By A.J. Kaufman
With the demand for skilled labor approaching a tipping point at the national and local level, Virginia Highlands Community College (VHCC) has joined the effort to help.
As local businesses seek workers with needed technical skills, the Abingdon school responded with a large construction project — focusing on key industries like diesel mechanics and welding — they hope to complete next year on campus.
Elevating workforce development and training is the goal of the $8.5 million new Advanced Technology and Workforce Development Center. Realizing that an increase in graduates will positively impact many high-profile businesses in the community, VHCC’s goal is to train and keep talent in the region while earning livable wages. They know employers need workers with skills where some post-high school training is required, but not necessarily a four-year degree.
“As a public community college in The Commonwealth, one of our principal missions is to help support the economic growth and development of the communities we serve,” VHCC Vice President of Institutional Advancement Laura Pennington told the Business Journal in July. “While this can take many shapes and forms – college courses for high school students, university transfer preparation, basic skills development, and business & industry training – a hallmark is definitely listening to the heartbeat of the community’s workforce needs and then responding to those needs with high quality offerings that culminate in skills and credentials that help power local businesses and provide a good career for residents. With this project, what you are seeing is VHCC in action, doing what it does best, fulfilling its core mission and serving its community.”
Pennington, who has also served as executive director for the VHCC Educational Foundations since 2017, says her role in this initiative is exciting and challenging: part engineer, part cheerleader, part matchmaker, and part “chief bottle washer.”
“In the end, however, it is a major team effort – all of us pulling in the same direction to make something special happen,” she added. “I often say it is like a modern-day barn raising…the whole community is and can be involved.”
VHCC received a $1 million contribution from the Wellspring Foundation of Southwest Virginia. A press release explained that Phase IV of construction began in late June with material staging and includes the exterior walls, doors, windows, deployment of the building’s entire concrete floor and some additional work for the modern technical education center.
Construction planning and design commenced three years ago but faced COVID-19 pandemic-influenced supply chain issues, as well as soaring inflation costs on materials, which have grown between 28 and 77%. After securing over $6 million in donations and grants, as of mid-July, the college remains over $2 million short of covering the center’s full cost. VHCC recently launched a “Close the Gap” initiative to raise funds with assistance from the community. According to its website, the campaign “will expand the power of education at VHCC to transform lives and strengthen our region’s economic and social vitality.
Once enough funds have been raised, the school plans to begin Phase V and finish the interior, landscaping, mechanical and building occupancy projects.
“Through the investment and kindness of many individuals and organizations, we are now just shy of $2.5 million in reaching the goal of fully funding this project,” Pennington said. “We are now starting Phase IV of construction and hope to raise the funds needed to close the gap so that we can finish the final phase and have the first classes in the new building by Fall 2024.”