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There are a lot of 'promising jobs' in Vermont. But at least one tech center can't find enough trainees for them

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The Vermont Department of Labor released its annual list of promising jobs last week. And jobs like licensed nursing assistants, and those in the manufacturing and building trades, are or will be in high demand in Vermont for the next several years.

Many jobs require certification and licensure. Those are available through training at one of the 17 technical centers in the state.

Rob Bahny helps run one of those tech centers. He’s the workforce and adult technical education coordinator at Southwest Tech in Bennington.

And while he agrees that Vermont needs the kinds of jobs the state identified in its recent report, he says he’s having trouble filling classes.

Vermont Public's Mary Engisch spoke recently with Rob Bahny. He begins by taking about his role. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Rob Bahny

Rob Bahny: The way I kind of jokingly describe it — as I do a lot of programs that have three letter acronyms such as LNA, CDL and CNC — so anything with a three-letter acronym is something that I offer. And that's licensed nursing assistant, commercial driver's license, computerized numeric controls, you know, those types of things.

Our association is trying to get more and more people to take a look at all the classes that the different tech centers are offering. We offer short-term affordable and flexible training programs that can get people into a new career area, if that's something they're interested in. And many folks if they're lower or middle income are going to qualify for some form of tuition assistance, primarily through [the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.]

People sometimes see the prices on our programs and they go, "I don't have that kind of money!" But the reality is, most people don't. And VSAC is very generous with the funding that they have to offer. And so we work hard to connect interested adult learners with our local VSAC advisors so they can find out, and they're often pleasantly surprised at the amount of money that they qualify for for tuition assistance. And so it can be a little sticker shock to see that, you know, a CDL cost $3,000. But oftentimes, again, if you're lower or middle income, VSAC is going to cover all or a lot of that for you. So there's there's quite a bit of funding to go around. And we want people to know that.

Mary Williams Engisch: Let me ask you how long you've been in your job.

I've been here coming up on four years now.

And have you noticed changes?

Yeah, absolutely. It's getting harder and harder to fill classes. I think many of the tech centers, through their adult education programs — I can't speak for every single one of them — but I think many of them are finding it harder and harder to find people to enroll in these courses. And I think many folks are finding the people that we do come up with often have some pretty significant barriers in life that are, or can, impact their ability to complete the training.

You know, employers are having a harder and harder time finding people. And many tech centers — again, I can't speak for every single one — but we're finding it harder to fill these classes. We have so many people retiring out of the workforce, and there's just a plethora of jobs available right now.

I think people are making value judgments of, "If I can make $18 an hour at Aldi or $20 an hour stocking shelves at Walmart, why would I spend my time going through a training program that costs $2,000 for what amounts to a $15 an hour job?"

Employers are pretty desperate. Wages have gone up. So you know, you really kind of have to want to be a nurse or be in health care to enroll in an LNA program when you can make more money doing something else. But I think it's also there's just simply more openings than there are people to fill them. That's my personal opinion. That's not the opinion of Southwest Tech or [Vermont Adult Career and Technical Ed]. But I think it's just harder and harder to find people.

You mentioned that some students maybe have barriers that make it more difficult for them to complete. Can you talk more about that?

Yeah, absolutely. You know, our LNA program, at least two of the four cohorts we run are in the evening. So if you don't have anybody to watch your kids, that can be a problem. Transportation. Where my school is, it's in town, but you have to be able to get here and get home afterwards.

Drug addiction, criminal backgrounds. We've had a handful of students who have not been able to enroll in the LNA program because of a criminal background, for which they're excluded. You have to pass the [U.S. Department of Transportation] physical and drug screening to earn a CDL license. And marijuana is illegal federally. And a CDL, though issued by the state of Vermont, is technically a federal license. So even though something might be legal in Vermont, it is not legal federally and that could preclude you from obtaining a CDL.

If you know you're a pot smoker, for instance, you're not even going to try because I tell people up front, "You're going to be drug tested before you enroll in the program." Because we want to make sure that you can actually earn your license. Not to mention mental health. A lot of people are struggling with that these days. So there are all sorts of barriers that could cause somebody not to be able to enroll in these programs.

So a two part question: does does this keep you up at night? And what are some solutions that you see?

It doesn't keep me up at night. Other things do! I've got two teenage daughters. So that's more likely to keep me up at night.

Yeah, I think the solutions part is tough. And I think those are the things that we're talking about in VACTEA at our association meetings, when all the folks like me get together — what are the types of things that we can do?

There's plenty of money available for people who want to take these classes; we can find tuition assistance for most people who want to do it. I think a lot of it has to do with better messaging. I think our association needs to do more to get the word out to people that there are these training opportunities that are available to them, and that they are cost effective, short-term programs that can get you working in a career field fairly quickly.

You know, most of these programs that I'm talking about are like six to 12 weeks, usually a couple nights a week. It's an investment of your time, but it's not like earning an associate's degree or something like that, either. It may lead to that eventually, and we hope it does. But these are these are programs that are intended to get people skills they need quickly get them their license that they often are required from the state to have. And be able to get into the workforce.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.
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