SOUTH CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – Severe staffing shortages are a problem for many employers in our region, even industries that have high paying entry level positions.

In 2019 the West Virginia Legislature launched a grant called WV Invests. The goal was to make it easier for people to access the education they need to fill the jobs available in the Mountain State. 

“Growing up I was always loved computers. I was a computer geek. I was what you would call a nerd,” joked Allison Minney, a Lincoln County resident and a student at BridgeValley Community and Technical College.

Since she was little, Minney knew computers were her thing. An online class helped her see it was something she could turn into a career.  

“My mom presented me with a program online that was cybersecurity for girls, because there was a need for cybersecurity with women for the FBI and the police due to sex trafficking. So, I fell in love with that idea that I could help people with computers,” Minney explained.  

She knew she needed to go to college but met some challenges. 

“I was homeschooled through an academy out of Florida, and in Florida some of their credits aren’t equal to what our credits are here,” Minney explained. “I was half a credit short of getting a few scholarships.” 

She found the WV Invests grant. It was a perfect fit for her situation. Cybersecurity was one of the “in-demand” Associate Degree programs covered by the grant. She applied and was accepted. The grant covered most of her costs. Now she’s in her fourth semester at BridgeValley. 

“That is a lot of college kids fresh out of high school’s worry is that their parents are going to end up in debt for them to go to college. For this my parents didn’t have to worry,” Minney said. 

WV Invests is a “last dollar in grant” which means that it fills in the gaps other scholarships and financial aid don’t.  

“Since the program started, we’ve had 3,700 students receive WV Invests. On the flipside we’ve had 4,600 students that applied but didn’t get it because their tuition and fees were already being covered by other federal and state grants and scholarships,” explained Brian Weingart, Senior Director of Financial Aid at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission

The launch of WV Invests hit a snag almost immediately because of COVID-19.  

“Where I think a lot of the programs involved in WV Invests are very hands on programs and so during COVID it made that real challenging,” Weingart explained, pointing particularly to programs in the medical field like nursing. 

But students did continue to sign up. The WVHEPC provided the following participant numbers: 

  • 2019-2020 
    • Recipients: 1,168
    • Awards: $3,269,353
    • Average Award: $2,799
  • 2020 -2021
    • Recipients: 1,431
    • Awards: $4,140,593
    • Average Award: $2,893
  • 2021 – 2022
    • Recipients: 1,335
    • Awards: $4,602,394
    • Average Award: $3,447

“I think that has just made it more recognizable to students that there is help out there,” Weingart said. “Whether it is the Pell Grant, or the WV Higher Education grant or the Promise Scholarship. There is a lot of funding out there that can make college affordable. WV Invests is a good safety net to catch those that maybe don’t have enough funding from other sources.”

One of the most unique aspects of WV Invests is that it covers specific degrees and certificate programs that can prepare students for jobs that are available. 

“The Community College System Office partners with the state Department of Commerce to do an annual review of program areas so that they validate it for us, so it doesn’t feel like colleges just said these were in demand. We welcome that external validation,” said Dr. Casey Sacks, President of BridgeValley Community and Technical College. 

Because what is “in demand” changes from time to time the list of degrees covered is often updated. Since WV Invests started program leaders say this is the top 10 degrees or certificates. 

  • Nursing
  • Business
  • Health Care Professional
  • Criminal Justice
  • Computer Information Technology
  • Cybersecurity
  • Aviation Maintenance Technology
  • Information Technology
  • Welding
  • Electric Utility Technology

Dr. Sacks said employers are very motivated to find people qualified to do the jobs they have. 

“We’ve started finding employers who are stepping up and paying students to go to school. They are that committed to filling their workforce needs,” Sacks said. 

Minney said there is a misconception in her community about the number of available jobs in the state. 

“I have heard by so many people that there’s no jobs and there never will be jobs. But the truth is, there are there’s just not enough people that are well trained for those jobs here in the state,” she said. 

WV Invests students are required to stay in West Virginia for at least two years after graduation. As someone with family roots in the Mountain State and a love for the outdoors, that part was easy for Minney to accept.  

“Because West Virginia is such a wonderful state. It really is ‘Almost Heaven’. So, I want to stay. That is one thing I never thought about was leaving West Virginia and especially with this Invests now I’m more than happy to stay,” she said. 

Education leaders say it can be difficult to truly measure the overall success of the grant program when it comes to degree completion and keeping students in state after graduation.

“We do lose students just to work,” Sacks said. “Which is a win for our employers it just doesn’t look like a win in our data set. But we’ll take it because it is what the student wanted. And we also see students successfully transition to four-year degree programs. One of the things that students say that they want is to continue their education, so we have lots of four-year partners across the state to try to continue that pipeline.” 

According to the WVHEPC for the first three application years, 2,810 students have received funds. As of the 2021-22 academic year, 1,412 recipients have earned credentials. The fourth application cycle is still in progress. 

“We can figure out where they went but sometimes it takes some individual looking,” Sacks explained. “It is a pretty individual experience. If you think about your own work history, you probably didn’t do something linear either.”

But educators are staying focused on the overall goal of giving students the skills they need to do the jobs available. At BridgeValley there is another program that helps break the barriers down even more if students are planning to pursue one of those high demand careers. Federal grants are funding the school’s Ascend program which helps to cover things like gas cards, childcare and books. Sacks says those areas are obstacles for some student that aren’t covered by other resources. 

“The program that we’ve done with Ascend, they are areas that our local employers are screaming and yelling ‘we cannot make enough nurses, we cannot make enough people in manufacturing or in IT and Cybersecurity’. As many as we can come up with, there’s a job here in the Kanawha Valley for them,” Sacks said. 

For Allison Minney, the West Virginia girl who has a passion for her state and loves computers, the support to chase her dreams has been a game changer. She isn’t planning to stop with an Associate’s Degree. 

“It has helped me not have to worry about money. It has helped me not have to make my parents worry about money. It has also allowed me to get a good education and not be as far in debt when I go to a four-year college,” Minney said. 

Program leaders say there are plenty of funds available for WV Invests and they could serve many more students. They also say the biggest challenge right now is making sure people know that the resource exists so that they can apply. 

For more information about the requirements, in demand programs and to see if the grant could work for you click here

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