The Road to a Stable Job—Without Crippling Student Debt

A novel grant program in Virginia is helping workers earn career-boosting occupational credentials.

It’s 6:45 a.m. during the height of summer construction season, and the asphalt plant at Cedar Mountain Stone Corporation in Mitchells, Virginia, has been buzzing with activity since before dawn. Thousands of pounds of crushed rock are moving along conveyor belts to be mixed with hot liquid asphalt in a gigantic drum, while trucks line up under a massive chute to take the finished asphalt away.

The company’s nearby quarry has been running 24/7, mining 8,000 tons a day of the high-quality granite for which this part of central Virginia is known. Some of this rock will end up cut and polished for people’s kitchen countertops, or lining streams and roadbeds, but much of it will end up in Cedar Mountain Stone’s asphalt plant, processed into blacktop for the thousands of miles of roads and highways that crisscross the state.

Making that asphalt is the job of Allen Miller, one of 11 apprentices at Cedar Mountain Stone. Like any good brew, good asphalt is hard to make. “We have to have certain gradations of stone, the right amount of dust, and not too much asphalt binder in it,” said Ed Dalrymple, Miller’s boss and the fourth-generation owner of Cedar Mountain Stone. “If we have all of that in the right proportions, the road’s going to last.”

Under the tutelage of a mentor at the company, Miller spends his days learning how to operate, fix and maintain the asphalt plant that is the lifeblood of the company; how to formulate asphalt so that it can withstand 20 years of freezes, thaws and the weight of thousands of tractor-trailers every day, and how to test it so that the quality of the state’s roadways passes the standards of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

Under VDOT’s pay-for-performance requirements, well-built roads earn a bonus, while inferior blacktop will cost the company penalties. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are potentially at stake, which means Dalrymple is counting on Miller to do his job right. On any given day, Miller is out drilling core samples from freshly laid road beds, watching the computerized control panels monitoring the moisture levels of asphalt being mixed at the plant, or taking 20-pound samples of asphalt to the company’s on-site laboratory for analysis.

Miller is 31 years old and has been at Cedar Mountain Stone for about 16 months, working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later every day. In the evenings, he goes to classes at Germanna Community College in nearby Fredericksburg for specialized classes in “asphalt technology” that are part of his apprenticeship. “It makes for some very long days,” he said.

But if he sticks it out, Miller will finish his apprenticeship with a journeyman’s license in industrial maintenance; multiple certifications in “asphalt technology” from the Virginia Asphalt Association, which will help him land jobs anywhere in the industry—and four years of work experience. Though he makes just $35,000 a year as an apprentice, his salary could jump to near six figures once he finishes his training.

Best of all, Miller will have no school debt. Cedar Mountain Stone is paying for the cost of Miller’s coursework at Germanna with the help of the New Economy Workforce Credential Grant, which Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe launched in 2016 with bipartisan legislative support.  It’s the first program in the country to help pay for non-college-credit occupational credentials, says Sara Dunnigan, executive director of Virginia’s Board of Workforce Development. While other states are focused on “free college” or “free community college,” Virginia is the first to focus on free (or near-free) credentials.

Already, the state is seeing benefits. Workers like Miller are getting affordable access to industry-recognized occupational credentials that can boost their careers, while local industries are getting the trained workers they need. In the first year of the program, the program helped 2,173 Virginians earn workplace credentials.

Under the new program, which will cost $20 million over two years, the state picks up two-thirds of the cost of acquiring non-degree workplace credentials, such as the asphalt technology certifications Miller will receive, as well as commercial drivers’ licenses, IT certifications and other industry-recognized certificates, certifications and licenses from a list approved by the state. Students pay one-third of costs to ensure they have “skin in the game,” and training programs only get their grant monies if students complete their coursework and pass the licensing or other exams necessary to receive their credential.

While Miller’s apprenticeship is a multi-year commitment, many credentialing programs typically require only a few months of training and a few thousand dollars. But they can still translate into a huge boost in wages. An entry-level IT worker with CompTIA “A+” certification, for example, can expect to earn $18 to $25 an hour. Certified welders can earn as much as $62,100 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the highest-paid electricians can make as much as $90,420. Many of the credentials on the state’s approved list involve so-called “middle skill” jobs, which require specialized training but no college degree. According to the National Skills Coalition, as many as 53 percent of all U.S. jobs fit into this category in 2015.

