By George Hohmann
For the W.Va. Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — How to attend college and still pay the bills at home is one of the biggest challenges facing many West Virginians trying to prepare for today’s job market and workplace.
One increasingly popular solution is the state’s “Learn and Earn” program, which provides students with part-time jobs while they study for associate degrees at West Virginia’s community and technical colleges.
Forrest Campbell, 20, of Yawkey, Lincoln County, is a Learn and Earn participant. He works at Gestamp’s South Charleston automotive parts stamping plant on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where he earns $15 an hour in the company’s junior tech tool and die program.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays Campbell studies machinists’ skills at BridgeValley Community and Technical College in South Charleston. After each semester, if he passes all his classes, he is reimbursed for his tuition costs.
When he finishes, Campbell will have an associate degree and a shot at getting hired full-time at Gestamp as an apprentice. If he were to successfully complete that program, he would have a journeyman’s card, which is a nationally recognized credential.
The Gestamp Learn and Earn campus has greatly reduced Campbell’s time on the road. He previously worked at a machine shop in Huntington and took classes at BridgeValley’s campus in Montgomery. “It was too much running,” he said.
Eric Oxley, 27, of St. Albans, also is enrolled in a Learn and Earn. He studies computer routing, switching and networking at BridgeValley and works part-time at Advanced Technical Solutions, also known as ATS, in Scott Depot, Putnam County.
“It’s been a great experience,” Oxley said. “I’ve learned a ton. I’ve been out of my comfort zone. When I’m at ATS full days I get to actually go out in the field and do projects and get that training. They have a networking team so I’ve been able to actually work hands-on with the stuff I’ve been learning in class. That’s the coolest thing.”
A former Marine, Oxley was driving a truck and going to school when he landed the Learn and Earn internship.
“It’s worked out great,” he said. “I’ve been able to keep caught up. The stress level has been low. I should graduate in May. Hopefully ATS will offer me a job and I’ll go to work full-time for them.”
Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, said, “The Learn and Earn program is one of the things I’m most excited about that happens at the community and technical college level. The internship model is something that has been used in Europe for decades and has proven successful. We’re trying to emulate that model here.
“The learning opportunities have to be linked to potential jobs — there has to be a job demand for the internship,” Tucker said. “The internships have to be structured in such a was that they fulfill some of the degree requirements of the student. We did that because we didn’t want the interns to be going to get everybody coffee. We want them to have hands-on experience in the industry they would be working in. Depending on the company and the way the business is structured, the internships can look very different and the colleges have the flexibility to set them up so it works out best for the college and the company.
“Our students in the community college system have an average age of 28,” Tucker said. “They are adults. They have families, they have children, they have people who are banking on them who need their support. So when these folks get laid off or try to change their career to better themselves, they have to have a wage to go along with that change. The internship part of this Learn and Earn program really provides an opportunity for these adult students to make the career change they need to be successful.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has noted that Learn and Earns not only help students receive classroom instruction and hands-on experience while earning a competitive salary, the program gives employers a cost-effective way to recruit and train new employees.
“Our state’s future depends on our ability to provide business and industry with a highly skilled, well-trained workforce that’s ready to get to work,” Tomblin has said.
Laura McCullough, BridgeValley’s vice president of workforce and economic development, said Learn and Earn is a matching program: “If a company will hire a community college student that is enrolled in a technical degree program and if the student wants to take this experience for academic credit, then we can write a Learn and Earn.
“For every dollar in wages a company pays our students, the state will match it 50 percent. Students earn more than $10 and less than $20 an hour. Most pay from $12 to $15. So it’s a good part-time job for a student. They can work and get some of the soft-skill training they need at a company and learn some technical things and complete their degree.”
McCullough said studies conducted in England and Australia show that “students who engage in these types of learning experiences are retained by the college at better rates, get hired at greater rates and earn more money. So they complete their degree program, get employed faster and, for the first two years, they earn higher wages.”
Kurt Norris, 45, has been in manufacturing since he graduated from the machine tool program at the vocational high school in the New Hampshire town where he grew up.
“No company I’ve ever known has offered the package these guys are getting,” Norris said of the Gestamp internships. “They work; they get reimbursed for their education if they pass. Yes the state foots some of the bill. But that’s still tremendous. Think about when you were their age, if you were offered something like that. I was working seven days a week, from 7 a.m. ’til Midnight…”
Learn and Earn was established in West Virginia four years ago. Over 250 students have been or are enrolled in the more than two-dozen Learn and Earns across the state.
Tucker said the Learn and Earn program receives $806,000 annually from the Legislature. She said the community college system now has Learn and Earns in manufacturing, chemical operators, information technology, allied health fields and energy.
“We’re really trying to spread these opportunities around the state,” she said.
For more information about Learn and Earn, contact the workforce director at your local community and technical college.