HARRISONBURG — What would you do with $500,000?

The Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board and Piedmont Workforce Development Board know exactly what they will do with grant for a half-million dollars from the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration.

The two workforce boards submitted their proposal over the summer, said Sharon Johnson, chief executive officer of the Valley board.

“These were things we were already thinking about and then there was a funding opportunity so it was perfect timing,” Johnson said.

The plan involves several initiatives to help bring out-of-work Virginians back into the labor force, Johnson said.

One of the main initiatives is PluggedInVa, a career program that pairs a General Educational Development course with technical training for industry-specific jobs.

“This is a proven model, but now what we want to do is with the out-of-work population, how can this model be taken to the next level,” Johnson said.

The program will receive funding to further increase capacity and customization to suit more jobs.

The program would provide a much-needed boost of workers for local employers, said Jay Langston, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership.

“There is great, pent-up demand to produce more, but we don’t have enough people to do it,” Langston said.

Funding will also be used for expanded infrastructure and social media services, according to a press release announcing the grant award on Thursday.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Go and out and get training,’ but there are also other aspects that will prevent he people from being able to do that,” Langston said.

Challenges people face to getting new skills include child care, transportation and distance, he said.

To address these difficulties, the boards also will be offering more services outside of the brick-and-mortar locations, Johnson said.

Workforce board representatives will travel to areas to meet residents in places such as Bergton, instead of only being able to serve them when they come to the Harrisonburg office, she said.

“When expanding out into the community, you naturally build stronger partnerships in those communities,” Johnson said. “And you have an opportunity to build a volunteer staff who can work with you to serve more individuals.”

The initiative “looks like it’s addressing the entire ecosystems to get these people back into productive employment,” Langston said.

In August, the Harrisonburg metro area had over 65,000 people in the workforce, with a 2.7% unemployment rate.

Nationally, unemployment hit a 50-year low of 3.5% in September.

The low unemployment rate raises wages for workers, but puts strain on businesses to expand or continue service, local business leaders have said.

“This will help bridge that gap,” Langston said.

Approximately 650,000 Virginians between ages 16 and 64 are out of work, which includes roughly 26%, or 168,000, who are unemployed.

Nearly three-fourths of the residents identified in the study, 482,000, are not in the labor force at all, according to the data.

The statistics come from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s 2018 study “Who is Out of Work in Virginia,” which grouped the populations into six regions called clusters.

One of those areas is the Blue Ridge cluster, which includes areas served by the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont workforce development boards.

About 66,000 residents in the cluster were identified as being between 25 and 34 years old, disabled or less-educated, with 40% living below the poverty line.

“It is the demographic that we really need back in the workforce,” Langston said.

With more people in the local workforce, companies will hire more people, creating more wealth and money going into the economy, he said.

Now all that’s left is putting the plan into effect, Johnson said.

“We’re really looking at this as an investment in the future of delivering services in the Shenandoah Valley region,” Johnson said.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanMunroDNR

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