WEYERS CAVE — U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) visited Blue Ridge Community College on Tuesday afternoon for a roundtable discussion about the American Rescue Plan and the state of workforce training in the Shenandoah Valley.
Higher education officials from BRCC, James Madison University, area superintendents and local manufacturing partners were present for the discussion.
Warner discussed how the American Rescue Plan would benefit education in Virginia. It will provide $2.1 billion for K-12 schools in Virginia and an additional $846 million for colleges and universities in Virginia, he said.
School districts will have until 2024 to use the funding, Warner said. Although schools won’t receive the second round of funding until later, he is working with the Governor to see if school districts could advance the funds for things like infrastructure.
On March 12, Warner joined with his colleagues to introduce the Accessible, Affordable Internet For All Act and the Hotspots and Online Technology and Services Procurement for our Tribes and States (HOTSPOT) Act, two pieces of legislation that would increase broadband access in the state and nation.
“If there’s one thing that 2020 taught us is that broadband is an economic necessity, not a nice to have,” Warner said.
Warner said existing programs are too caught up in incumbent providers and don’t give any flexibility to ensure students get broadband access directly at home.
Workforce training was another major topic of discussion at Tuesday’s roundtable. Although Warner voted in favor of the American Rescue Plan, he criticized the lack of attention given to workforce training programs.
“I would argue that on-the-job training is one area where all the COVID-related packages have fallen short,” Warner said.
Warner asked the group how to redefine investment in human capital instead of a robot or another piece of machinery that businesses can use for R&D tax credits. To prevent this, Warner suggested an R&D tax credit for human capital investment and work done in the accounting world to create this as an asset.
Several participants discussed issues prohibiting people from participating in workforce training to obtain a job. Lack of uncertainty, affordable housing, transportation, and childcare were some of the problems mentioned.
Dr. Sharon Johnson, chief executive officer of the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board, agreed with Warner regarding human capital investment. Johnson also discussed a decrease in supportive services funding since 2011, which is something that’s needed, she said.
“We need to take a look at all aspects, all the human capital out there, and not write off certain populations, the underserved and the underrepresented population,” Johnson said.
SVWDB is part of a statewide workforce system that carries out strategies and policies that support both the economic development mission(s) for the local area and the Virginia Board of Workforce Development’s (VBWD) goals, according to its website.
Johnson said that although SVWDB centers are currently closed due to COVID-19, their enrollment is 15% higher under a virtual model than it was before the pandemic started, and those in the program are finding employment.
Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Richards said a lack of facilities also impacted workforce training.
“If you don’t have the facilities to do the training in, you’re at a huge disadvantage,” Richards said.
Richards talked about a STEM facility that would have provided job training opportunities for the community, which would create opportunities for underrepresented individuals to stay in the area instead of moving to other areas of the state.
He also voiced his concerns about property taxes on overtaxed communities and questioned where these facilities would be built when considering property taxes for overtaxed communities.
“My plight is ‘please think about that kind of equity and kind of take it off the taxpayers and localities and help these communities build state-of-the-art job training facilities,’” Richards said.
Warner said he is committed to getting President Joe Biden to focus on workforce training. He believes representatives should be more radical and bold about the issue, he said.