Box fan air-conditioned dorm rooms, dining halls with bulk cereal dispensers, picturesque quads, a smattering of Greek letters here and there can only mean … college. Though certain age-old signs are constant, education itself seems to be changing. It’s changing to meet students where they are vs. making them chase down an education. It’s a move that behooves the future of learning.
The idea that a quality education takes a high quantity of money is also constant. Attending a traditional brick and mortar college is quite the undertaking, especially if it means you’re handing over hard-saved funds that will leave you in a job you don’t really like after all, with no money left for a do-over.
On the flip side, vocational, trade or technical schools have also been a constant. They are straight shots to specific lines of work unlike, say, an expensive liberal arts degree.
But the term “vocational” is fading out to make room for the shiny new term, “career and technical education” (CTE). The rebranding is in response to the reality that college costs are soaring, but so is the demand for adequately trained and skilled workers. Companies are caring less and less about the degree with which you walk in the door and more and more about commitment, motivation and trainability.
In Virginia, the previously named New Economy Workforce Credential Grant Program (WCG) is now called the FastFoward Program. It’s an innovative initiative that launched statewide in 2016 in an effort to expand affordable workforce training to help fill the wide and growing gap between the demand for and availability of credentialed workers. These are jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree but more than a high school diploma.
Through state-funded grants, residents of Virginia enrolled in a FastForward program will get two-thirds of the total cost of training covered. Students are expected to pay the first one-third, actively participate in all classes and pass certification testing. All 23 community colleges in Virginia participate in the program.
“The grant was created so individuals could receive short-term training that leads to industry credentials that allow someone to make more than minimum wage,” says Kim Matthews, New River Community College’s career and credentials coach.
The courses are designed to be quick (weeks or months vs. years) with a streamlined focus to get a variety of industries the workers they need at salaries they deserve. According to vccs.edu, since the program’s inception, about 4,500 Virginians have used the grants to earn credentials in approximately 40 high-demand occupations. Workers also see an average of 25 to 50% higher take-home pay. It’s a win-win. Students get a financial break and the Commonwealth gets skilled, in-demand workers.
“In order for a course to be FastForward approved, we have to prove that the local area needs and will benefit from graduates of that program. We’ve done that through LMI data (Labor Market Information), research, job postings and economic development reports,” offers Jeanne Symanoskie, NRCC’s FastForward program coordinator for Montgomery County.
Right now New River Community College offers the following programs: Pharmacy Technician, Commercial Driver’s License – Class A, Manufacturing Technician 1, Lean Six Sigma – Yellow Belt, Lean Six Sigma – Green Belt and Medical Assistant (CMA).
Enrollees come from a variety of backgrounds at varying stages of their professional journey. “The majority of participants are students off-the-street who want to pursue a certain track, like pharmacy technician or get their CDL license. The other part is businesses proactively sending employees here to take advantage of the reduced cost of certification,” Symanoskie states. There are participants who have a GED up to people with multiple college degrees. Some are even currently enrolled in a university and are simply seeking a better part-time job.
Matthews’ job as career coach is to remove any barriers that would hinder the student succeeding in the program, receiving a certification and ultimately getting a job. She is a resource for tutoring, resume writing, mock interviews and putting job postings in the hands of prospective applicants. Certain FastForward programs also offer career mentors. Mentors are employees in the community who are tasked with connecting with students in the same field throughout their training. The benefits of having real-world counsel and perspective are immeasurable.
Staring ahead at four+ years of post-secondary school can be intimidating and daunting, especially if there is any question in your career choice or even in your ability to succeed. Whether a certification is the end game or merely one step in an education journey, FastForward is a very manageable experience that offers renewed confidence each step of the way.
“We are literally changing people’s lives,” Matthews offers. “When I think of some of the people who have gone through the program, it’s like night and day.” It’s a mushy statement, she laughs. But rest assured, when talking about how to make the rest of your life the best it can be, people find comfort in mushy.
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer from Blacksburg who feels that every day should have just a little bit of ‘mushy’ in it.