Highway work hasn’t stopped during the pandemic, as any driver knows. And Northern Virginia has lots of highways.
As a result, student demand remained strong for the highway construction credentials and industry certifications offered by Germanna Community College, which has locations near Fredericksburg and Culpeper, Va.
“They wanted to stay safe. And they wanted those credentials,” says Martha O’Keefe
, associate vice president of workforce and professional development at the college.
So Germanna’s instructors and administrators got creative to keep serving students in its workforce programs during COVID’s peak. The two-year college had quickly converted to online instruction. And Germanna worked with its top industry partners
in highway construction, the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Virginia Asphalt Association, to assess student competencies at job sites, often via Zoom.
But because some of the highway construction industry certifications require pencil-and-paper examinations, Germanna began offering drive-in testing. Students sat in their cars while PPE-wearing instructors slid test-bearing manila envelopes to them on a tray.
“It was very organic,” O’Keefe says. “There’s no handbook for how to do this.”
Germanna led the state last year in total enrollments for Virginia’s competency-based New Economy Workforce Grant Program
, according to the latest annual report
on the grants released last month by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
The noncredit workforce grants have drawn national attention
for the strings that come with them, for both students and institutions. They accompany the state’s FastForward program
, which offers grants for short-term training (typically six to 12 weeks in length) that 24,500 Virginians
have tapped to earn industry-recognized credentials since 2016.
To be eligible for the workforce grants, academic programs must match up with high-demand fields. Construction, production, health-care support, and transportation were the most popular programs last year.
The state soon will have spent about $50 million on the grants, which began in 2017. But the program costs are shared by students and colleges:
- Students pay one-third of the total cost up front, an average of $677 last year. They can use noncredit financial aid, training vouchers, or employer money to cover the fees. If students fail to complete, they must pay an additional third of the cost.
The state pays the institution one-third of the program cost (up to $1,500 per student) if the student completes training. And if the student earns and reports a credential, the state pays the institution another third. Virginia paid an average of $1,627 per credential last year.
The workforce grant program had 7,484 total enrollments across the state last year (some students enrolled in multiple programs). Germanna had the most, with 1,739 enrollments, 1,641 completions and 1,133 credentials earned.
Highway construction topped the list at Germanna, according to a SCHEV analysis, with 1,380 enrollments. Roughly one in five enrollments for the grants across Virginia was in highway work.
Enrollments in the workforce grant program went up 8 percent in 2020 even while community colleges across the state
and the nation saw substantial enrollment declines in credit-bearing programs.
Outcomes and Equity
The 94 percent completion rate at the college slightly topped the state rate of 92 percent. SCHEV said 71 percent of participating students statewide earned a credential, and that number will rise due to later completions.
The median annual pay for completers was $31,607, up $7,050, or 31 percent, from their previous median salary of $22,895.
“The bottom line is these programs help students earn higher wages,” says Tom Allison
, senior associate of finance and innovation at SCHEV.
The average age of grant recipients was 35, according to SCHEV. Men accounted for two-thirds of the enrollment—further evidence of the occupational segregation by gender
that has long plagued nondegree programs in the skilled trades. Likewise, while Black students were well represented, comprising 25 percent of total enrollments, Latinos were severely underrepresented, with just 4 percent of enrollments. (White students were half of the total.) Roughly 10 percent of Virginians are Latino, according
to the U.S. Census, while 20 percent are Black.
In addition, Black students were eight percentage points less likely to complete the workforce grant program last year compared to white students, while Latino students were seven percentage points less likely.
O’Keefe at Germanna says the college plans to in some cases keep using the so-called HyFlex online course model
it adopted last year, which was popular with students and some instructors. And she says Germanna has noticed an uptick in student interest in technical and skilled trade programs this year
, including more inquiries from recent high school graduates.
“Students are very eager to consider careers that they hadn’t before,” O’Keefe says.