Grayson Hopkins, of Edinburg, is one of the roughly half a million Virginians who lost their jobs when the economy collapsed as the number of COVID-19 cases swelled and the government mandated shutdowns back last spring.
Hopkins, 47, described his experience of losing his cybersecurity job as “stressful, terrifying, horrifying.”
“At the beginning of [the COVID-19 pandemic], I was laid off and had a tough time finding a job,” he said.
But now, Hopkins is back at the business that last year let him go, and in a higher-earning position to boot.
Hopkins is one of the hundreds of state residents who have been through the nonprofit Virginia Ready Initiative. The mission of the program is to get 15,000 unemployed or underemployed Virginians work, according to a statement.
Virginia Ready is a partnership between companies and the Virginia Community College System.
Through the initiative, Hopkins was able to get more credentials, which helped him land the new, higher-paying job, he said. Those who complete a Virginia Ready credential program also receive a $1,000 award.
“I’ve got two, brand-new certifications I didn’t have,” Hopkins said.
The initiative offers credentials in trades, health care and technology.
Virginia Ready is similar but also different than a litany of similar programs that have cropped up recently to re- or upskill recently unemployed workers to fill in-demand jobs across the commonwealth, said Caren Merrick, CEO of Virginia Ready Initiative.
“I think what Virginia Ready really has to offer is we’re a business led by companies that have jobs [available] and business people who have hired for, built companies and understand it from that perspective,” Merrick said in a Tuesday phone interview.
On Oct. 30, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a new program, Re-Employing Virginians, to help pay for workers impacted by the pandemic to get retrained for jobs in high-demand fields, such as manufacturing.
The REV vouchers make tuition nearly free, according to Blue Ridge Community College’s website. Funding for the program is from $27 million in CARES Act money, according to Northam’s Oct. 30 announcement. The program expires on Dec. 14 or when funds run out, according to the BRCC website.
Merrick said solving the under- and unemployment situations does not have a one-size-fits-all solution since every person is different.
The program reached 1,000 enrolled on Feb. 9, according Virginia Ready data provided by a spokesperson, and on Tuesday, Merrick said the program had 1,300 enrolled and over 2,000 applicants.
Businesses that partner with Virginia Ready include Dominion Energy, Bank of America and Carilion Clinic, she said.
Many businesses in high-demand fields, including health care, IT and manufacturing, have seen worker shortages before and through the pandemic.
Experts have said that the inability for employers to find workers results in increased wages and benefits for workers, but the labor shortage also presents difficulties to a business’ ability to grow and operate due to increased costs.
“I do believe these credentials offer more people freedom to choose and more control” over their career paths, Merrick said.
Between 2016 and 2019, workers in jobs that do not require college degrees saw their pay rise 10% — more than jobs that do require degrees, where worker pay had risen 7.5%, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Most of the applicants to Virginia Ready are workers from the hospitality sector, Merrick said, which was hit hardest by the pandemic economic fallout.
Jobs in the service sector are typically lower paid, such as restaurant work. These jobs in preparing and serving food are in the lowest paid occupational group, and workers of these positions had a median wage of $24,220 in May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to data from the Pew Research Center from Feb. 10, 66% of unemployed workers have considered changing their job.
Hopkins said his time in Virginia Ready credential programs made him feel like he was working toward something instead of searching fruitlessly and hoping for new work.
And when he found his new job with his old employer, he could hardly believe it.
“It took about a month for it to actually set in,” Hopkins said.