Across the commonwealth, there are hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, that go unfilled because employers simply can’t find folks with the skills needed to do the work. State leaders hope that legislation Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law earlier this month will help alleviate the problem and, at the same time, set people on course for a career, not just one dead-end job after another

Northam used Tidewater Community College’s Skilled Trades Academy as the backdrop to sign House Bill 2020, legislation championed by Del. Matthew James, a Portsmouth Democrat, to shine a light on the role the state’s community colleges will play in the process. James’ bill calls on the Virginia Community College System, working with the state Department of Labor, to develop a uniform, statewide instruction plan for registered apprenticeships for high-demand jobs, as determined by the Virginia Board of Workforce Development and the Virginia Employment Commission. The courses would be available either online, face-to-face in classrooms or a combination of both.

Virginia’s community colleges have always been at the forefront of specialized job training in the commonwealth, but primarily in their own service areas. Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, for example, has long had a partnership with local nuclear engineering firms to train applicants for their high-skills positions.

In much the same way, Patrick Henry Community College has focused curricula on certifications needed by local manufacturers. And the coming Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre will expand its impact even more precisely.

James’ bill expanded the role of the community college system to include working with employers to train applicants for such jobs as construction workers, carpenters, ship repairers … jobs for which certification is required to gain entry to but that also have a period of apprenticeship while on the job itself.

The training will be tailored to each community college’s need, determined by consultations with the VEC and workforce development board. While ship repairers certainly will be needed in Tidewater where the largest employer is Newport News Shipbuilding, heavy equipment operations or construction trades may be in higher demand in Central Virginia or Southside. Because the instructional programs would be uniform and already developed, local community colleges wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel: As soon as a critical jobs need is determined, a training program will be ready to roll out.

John Capps, the president of CVCC in Lynchburg, put it best in remarks at the college’s 51st commencement earlier this week. “We are not an ivory tower. We are a public good,” he said. “We are nothing less than the Ellis Island of higher education with a point of entry to the American dream.”

And now, with this push into apprenticeship and certification training, the commonwealth’s community college system is taking on an even more important role in preparing Virginians of all skill levels to take part in the state’s expanding economy.