County, EDA looking into workforce answers

FRONT ROYAL — The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority and the Chamber of Commerce are starting a project focused on enhancing the area’s workforce opportunities.

EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald noted Friday that numerous businesses as well as county and education officials attended a meeting last week that stemmed from complaints the EDA was hearing from area businesses and residents.

“They could not get employees that would stay. They would have issues with attendance,” McDonald said. “We were hearing that a lot from businesses.”

McDonald said, “On the flip side of that, we hear from folks that they can’t find a quality job.”

Randall Stamper, assistant vice chancellor of Career Pathways and Workforce Programs for Virginia’s Community Colleges, also attended last week’s meeting and said they have noticed this trend in the workforce nationwide.

“In many fields, there are what we generally call a ‘middle skills gap,” Stamper said. “There are jobs available across industries that aren’t being filled because many times folks don’t have the right skills to fill them.”

With this new workforce project, McDonald said the goal is to “get the workforce educated and also get the businesses to understand their clientele of who they are hiring.”

McDonald mentioned several avenues to accomplish this, including possibly creating a career connect program for students in Warren County’s schools to shadow different professions.

McDonald said they will also look to work with the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail on programs that can teach trades or skills  inmates can take back into the community once they are released.

In addition, the EDA will also be working closely with Workforce Solutions at Lord Fairfax Community College and its Career Changer Programs.

The courses through career changer offer certifications such as a commercial driver’s license, a welder’s license and pharmacy technician in as short a time as 20 days.

In an interview on Friday, Jeanian Clark, vice president of Workforce Solutions, said such certification can turn into full-time jobs with benefits that pay as much as $50,000.

Clark said, “Where the nation is really struggling is those great middle class skills are not accessible any more.”

Part of the problem, Clark said, has been the nationwide tendency toward sending students to four-year colleges, where specialty commercial driver’s license are largely nonexistent.

“That’s not the answer to an economy that needs every one and many occupations,” She said.

According to Clark, the cost of trade programs — which can reach upward of $4,000 or more per-course — has been a barrier that has kept people from from signing up since there has traditionally not been financial aid available.

Clark said that Lord Fairfax is part of a pilot program that the Virginia General Assembly approved last year called Financial Aid For Non-Credit Industry Credentials.

The pilot program gave six community colleges financial aid for non-credit certification courses — like the one’s at Lord Fairfax — with the goal of promoting job creation and opportunities.

Starting this fall, Lord Fairfax will  have financial aid for its career changer programs.

“The income requirement is somewhere between 200 to 300 percent of the federal poverty level,” Clark said, noting that the aid could fund up to 90 percent of those costs.

Clark said that will be hosting an open house on Aug. 4 to educate area residents about the Career Changer Programs.

In creating more opportunities, both McDonald and Stamper said that it could not only benefit the county’s residents, but also the local economy as well.

Stamper said, “I think these credentials and the education and training that colleges provide them are a pathway out of poverty.”

According to 2013 data from the Department of Social Services, 12 percent of the 38,699 residents in Warren County are living in poverty, including 1,485 children under the age of 18.

McDonald said this project would benefit the local economy because program participants would be “spending their money here and then we have job vacancies that are being filled by locals.”

McDonald said that the project is still in the preliminary stages, and that next step “is to get all of the players together … and make sure everyone is educated on what resources are out there.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or