A few days before the General Assembly convened in Richmond, Gov. Ralph Northam announced his proposal to improve the commonwealth’s business and economic outlook by creating clear and more affordable pathways through Virginia’s community colleges to high-demand jobs. Referred to as G3 — “Get a Skill, Get a Job, Give Back” — this initiative is true to the promise of our community college system and to the needs of our region.

The plan puts advanced education and higher pay within reach for more families in Southwest Virginia by providing critical funding for middle- and low-income students who choose community college programs aligned with employers’ needs. This is not “free community college” or a “promise” program; it’s a targeted investment in our future workforce that would greatly reduce or eliminate the barriers that keep students from entering the workforce and advancing in their careers.

The commonwealth may be enjoying historically low unemployment rates, but some in our local communities are having a hard time finding full-time work with the wages, health care and benefits necessary to support a family. The proposed G3 investment in workforce education directly targets this need, and it addresses businesses’ concerns of finding and developing talented and skilled employees.

Here at Virginia Highlands Community College, we’ve already prepared to meet the needs of those students with more than a dozen such structured programs in nursing, IT, industrial technologies and more — all aligned with the proposed plan to put more Southwest Virginians in high-wage jobs in the shortest time. Additionally, G3 will expand the services our students need to succeed: advisers, coaches and other support personnel to help students navigate their education and their lives along the way. On average, it’s projected that graduates from these eligible programs will earn 60% more than nongraduates, lowering their need for social services, improving their well-being and strengthening our communities. In short, Virginia Highlands will have an expanded ability to produce better prepared and engaged citizens who contribute to their local economies.

I’m especially pleased that the governor’s proposal includes a requirement for students to “give back” in the form of volunteerism and community service in exchange for the investment in their education. There is no shortage of opportunities for us to help one another, and the G3 “give back” component may incorporate hands-on learning that reinforces and expands educational programs through community service. Our region is one of the most welcoming, hospitable and caring places I’ve ever lived, and by linking education to service, the G3 initiative seeks to extend those qualities to future generations of Virginians.

Unlike some other controversial legislation, the G3 proposal is a nonpartisan issue, and legislators from both sides of the aisle and business leaders across the commonwealth have endorsed the plan. As I’ve spoken with friends in our communities, I’ve received positive responses from families, business and local leaders who all recognize that this type of investment in the people of Southwest Virginia will attract more business and commerce to our area. This is a plan we can all support.

Since 1967, the faculty and staff at Virginia Highlands Community College have been focused on a single mission — serving the region’s students with meaningful pathways to a better future. The G3 plan would allow us to expand and accelerate those pathways to more families for whom higher skills and higher pay is just out of reach. It would improve our economic competitiveness now and for years to come, and by tying the financial support to community college programs linked to better jobs, it would invest in our greatest asset — our people.

Like many in Southwest Virginia, my career began by earning a two-year college degree, and the skills I learned laid a foundation for a better life for my family. I believe in the G3 program and what it can offer to our region, and I hope you’ll encourage our legislators and businesses to continue to support it. Because of our commitment to quality education and strong communities, it’s the right kind of investment to make.

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