Gov. McAuliffe Clueless on Jobs But Not Pork

by Lewis Loflin

The Bristol Herald Courier March 8, 2017 ran a headline on Mountain Empire Community College receiving a $200,000 CDBG Grant from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The article was simply a rehash of Gov. Terry McAuliffe's press release so I went back to the original. The following statement had me questioning the entire process: "Mountain Empire Community College to establish new Power Groundman training program creating a new career pathway for high demand, regionally available jobs".

To quote:

"RICHMOND - Governor Terry McAuliffe today announced $200,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for the Town of Big Stone Gap. Since 1982, the federally-funded CDBG program has been administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Virginia receives approximately $17 million annually for the grant program."

The reality is like the Virginia Tobacco Commission, this is often another political slush fund.

High demand, regionally available jobs? If those jobs are in high demand evidence contradicts that. Appalachian Electric Power supplies most of the electricity for Southwest Virginia, other than Bristol Virginia that gets its power from TVA. A job search of both of these entities plus the Virginia Employment Commission yielded one lineman in Coeburn in Southwest Virginia, hardly high demand.

From the AEP website:

Listed as of April 5, 2017 83 job openings. The only listings for the Virginia region was 2 office jobs in Roanoke a 4 plus hour drive from Big Stone Gap and had no relation to lineman training. The closest job they listed was Pikeville, Kentucky, open to existing employees only.

The problem is obvious to anyone that actually lives here and has worked in the community college system. Basic electricity or industrial electricity or even experience as a mine electrician would qualify one as lineman with a little on-the-job training. Those already exist. Operating another program such as this is completely redundant, but can be useful. This is compounded by the problem of no real local employment being available in this field in this region.

Nonetheless this is a better deal for the public than handing out money to non-profits or private business. Mountain Empire Community college which I attended is heavily oriented towards training students for careers versus transfer to a four-year institution. Mountain Empire has an extensive listing of programs and certificates, many of them "virtual" or online.

This revolution came about from the presence of fiber optics installed in most of the area. Other classes in particular hands on such as chemistry, electrical trades, etc. must be done on campus. I would assume that includes this program as well.

My experience with these grants is they are simply used to underwrite operating the college itself. This saves the State of Virginia from having to use state taxpayer funds to fund Mountain Empire. But public funds should at least go to public institutions. Virginia politics is riddled with corruption due to so much meddling and partnering with nonprofits and private sector business. This tends to be dominated by ideology and porkbarrel politics.

The likely result if one that manages to graduate out of this program is relocation out of the region, dropping out of the labor force which many tend to, or work at Burger King. What they refuse to address across this region is large-scale functional illiteracy.

It's a significant problem with many of those entering community college in this region requiring remedial math and reading. 50% or more is not uncommon. Those lacking reading and math skills are difficult to retrain and limits their opportunities. I fought for years to try to address this issue instead of community colleges operating as diploma mills. This is another diploma mill worthless certificate unless they leave the region.

I believe these kinds of grants are worth far more than corporate welfare or underwriting nonprofits. As a public institution there is at least some accountability and direct public access to the programs. This is unlike handing out tax dollars to private entities where privacy laws and cronyism prevents any public accountability.

I have my fingers crossed this program will be a success. Nonetheless we must still address the literacy problem in our area and that must be done through public institutions not private entities collecting grants.