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  ·   By Kathy Byron, Richmond Times-Dispatch   ·  Link to Article

Credentials offer a path to the middle class

In the classic 1967 film “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire famously gives Ben this piece of career advice: “I want to say one word to you … just one word: plastics.”

That was 50 years ago. Yet, my advice to people looking for a good job today would also be one word: credentials.

Industry-recognized credentials are earned when a person passes a competency test certifying he or she has the skills necessary to succeed in a certain profession. Think of computer network specialists, welders, medical records technicians, pharmacy technicians, industrial machinery mechanics, and manufacturing technicians.

Today, there are literally hundreds of these specialized credentials, certifications, and licensures. What they have in common is specialized training that meet the needs of specific occupations. These “middle skills” jobs require more than a high school education, but less than a college degree. According to the National Skills Coalition, over 49 percent of all Virginians’ jobs require middle skills.

Passing these skills assessments requires training programs typically lasting two to four months and costing an average of $3,000. Obtaining these credentials is an entry to a career pathway where starting salaries can exceed more than $50,000 annually and include benefits. They provide an entry into a high-demand field that can support a very high quality of life.

The current needs of Virginia businesses indicate the “bachelors or bust” education model is inadequate to fulfilling our economy’s workforce needs. While there will always be a need for some of the population to complete four-year and even post-graduate programs, our focus must shift to integrated degrees and industry-recognized credentials.

What’s driving these certifications is the overwhelming need for companies to find skilled employees. A study by Burning Glass Technologies in 2015 found 175,000 of these skilled jobs went unfilled for more than 30 days. This is evidence of a major problem in Virginia: people unemployed because they don’t have the skills needed by the employers.

Whether you are the parent of a high school student, a young adult struggling to find a meaningful job, or an older worker looking to transition to a new career, take the first step by educating yourself about industry-recognized credentials and training programs. These prosperous alternative pathways are the right fit for a large number of our citizens.

Fortunately, Virginia demonstrated foresight when it enacted bipartisan legislation — sponsored by Sen. Frank Ruff and me — establishing the New Economy Workforce Credential Program.

Qualified Virginians can benefit from this program by enrolling in an approved noncredit program in a high-demand field. Students will have to pay only a third of the cost — with a $3,000 cap — as long as they complete the program and obtain the industry credential. Virginia was the first state in the nation to adopt this type of “pay for performance” workforce program.

A large number of these courses are now being offered through Virginia’s community colleges and the early results are impressive. Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently announced that 2,173 individuals were awarded credentials in the first year through community colleges. Another 2,095 individuals earned credentials through other means, bringing the total number of credentialed Virginians last year to nearly 5,000.

Virginia will continue to scale up for additional courses and funding in the coming year. In fact, the number of high-demand credentials earned by Virginians since the program launched represents more than a 180 percent increase when compared to last year. People who couldn’t afford these programs a year ago are now receiving the training they need to compete for good jobs.

The program is also a big winner for the state. Economic development is built on a strong workforce. The New Economy Workforce Credential Program is just the beginning of an educational transformation that will help Virginia better compete for the jobs of tomorrow and prepare the talent needed today.

So, the next time you run into a person needing career advice on finding a good job, tell them just one word: credentials.

Kathy Byron represents the 22nd District in the Virginia House of Delegates and serves on the Virginia Board of Workforce Development. Contact her at DelKByron@house.virginia.gov.

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