Boost the regional economy by leveraging workforce development training | Expert column

When we think about the economic vitality of our region, job creation is often top of mind. How do we attract more businesses? How do we drive job growth?

However, it’s high time we pull from the low-hanging fruit: training job seekers for the careers that are available today. The baby boomer exodus against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving technological landscape has created an unprecedented labor shortage and widening skills gap for in-demand jobs.

As such, initiatives aimed at training programs for the emerging and existing workforce are essential to ensuring our region is equipped to meet the demands of 21st century jobs. Workforce, education and economic decision-makers must work collaboratively to combine resources to fill jobs in key industry clusters such as maritime, manufacturing, healthcare, IT and cybersecurity — all faced with a dwindling talent pipeline.

Take the Hampton Roads Workforce Council and Greater Peninsula Workforce Board, for instance. To assist with the talent shortage for the maritime industry, the region’s workforce development organizations partnered to provide $150,000 to support training activities for the America Builds and Repairs Great Ships program, which is spearheaded by Newport News Shipbuilding. The organizations also provided incumbent worker training to help advance the technical skills of employees in trades related to the maritime industry.

These partnerships are critical to the success of the local workforce as they ensure that workers are able to obtain credentials required to apply for new careers and/or remain current with skill sets necessary to effectively perform their jobs. As important, training programs help to ensure a highly skilled workforce that will ultimately attract new businesses to the region.

Amid conversations around the minimum wage hike and improving access to a living wage, youth and adult programs that focus on skill development and training for underserved communities should also take center stage.

In January, for example, the Hampton Roads Workforce Council partnered with Elizabeth River Crossings to establish an innovative program designed to help local underserved and under-skilled community members by providing them with access to higher-paying, more stable opportunities through skilled trade education. Through this program, 30 students per year will receive funding to complete a three- to six-week program through Tidewater Community College’s Skilled Trades Academy. Participants will be provided with training and employment assistance for in-demand construction and maritime trades, such as welding, pipelaying, framing, and pipefitting.

In addition, the Workforce Council joined forces with Thomas Nelson, Paul D. Camp and Tidewater community colleges and the United Way of South Hampton Roads, WHRO and the Virginia Ship Repair Association to launch the Women in Skilled Careers program — a 12-week program that provides an opportunity for participants to obtain industry-recognized credentials and receive paid work experience.

The program provides training in marine coating, marine electrical, maritime welding, outside machining, sheet metal fabrication and pipefitting — careers in which women are typically underrepresented. Funded by a $500,000 grant from the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, the program targets women who are veterans and military spouses; women affected by homelessness, domestic violence, and/or human trafficking; and women earning at or below the federal poverty line.

If we flash back to the previous decade, completing a four-year university was presented as the gateway to meaningful employment opportunities. In recent years, however, new career pathways have surfaced but we must implement programs that support skills development.

As we continue to look for more effective ways to bolster the earning potential for job seekers, provide a skilled workforce for employers and offer opportunities for communities that are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed (all areas that impact our regional economy), training our workforce offers a solid solution.

Mark Johnson, Truist vice president and community development manager, is the board chair for the Hampton Roads Workforce Council. John Olson, ECPI University campus president, is the board chair for the Greater Peninsula Workforce Board.