The decline of southwestern Virginia’s once booming farm and coal industries brought high rates of poverty and unemployment to the region. Today, well-paying, steady jobs are hard to find and often require training to get ahead. Trucking is one of the few thriving exceptions. Nationwide, there is a shortage of drivers, and, in the Roanoke area, men and women from all walks of life come to CDS Tractor Trailer Training to prepare for the open road.
“The jobs are out there, but people need the training,” explains CDS Vice President Chris Pender. “This can be a major up-front expense for some students. Because programs like ours are non-accredited, and traditional financial aid isn’t available. So people who can’t afford it may have to walk away from the opportunity or find other options.”
Today, Freedom First Federal Credit Union (FFFCU), with its tagline Where people bank for good and a mission to help members prosper and communities thrive, is filling this financing gap through an innovative workforce development loan. In areas of urban and rural southwestern Virginia, the loan provides low-cost, short-term financing for job certificate or licensing programs that give people a better chance at obtaining or advancing in living-wage jobs.
“Without Freedom First, many students would just not have been able to go through this program,” says Chris about CDS graduates, almost all who find full-time driving work after completing the course.
CDS is the first Roanoke organization to pilot the credit union’s innovative workforce development loan. “We came up with this program like we do a lot of others and that’s by being out in the community. Community engagement makes us aware; if we’re listening, there are opportunities to partner, develop, and deliver programs,” FFFCU CEO Paul Phillips says. “When CDS told us that traditional student loan financing isn’t available to their students, we thought ‘that’s something we can do.’ So we adapted a basic unsecured loan for CDS that we deliver in partnership with them.”
The credit union doesn’t stop with the affordable, short-term loan. It also teaches CDS students how to bank remotely, budget, save, and build their families’ financial health. And it encourages borrowers, who automatically become credit union members, to access the FFFCU’s full range of consumer financial products and services well after the terms of the loan expire.
FFFCU won a $1.725 million NEXT Opportunity Award to expand the workforce loan into new industries such as health care and welding; both of which have identified a shortage of skilled workers now and in the future. With the Award, the CDFI expects to deploy $1.5 million in loans, establish a loan loss reserve fund, and hire a loan administrator.
Paul says, “These funds will ultimately help hundreds of people in southwest Virginia secure a job with sustainable workforce skills, and grow the local economy by creating more jobs.”