By Charles Errico, Ph.D.
Chair, Chancellor’s Faculty Advisory Committee
As we close the fall semester, every faculty member can provide numerous testimonials of the economic hardships their students faced during this pandemic. Overcoming challenges while pursuing an education, complicated with virtual instruction and endless numbing Zoom meetings, has never been more difficult.
For those who worry that our nation has experienced a drought of courage and character, they only need to look for encouragement to the students who attend our community colleges.
Finding a historical parallel to our current health crisis is not an easy task. To date, the Spanish flu pandemic from 1918-1920 was far more deadly and the Great Depression that devastated the American economy in the 1930’s resulted in a greater percentage of family breadwinners unemployed. With a vaccine on the horizon, our hope is that those historical records will stand.
One difference is the relationship between federal and state responsibilities to those crises. In the last year, for example, Congress has not developed programs like Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA or CCC that put millions of Americans back to work building bridges, government buildings, and conserving our natural resources. This time around, the federal government has provided funding through, for example, the CARES Act, and delegated to the states the heavy lifting of retraining people for new jobs to replace those they lost.
Governor Ralph Northam used CARES Act money as the year was drawing to a close to offer free workforce and career training at our community colleges for people who lost their jobs due to Covid-19. Virginians in need responded to the Re-Employing Virginians (REV) initiative in overwhelming numbers.
And this week, Governor Northam asked Virginia lawmakers to revive his “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” (G3) program, which provides financial support to cover tuition, fees, and books to low and middle income Virginians to obtain skills at our community colleges for high demand jobs. The governor wants the legislature to restore G3 funding that was suspended when the Covid-19 economic slowdown occurred. I’m excited to report that Ghazala Hashmi, a member of the Virginia Senate and former CFAC representative, believes restoring G3 funding “should enjoy support by lawmakers.”
Clearly, Virginia’s Community Colleges are being asked to play a major role in helping Virginians gain new skills to get back on their feet in the weeks and months to come.
With a successful vaccine, we may well see a gradual return to a normal life in the New Year. But the restaurant, hotel, airline, and entertainment industry will recover at a much slower pace. This is not the first time that there has been a sea change in available jobs in our nation’s history. Americans moved from the farm to the city in the nineteenth century and acquired new skills to feed their families. In the 1920’s, the Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, creating jobs and changing the nature of the labor force. More recently, mechanization and computer technology created a demand for workers with different skill sets.
Thomas Jefferson dreamed of a school within a short horseback ride of every Virginian. The Commonwealth’s 23 community colleges and 40 campuses are within a short drive of every Virginian. They are ideally positioned to provide training in high demand jobs that will help us through the pandemic and emerge stronger when it is finally over. Virginians are resilient. We have adapted and moved forward in the past, and we will do so again.
Dr. Charles Errico is a professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College’s Woodbridge Campus, and chairs the Chancellor’s Faculty Advisory Committee (CFAC).