Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine sat down with a roundtable of professionals and educators Monday to discuss how he can help affect change when the U.S. Senate Committee on Education, Health, Labor & Pensions sits down to rewrite the higher ed act.
“It really helps,” Kaine said. “We’re now having hearings about the rewrite of the higher ed act and I have two passions at least – which is making sure community colleges get the attention they deserve and making sure any kind of apprenticeship or career vocational education gets the attention it deserves.”
Kaine said he was inspired by local business owner Ed Dalrymple, of Cedar Mountain Stone and Chemung Contracting, who also served on the board of New Pathways, Inc. New Pathways has partnered with Germanna Community College to train skilled machinists for local businesses who have in need of skilled labor.
Kaine lauded the apprenticeship programs offered by Cedar Mountain Stone and Chemung, which also requires workers to take courses at Germanna. That prepares them for a skilled job and gives them a salary for which to pay for their education.
Alex Campbell and Allen Miller, two apprenticeship program students, talked about what it meant to be able to learn on the job while being paid.
Miller moved back to Virginia from California and was looking for a career. He is now in the asphalt program and making a living while going to school at the same time.
Kaine said having a chance to hear from those who are in the programs and their teachers is key to rewriting the act.
“To talk to the educators and the employers who grapple with how do we find the people with the skills we need,” Kaine said. “This will help me do a better job with the rewrite of the higher ed act.”
During the discussion, it came up notable times – originally from Culpeper Director of Tourism Paige Read, that businesses need employees who have soft skills – customer service, teamwork and promptness were some of the skills discussed.
“When somebody says it, and everybody around the table says ‘yeah that’s needed,’ that’s the moment you watch for,” Kaine said. “We have to think differently for how we train for that.”
Starting training students earlier – possibly as early as middle school – is the solution. Another concern presented by Germanna president Janet Gullickson, that was echoed by others, was the standards of learning and how that pigeon holes teachers into what they can address in the classroom.
“These are professionals who have been trained to be able to teach differently in different ways to different kids,” Kaine said. “If you lock them into a curriculum that’s rote memorization, you’re not taking advantage of the best that they have to offer. I know it’s very frustrating for teachers.”
Another aspect discussed was exposing children to different worlds of work. They may know what their parents do and know about education through their teachers but they may not realize what a lineman for Rappahannock Electric Cooperative makes and what they do. That may lead them into more skilled positions.
“The paths are so broad, but most students don’t even know them,” Kaine said. “You saw a couple of folks here talking about the asphalt apprenticeship – where the average age is 31. Which means they’ve either been in the military or they’ve tried other careers they don’t really like. Maybe we can equip students earlier with the tools so they can pick the thing they will really like. Again, exposure is key.”
The roundtable also talked about being able to afford higher education. Kaine mentioned Pell grants and how there are now regulations that prevent people in apprenticeship programs from qualifying for the grant because it’s not the same time frame as a standard college semester.
“Affordability is going to be one of the two or three big issues when we rewrite the higher ed act,” Kaine said. “Our Pell grant bill – called the Jobs Act – is about allowing Pell to be used for shorter term career and technical programs. That has a lot of bipartisan support. We might get that added into the higher ed act but the Trump administration has also shown some interest in adding that into a infrastructure bill. If we’re going to add infrastructure, we’re going to need a lot of trained people to do it.”
Gullickson again touted the partnership between New Pathways, Germanna and the county of Culpeper where they saw a need for skilled laborers and now will hopefully begin offering classes in April to fill those positions.
Another possibility Culpeper County Administrator John Eggertson said was that the next school likely to be built in the county will be a career and technical education school on the Germanna property.
“There’s a lot of synergy in that,” Eggertson said.
Kaine thanked the group of more than 15 for giving him much needed feedback.
“You’ve given us a lot to think about,” he said.