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Friday, October 19, 2012

NOVA career training programs essential to region's economic growth

NOVA President Robert Templin (left) speaks to the Committee of 100. Next to him is the committee's president, David Huddleston.

Whether the Northern Virginia economy will to continue to grow depends on the ability of  Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) to train enough “middle-tier, highly skilled, high tech-savvy employees” to meet companies’ workforce needs.

That’s the message NOVA President Robert G. Templin Jr. brought to the Committee of 100, a group of Fairfax County business officials and civic leaders.

If we fail to invest in developing a skilled workforce, science and technology companies will leave the area, and “we’ll find ourselves in a real pickle,”  Templin told the group Oct.18.

Over the next 10 years, projected economic growth in the region and an aging workforce facing a large wave of retirements could leave the area with 650,000 hard-to-fill job vacancies, Templin said. Many of these jobs require an associate degree or a certificate—not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.

That means NOVA, with 78,000 students a year in credit courses on six campuses, has to be the key workforce training provider in the region. Based in Annandale, NOVA is the largest higher education institution in Virginia and the second largest community college in the United States.

Fifteen years ago, Templin began to see some troubling signs: Too many people were “lingering on the periphery of our economy,” delivering pizzas for Domino’s or working two or three low-paying, part-time dead-end jobs.

The experience of Southern California offers a cautionary tale, he says. “That region used to be the epicenter of the knowledge economy, but people were upset by the rapid growth of immigration and they let the school deteriorate.” As a result, companies couldn’t find enough qualified employees, so they moved away—many of them, including Northrop Grumman and SAIC, relocated to Tysons Corner. Now, the same cycle could happen here, Templin warns.

“That is the issue NOVA is working on right now,” he says, expressing optimism that with the right kind of education programs in place, tech companies and other businesses will continue to flourish.

Templin outlined three programs at NOVA aimed at ensuring people have the education to move into better-paying, in-demand jobs.

The Pathway to the Baccalaureate Program serves about 10,000 students this year in 48 high schools. It focuses on lower-income students whose parents didn’t go to college and didn’t think they would be able to either. Those students receive counseling and other support in high school, financial aid to attend NOVA, and, after they graduate, guaranteed admission to George Mason University.

In another initiative, NOVA is working with eight organizations, including Goodwill and Northern Virginia Family Services, to provide marketable skills to underemployed adults, many of them single mothers.

Finally, NOVA is supporting programs, such as summer camps and robotics competitions, to get  middle-school students excited about pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Once students get to high school, it could be too late to get on track for a STEM-related major in college if they aren’t prepared for advanced math and science courses.

People might have a perception that NOVA is only for students who can’t get into a university, but Templin dispels that notion, noting that the community college offers an excellent education with small classes and dedicated teachers—for about half the cost as a public four-year college. 

In fact, all of Templin’s 14 kids (11 are adopted) started their higher education at NOVA. Before transferring to a four-year college, “they have to demonstrate they are serious about college and can do the work,” he says.

Students who graduate from NOVA “do as well as or slightly better than those who start at a university,” Templin says. People who earn an associate degree in applied science from NOVA, on average, earn $2,500 more a year than people with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.

NOVA has agreements with all the public universities in Virginia, including UVA, William and Mary, and Virginia Tech, guaranteeing admission to NOVA graduates.

Unfortunately, Templin noted, while a  quarter of the region’s high school graduates go to NOVA, “more than half of them are not ready for college.” He cited several reasons: Their parents aren’t engaged in their learning. There is no relationship between Virginia’s Standards of Learning and college readiness. And students learning the English language in high school end up taking fewer English or math courses.

Those students often have to take a year of remedial coursework at NOVA, for which they don’t get credit, so many get frustrated and drop out of college.

Templin and Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Jack Dale developed a dual enrollment pilot program in eight high schools to address that problem. Students in those schools are tested in the ninth and 10th grades to see whether they are on track and what they need to catch up. In the 12th grade, they take some NOVA courses for free and earn college credits while completing high school.

In addition to educating high school graduates who want to transfer to four-year colleges, NOVA provides customized training for specific companies; continuing education for adults, including many with bachelor’s degrees who want to change careers; English language instruction to diplomats and foreign professionals; training for the region’s police officers, firefighters, and EMT providers; and, most important to the region’s economy, vocational and technical education for the kind of jobs that don’t need a bachelor’s degree.

Templin notes that occupations in such areas as geospatial technology, cybersecurity, and respiratory therapy are in demand and pay well. For example, a person with an associate degree in a specialized healthcare field willing to put in some overtime can earn $90,000 to $100,000 a year.

The biggest problem at NOVA is the lack of capacity to expand, Templin said. It’s open seven days a week, with classes often in session from 6 a.m.-11 p.m., and the parking lot at the Annandale campus is full just about all the time.

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