One reason Virginia launched its grant program is that despite the benefits to workers, and the amount of study required, occupational credentialing programs are currently ineligible for federal student aid, such as Pell grants. As a result, these programs were unaffordable for many of the workers who most needed them, said Dunnigan, particularly in regions of the state with higher rates of unemployment and job loss.

In places like rural southern Virginia, hard hit both by the loss of manufacturing and tobacco, the creation of the grant has been a boon.

“It’s been a game changer,” said Nettie Simon-Owens, chief economic advancement officer at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, one of five state-funded higher education agencies. “I can’t overstate how much it means to have affordable, hands-on training that provides marketable skills,” Simon-Owens said. “In many instances, we’re taking people who were unemployed and maybe receiving public assistance to becoming taxpaying members of the community.”

Without the help of the grant, the agency’s IT courses would cost $2,700, while “mechatronics”—a field that combines mechanical engineering and electronics—would cost $4,500. These amounts are negligible in contrast to four years’ worth of college tuition, but still significant for workers out of jobs or in low-wage jobs seeking to retool or upgrade their skills.

At a recent completion ceremony sponsored by the center in August, 47 graduates received certifications in the four programs offered by the agency, including the “IT Academy,” welding, mechatronics, and basic technical training. Many of the center’s graduates have already found well-paying jobs, while past graduates have gone on to positions at employers such as the new Microsoft data center in nearby Boydton, Virginia; Presto Products, a division of Reynolds; Hewlett Packard Enterprises (now DXC Technologies) in Clarksville; and various local and regional manufacturing and fabrication firms.

Placement rates are high because the credentials eligible for Virginia’s grant program are aimed explicitly at filling “high demand occupations” where there’s a projected need for qualified workers. At the same time that the grant program launched last year, the state released a list of these occupations, along with the related credential workers would need and where that training is available. Workers interested in fields such as cybersecurity, for example, can get grants to study for CompTIA Security+ certification at five community colleges across the state. Also on the list are a number of occupations in healthcare and education as well as a large variety of jobs in building trades and highway construction, including the VDOT asphalt plant operation certifications apprentice Allen Miller is earning.

One phenomenon the grant program has encouraged is the creation of apprenticeship programs—like the one that Miller is enrolled in—tailored to the needs of local industries that need to hire. Ed Dalrymple, for example, Miller’s boss, created the apprenticeship program at Cedar Mountain Stone in partnership with Germanna Community College, which has developed similar programs for other local firms. Dalrymple, who is on the board of the Virginia Asphalt Association, said he worked with VDOT and Germanna to come up with the specialized asphalt technology credentials Germanna is now offering and that are listed as “VDOT Asphalt Field Level 1 and 2” and “VDOT Asphalt Plant Level 1 and 2” on the state’s list of approved, grant-eligible programs. According to Dalrymple, 55 students are now enrolled in this course of study.

State workforce board director Dunnigan said she hopes these early successes will lead to future expansions of the program, which is scheduled to expire next year. “I’ve never seen a program like this get out of the gate so fast,” said Dunnigan. “And the fact that the program is producing returns in the short term is very exciting for legislators.” So far, Dunnigan said, bipartisan support for the program has been strong.

Meanwhile, Cedar Mountain Stone’s Dalrymple is looking to his 11 apprentices to become the next generation of workers at his business. Miller’s mentor at the asphalt plant is in his 70s, as is Cedar Mountain Stone’s current master electrician, who is mentoring 25-year-old Alex Campbell.

Campbell is about a month or two away from his journeyman’s electrical license, which requires 8,000 hours of on-the-job training under a master tradesman. He too is taking classes at Germanna Community College, and in addition to his job at Cedar Mountain Stone, works side jobs on weekends doing electrical and plumbing work in homes.

Campbell said the apprenticeship has given him direction and security after years of doing odd jobs out of high school. “Right now, I’m making decent money, more than most people I know,” he said. “When I started working for Ed, I was able to move out of mom and dad’s house, I have a nice reliable truck and have some money to put aside. It’s been great for me because I’ve been able to seize the opportunity.”

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly.