governor Jim Justice, creates the West Virginia Invests Grant Program. It will provide the “last dollar in” to help students pay their tuition at community and technical colleges and at traditional four-year institutions that have two-year associate programs.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) has been pushing for the program for a couple of years and this year the bill finally passed.
Here’s how it works: Students first figure out how much money they can get from federal and state grants to pay tuition. After that, the state supplies the rest of the money needed. Typically, that “last dollar” will be less than $1,000 annually. The cost to the state will be about $10 million a year.
The qualifying students must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA, pass a drug test, participate in a volunteer program and pledge to live in the state for at least two years after graduation. If they move away, they must pay the grant money back to the state.
West Virginia Community and Technical College System (CTCS) Chancellor Dr. Sarah Tucker believes the program will eliminate one of the biggest obstacles for students. “We know that the number one reason people are not going to college in West Virginia is the cost of attendance,” she told me.
The state’s community and technical colleges specialize in training students to meet the demands of the workplace. Many students are already working adults—the average age is 29—who want to improve their skills. Ninety-two percent of CTCS students are West Virginians and seven in ten of those who graduate find work in the state.
The CTCs can also pivot quickly, adjusting their curriculum to meet the needs of employers. The colleges also partner with employers to give the students real on-the-job training, creating a pipeline for graduates into the workforce.
Additionally, the bill encourages community and technical colleges to enter into collaborative agreements with apprenticeship programs that are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. That will provide another avenue for individuals to get the skills they need.
The training is essential for the workers and for the economy. According to CTCS, “only one third of the population statewide has the training they need beyond high school, yet three-quarters of the jobs in the current economy require training after high school.”
This gap is one of the reasons the state’s economy lags. The “last dollar in” program won’t solve the problem, but it will help improve the skills of the workforce and, as a result, the lives of those individuals and the condition of the state’s economy.