Nonprofit Gets ‘VA Ready’ for Changing Job Market

By Amie Knowles

December 1, 2020

COVID prompted a group to help others – and there’s even a $1,000 incentive on the line.

RICHMOND – When the pandemic hit, Glenn and Suzanne Youngkin jumped into action. Together, they founded Virginia (VA) Ready, a nonprofit focused on getting Virginians back to work.

Caren Merrick, CEO of VA Ready, relayed the first few weeks of the nonprofit’s recent history. While people suddenly faced unemployment due to COVID, job openings abounded throughout the commonwealth.

“[The Youngkins] were really struck by how many people were losing their jobs or becoming underemployed and not making ends meet, while at the same time, there were thousands of jobs open in Virginia,” Merrick said. 

The couple contacted global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which looked into the discrepancy.

The company found that most of the jobs available required specialized training – training that many Virginians neither possessed nor had access to. That’s because several of the positions required certifications in certain areas.

Noticing a trend, the Youngkins moved forward with the nonprofit. They brought in six board members, in addition to themselves and Merrick.

The first group of students

In August, students enrolled in programs in three distinctive areas: technology, healthcare and skilled trades.

“What we discovered is that even before the pandemic, these jobs were open. There is a shortage of workers, vital workers in healthcare. There’s a shortage of workers in skilled trades, people who know how to repair an HVAC system, for example, or welders who build or repair ships. And there’s a massive shortage in technology workers – everyone from help desk people to people who can administer networks,” Merrick said. “So these jobs were always open and now because of the underemployment of the pandemic, we’re hoping to enceinte people to take a look at these fields so that they can earn credentials and get a better paying job and have a whole new career path in front of them.”

VA Ready works alongside the already established FastForward program. FastForward pays two-thirds of eligible students’ tuition. VA Ready also partners with all 23 community colleges across the state.

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Helping Virginians

The group’s mission focuses on helping Virginians attain careers through fast-moving certification programs. They generally last anywhere from six to 12 weeks.

Learning new skills, the programs help people get back to work in fields different from the ones they left. However, it doesn’t only focus on unemployed individuals. Merrick explained that the program also welcomes underemployed people.

“What has happened is that a lot of people were laid off. They lost their jobs. Some of these jobs aren’t coming back, but they went out and found work because they had to survive. So they found maybe a couple of part-time jobs that they’ve had to cobble together. Or they’ve found a job where they can’t really support their families,” Merrick said. “We wanted to help people who not only had lost their jobs, but who had not been able to find good paying jobs, resilient jobs that can support themselves and their families.”

A career path

Each program opens doors for students seeking career paths, not just temporary positions. Merrick used gaining a healthcare credential as an example.

“If they are in healthcare, they do a healthcare credential, they could become a certified nurse assistant. Or they could become a medical assistant. Or they could become a billing and coding specialist. We have several partners in the healthcare field and every single one of those partners has a career path for people who work with them,” Merrick said. “So someone might start out as a nurse assistant, but then work for one of these partners that we have, like Sentara [Healthcare] or Carilion [Clinics] or Bon Secours [Richmond Health System] and they could move up through the ranks and have an employer who would help them in their career to advance.”

The offering doesn’t stop with healthcare careers.

“All of our partners believe in career paths,” Merrick said. “So if you get a credential and you come in at one level, every single one of our business partners is motivated to help people achieve as much as they want to in their career. That’s really important to us.”

An extra incentive

“We offer a $1,000 Credential Achievement Award,” Merrick said.

If someone enrolls in one of the 34 offered programs and they complete their credential, they simply send a copy of their certificate to VA Ready and they receive $1,000.

“We feel like our role is to recruit, enceinte and award people to go and get skilled in these in-demand jobs,” Merrick said.

Since the program welcomed its first students in August, close to 1,000 people signed up. Consistently, between 75 to 100 sign up each week. The nonprofit hopes to help 15,000 Virginians over the next few years.

“If you’re unemployed or underemployed due to the pandemic, go to [www.] and learn about the program,” Merrick said. “If you’re a business and you’re hiring and you need people and you need a lot of people, go to [www.] and learn about becoming a business partner because we’re now helping 23 businesses across Virginia get people skilled up and trained up for jobs that they have available.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her 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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