Community Devastated by Manufacturing Losses Moves to Reinvent Workforce
By Amie Knowles
November 14, 2020

A community previously devastated by unemployment implemented changes when COVID hit.

MARTINSVILLE – More than 1,700 people lost their job in 1999 when Tultex closed down in Martinsville.

VF Corp. laid off 2,300 Martinsville workers when the plant shut its doors in 2001.

In 2003, the Fieldale area lost approximately 1,000 jobs when Pillowtex declared bankruptcy.

From the 1990s to the early 2000s, the Martinsville-Henry County area lost more than 9,000 jobs total.

The drastic changes sent the southwestern Virginia area spiraling into an economic depression. Unemployment rates spiked in 1990 to a 30-year high of 24.6%. The next highest spike occurred during the Great Recession, when numbers hit 20.5% in 2009.

When the coronavirus took residence in Virginia in March, April unemployment rates showed it. Over a month’s time, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that the unemployment rate in the Martinsville area jumped from 5.1% to 17.1%. As of September, the unemployment rate dropped down to 11.1%.

In the midst of the COVID-19 panic, it appeared Martinsville headed toward another unemployment crisis. However, funds from Gov. Ralph Northam in conjunction with Patrick Henry Community College provided another route.

Scholarships arrive

In October, Northam announced that Virginia allocated $30 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act dollars to help Virginians who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis. The funds help workers pursue workforce training in high-demand fields.

The new Re-Employing Virginians (REV) initiative provides scholarships to people who enroll in a workforce or community college program in five essential industries. Those areas include health care, information technology, skilled trades, public safety and early childhood education.

Amanda Broome, PHCC’s communications specialist, noted the importance of a diverse course selection.

“These are the programs that Virginia has identified as being in high-demand. These programs lead to careers in growing fields – careers that will be great for the graduates entering the workforce and great for the economy,” Broome said. “Most importantly, most of these jobs are ones that Virginia will need as we move forward and as we move out of pandemic – hopefully soon.”

The program will help train workers in areas needed throughout the commonwealth.

“Even with high unemployment rates, many employers are still struggling to find the talent they need in critical sectors,” said Megan Healy, chief workforce development advisor. “The REV scholarships will help close the skills gap between the jobs open and the Virginians in search of a new career path.”

Eligible students receive a one-time scholarship of up to $3,000. They can register in a qualifying full-time career and technical education program.

Taking steps toward the future

Full-time students aren’t the only ones eligible for the program. There’s also funding available for students registering part-time or in a short-term, noncredit training program. They receive up to $1,500.

“Workforce training programs are great options for students who prefer more hands-on training, students who need to get credentialed for a career within a matter of months – or weeks – instead of years and students who need nontraditional class times, such as evening and weekends,” Broome said. “Many of our workforce programs can be completed in just a few months.”

Boome also noted that the REV tuition voucher covers both traditional classes and workforce programs.

“The state chose to provide this funding for specific career fields, some of which are in traditional academic programs that typically take four semesters to complete. Some are in workforce programs that lead to an industry-recognized credential and can typically be completed in a much shorter timeframe,” Broome said. “Additionally, some of these are stackable – meaning students can get industry credentials as they are pursuing their associate degree.”

A few examples of workforce programs include machining technician, medical transcription and HVAC. Examples of the academic programs include administration of justice, early childhood development and general engineering technology. For stackable credentials, students must be on their way to getting an associate degree. For example, in early childhood development, students gain a certificate in early childhood education.

Whether engaging in full-time, part-time or workforce programs, students interested in the funds must register for eligible classes by Dec. 14. The funds will go toward the spring 2021 semester only.

Impacting the community

“Virginians who have been furloughed, had hours reduced, or lost a job because of the pandemic are struggling and wondering what the future holds,” Northam said. “Investing in programs that help people develop skills in high-demand fields is a win for workers, employers, and our economy.”

PHCC President Angeline Godwin echoed Northam’s comments, saying the Martinsville area needed the help.

“We are thrilled for the opportunity to offer the Re-Employ Virginia funds at PHCC. It will be a huge help to our community. For anyone out of a job or underemployed, this could be big. For so many people, this could open doors that they never believed would be an option for them,” Godwin said. “The programs that are eligible for these funds lead to high-demand careers – careers that make family-sustaining wages – careers that are gateways to the middle class.”

The scholarship opportunity could help some students complete their college degrees and certificates, while prompting others to begin theirs.

“More than 70% of Virginians who have filed for unemployment have some college or less,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “Increasing educational opportunity for those who have recently lost jobs will build resiliency in the Commonwealth’s workforce, equip Virginians with the credentials they need to get back to work, and move Virginia closer to our goal of being the best-educated state by 2030.”

Applications open

With a Dec. 14 deadline, those seeking the scholarship have about a month to apply for the funds.

State leaders encouraged those interested to learn more about the opportunity.

“If you have lost your job, or seen a reduction in your hours and paycheck, Virginia’s community colleges want to help you,” said Glenn DuBois, Chancellor of the VCCS. “The REV initiative offers you another way into the short-term credential and degree programs that prepare you for a high-demand career.”

Broome noted that across the state, thousands applied for the funds. PHCC received the state’s first 12 applications the day they announced the scholarship and saw a steady flow since.

Suitable students must pursue one of the eligible programs and applicants must have had a job impacted by COVID-19. The state determines that by whether or not an applicant received unemployment benefits on or after August 1, 2020, or if they can certify that they are working in a part-time job with an hourly wage under $15 after losing a full-time job due to COVID-19.

Hopefully, the scholarship program keeps the area’s unfavorable unemployment history right where it belongs – in the past.  

“I think that the state is being extremely proactive in providing pathways to recovery for those impacted by COVID-19,” Broome said. “At PHCC, we are committed to providing the programs through which graduates can launch family-sustaining careers. We work closely with local employers to ensure that, as much as possible, programs we are providing prepare graduates to work in local industries.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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