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Tim Kaine solicits feedback on workforce training bill from students at PVCC

Sen. Tim Kaine was in Charlottesville Monday morning to visit Piedmont Virginia Community College’s adult education center, where the Virginia Democrat said he wanted to learn how he could fine-tune legislation he’s proposed for years that would expand access to federal grants to those seeking high-quality, short-term job training programs.

The students and faculty at PVCC’s Thomas Jefferson Adult Career Education facility are among those who stand to benefit from Kaine’s Jumpstart Our Businesses By Supporting Students, or JOBS, Act. Kaine has introduced and reintroduced the bill since at least 2017, sometimes with significant and bipartisan support, but without much luck.

“I felt like if I came here to visit and see what you’re doing here, it would give me some good ideas about ways to improve the bill,” Kaine told one of the English language classes he visited Monday.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 that directs federal dollars to workforce training programs is up for reauthorization. Kaine’s bill would expand that funding to cover shorter-term job training programs for students eligible for federal Pell Grants.

Currently, workforce programs must be at least 15 weeks long in order to qualify for Pell Grants, which is federal assistance for individuals without a bachelor’s or professional degree in need of financial aid. The JOBS Act proposes changing that length to eight weeks, allowing students enrolled in short-term courses for job training credentials or licenses to also receive needs-based resources.

“We’ve long had the Pell Grant program to help students that have low and moderate income better afford college, but we never allowed Pell Grants to be used for high-quality career and technical education,” said Kaine after his tour of the school. “Many of those programs are offered on the community college campuses, but these students can’t use Pell Grants to access them if they’re not sort of formatted like a traditional college semester. That’s not the best way to offer some career tech programs.”

Carol Coffey, director of the Thomas Jefferson Adult Career Education program, was Kaine’s guide through the facility, located in offices behind the Ix Art Park in downtown Charlottesville. Her program provides English language learning and General Education Development, or GED, courses, completely free of charge to more than 800 individuals, many of them immigrants. The program also has facilities in Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene and Louisa counties.

The senator greeted individuals on their way to class Monday morning as Coffey showed him some of the literary works students had previously produced and read for the Virginia Festival of the Book, which wrapped in Charlottesville Sunday. While Kaine did not attend, he expressed interest in visiting the next festival.

Kaine also dropped in on some classes, where he talked through the specifics of his JOBS Act bill and asked students to provide feedback.

Students were not shy, telling Kaine that many of them face significant challenges to achieving their dreams of opening businesses, obtaining work visas and simply assimilating into American society. There was a number of students who said they held master’s, medical and other professional degrees in their home countries; men and women who had been university professors, oncologists and more expressed frustration over being unable to practice the trades they had already trained for.

“I think that’s a really important takeaway that I hadn’t thought a whole lot about,” said Kaine. “But after touring the class and talking to these students, it challenges me to think harder about that. We all can help. And if not, and we owe it to try, there may be other ways to do it.”

Though PVCC’s adult education classes typically fall within the 15-week range, meaning they already qualify for Pell Grants, the community college offers several shorter programs that do not. Piedmont Virginia Community College President Jean Runyon told The Daily Progress that a majority of the school’s students are eligible for Pell Grants and enroll to earn “a short-term, industry credential that leads to a job with a family-sustaining livable wage.”

The community college’s Workforce Services Division offers courses that provide various certifications, such as HVAC maintenance certificates and commercial driver’s licenses. Runyon said the division is working to implement six new programs to meet the needs of an evolving world, including certifications for electrical vehicle technicians and training for solar panel installation.

“One of the skills that we should fund is not just language acquisition, but digital skills and computer fluency. That’s now a requirement for so many jobs,” said Kaine. “More resources and a broader definition of what the skills are. I heard that loud and clear.”

One point Kaine emphasized throughout his visit was that supporting low-income individuals in their journey to further their education will also benefit business owners, as the name of his bill suggests. With the unemployment rate at 3.9%, employers are struggling to find qualified workers, especially to fill entry-level positions.

The JOBS Act would extend federal support to training programs that fulfill the needs of the workforce, according to Kaine. The Virginia Community College System has identified a number of industries lacking sufficient employees, including health care, manufacturing, building trades, information technology and business management.

“I know the PVCC staff and leaders who are working with the adult education center, they’re looking at a number of students who are coming through these classes and they’re going to PVCC to continue their education in the technical fields,” said Kaine. “Health care and technology, those jobs are going to be in Charlottesville for a very long time, and people who’ve come through these programs are going to be well-suited to have those jobs.”

Labor legislation isn’t the only solution Kaine has in mind to address the nationwide worker shortage. Several students told him how their current visa status bars them from holding a job despite their desire or previous experience in the field.

“Everywhere I go in Virginia … people are talking about ‘It’s really hard, the unemployment rate is so low and we need to hire more people,’” said Kaine. “Most of us see a better functioning immigration system as the most important way to answer that."

“A lot of people, when they hear immigration, the first thing they think of is the border. The first thing we should think of is the workforce,” he continued.

While it may be training the individuals needed to bolster the economy, PVCC’s Thomas Jefferson Adult Career Education program lacks the resources to assist the number of individuals seeking its services.

“We cannot serve everyone coming to our door,” Coffey told the senator at a roundtable discussion after his tour. “We would like to not turn anyone away, but we can’t.”

The federal government currently spends roughly $30 billion every year on its Pell Grant program. In 2019, the Congressional Budget Office projected that Kaine’s JOBS Act would increase this annual spending by 0.6%, costing around $190 million per year.

Kaine is once again optimistic that the bill will get passed, given it has already received bipartisan support. Jobs, he said, are one of the few priorities that builds bridges across the aisle.

“I feel like no matter what the lineup — whoever’s president, whoever’s got the majority in either house — JOBS is moving forward,” he said.

The senator did not have a chance to see much of Charlottesville on his trip as he had an afternoon obligation in Lynchburg and was scheduled to meet with Roanoke County officials, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and National Park Service on Tuesday morning in Roanoke to discuss supporting outdoor recreation in the commonwealth.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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