Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va, listens during a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing in Washington, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (Bonnie Cash/Pool Photo via AP)
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va, listens during a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing in Washington, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (Bonnie Cash/Pool Photo via AP)

Sen. Tim Kaine expressed interest in expanding Pell grant eligibility requirements to include workforce students.

While Virginia’s unemployment rate was down to 3% in May, compared to 11.6% in April 2020, “help wanted” signs are still prominent features on the windows and doors of many businesses. 

Businesses looking for employees is a nationwide issue, not just limited to the commonwealth. It’s also not something that sprang up overnight. In June, the National Federation of Independent Business released its report, the Small Business Optimism Index. The study found that small business expectations for future conditions hit an all-time low — and that expectations for better conditions worsened every month this year.

Inflation was the number one issue for 34% of small business owners surveyed.

At a recent roundtable gathering in Danville with local business leaders, Sen. Tim Kaine addressed both challenges, which go hand-in-hand. However, he noted that one often goes underreported because of the other.

“The workforce issue is not the one that’s going to be on the front page of the newspaper, like ‘inflation’s the worst in 40 years,’” Kaine said. “But actually, as I’m talking to businesses, the workforce issue is the one that I’m even hearing the most, just how tough it is.”

The deeper a person looks into the issue, the more complex it becomes. A Feb. 2021 report from the Education Data Initiative found that 83.8% of college students benefited from some form of financial aid. However, not all financial aid options work for all programs. A bill Kaine said that he hoped would remain in his bipartisan JOBS Act, included in the America COMPETES Act, would help prospective students afford a broader scope of educational interests. 

Pell Grant Inclusion

One of the challenges many people face toward entering a high-paying career is that they struggle to afford the education necessary to complete a degree or earn a credential. In the same Education Data Initiative statistics linked above, the source found that 36.7% of undergraduates received student loans and 42% received federal grants. 

The Jumpstart Our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act aims to amend the Higher Education Act (HEA). The move would make high-quality programs that are at least 150 clock hours and eight weeks in length eligible for the federal Pell grant. 

Currently, minimum Pell grant requirements start at programs with 600 clock hours and that are 15 weeks in length. That means that students enrolled in short-term education and training programs are ineligible to receive those funds to put toward an industry-recognized credential, license, or certificate.

“So right now, Pell can be used for college,” Kaine said. “But if you qualify for Pell, but you want to use it for career and tech, you really can’t.”

Kaine challenged the Pell grant’s current stipulations, noting that students in many career and tech programs spent eight hours a day, five days a week, over the course of about eight weeks learning their chosen trade.

“Much more hours than you get in a college course, but you can’t use a Pell grant for it,” Kaine said. 

Kaine’s website notes under Frequently Asked Questions about the JOBS Act that approximately 80% of all jobs require some form of postsecondary education or training beyond high school, and that short-term program credentials make up 24% of all postsecondary awards. 

The America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength (COMPETES) Act passed the US House of Representatives in February, but is still in the works in the Senate. The senator said during his Danville visit that there was no definitive say at the time over whether or not the legislation would have a narrow focus or include a broader scope. Kaine noted that he would prefer it be a “slightly broader” bill, with the inclusion of allowing federal Pell grants to be used for career and technical education. 

Workforce In Action

In Danville, part of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research’s (IALR) scope is teaching workforce courses. Telly Tucker, IALR president, told Kaine that he was “thrilled” to hear about the possible Pell grant expansion.

Currently, the IALR hosts an Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing Program. The offering empowers students to earn the skills for a new career in as little as four months at no cost, made possible by funding provided by the Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment (IBAS) Program. That’s big for a small Southside city where the 2020 median household income was around $37,100 and the poverty rate was 23%. 

“[It’s] little known that they chose this region for a reason. It’s had an excellent history in executing workforce development programs,” Tucker said. “That’s a testament to partnerships with K-12 and community colleges, everyone in our local government as well, working together to help fund those.”

Word of the opportunities at the IALR stretched beyond state lines. Tucker said that a young lady from Texas who’d never heard of Danville found out about the defense manufacturing program. She boarded a Danville-bound train with her fiancé, and four months later — upon completion of the program at the IALR — she had a job building ships in Newport News.

Local job opportunities also existed through the workforce development programs offered at the IALR. 

“To think that someone with a high school education could pass a drug test and then four months later have gainful employment somewhere in the defense industrial base, that’s a tremendous opportunity for people who are trying to make a better way of life for themselves and for their families,” Tucker said.

A Partnership Community

Kaine called Danville a “great example of a partnership community,” referencing the various pipelines existing between the local K-12 system, local colleges, regional chamber, and others.

“You have a partnership mentality here, which gives you an edge over some others,” Kaine said.

The senator noted that he wished “more Virginia communities were like you guys” in terms of Danville’s community partnership. 

In Tucker’s remarks, the IALR president pointed out some of the different reasons the Danville area had success with attracting businesses. 

“This area is really seen as an area that is attractive for industry as a result of the training that’s happening,” Tucker said. “So not only are we helping our country, but we’re also helping companies grow here locally.”

The senator praised local leaders for thinking ahead to make the present opportunities available.

“The decision a few years ago, like, ‘Hey, let’s think of ourselves and our connection to Hampton Roads and the shipyard and shipbuilding, remember Virginia’s a big defense contracting [location],’ the decision to, like, ‘Let’s try to maximize that,’ was really smart because the military of the future for us is going to be cyber,” Kaine said. “And the Navy — the shipbuilding, ship repair side — is going to be really important.”

The senator said that with Virginia involved in various aspects of the military and also with significant space assets like NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Danville’s decision to offer workforce training for the defense job market was “really smart.”

“I think there’s going to be a robust [defense] budget, sadly because of the state of the world, but Virginia has the ability to capture much more, when we’re already disproportionate in that space, but we could capture much more,” Kaine said.