Growing number of Central Virginia job seekers unemployable because of drugs

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDBJ7)-- There are more than 2,000 jobs available in the Central Virginia region and about the same amount of people looking for jobs. But matching the two isn't always easy.

According to Ben Bowman with Virginia Career Works, most of the jobs available are positions that require highly skilled workers. To bridge the gap, employers like Banker Steel based in Lynchburg have had to get creative.

Banker Steel teamed up with Virginia Technical Institute and Workforce Development last year to create a Banker Steel specific training course for workers. Upon graduating the course, which is partially funded by Region 2000 Workforce, students are almost guaranteed a job.

“It’s a huge step for my future,” said Justin DeWald, who graduated the course six months ago. “It’s just opened so many doors.”

Not everyone has a story like DeWald, though. One year after the course was launched, workforce leaders have learned that a training program is not a silver bullet.

In DeWald’s class alone, six people did not make it all the way through to employment.

“By the end of the course we had three of four people who couldn't pass our drug test,” said Chuck Mehalic, Chief Operating Officer of Banker Steel. “That's when it first hit me, maybe we didn't emphasize that enough. But we went on to the second class and the third class and it continued to repeat itself.”

Banker Steel is not the only company seeing that trend. Bowman said at least one third of people seeking workforce services are not able to pass a drug screen. In some cases, it's recreational use. In others, the team is seeing opioid abuse.

"Unless we can intervene in some way, it will continue to be challenging not only for the individual, but for the community and employers too,” said Bowman.

After a year long focus on training potential employees, the trend can be disheartening for employers like Banker Steel.

"If we had skilled candidates right now we could hire 30 of them,” said Mehalic.

The workforce team now drug screens candidates before enrolling them in training like Banker Steel’s, but Bowman says it goes beyond that. They are starting to partner with local treatment programs so that when someone does fail a drug screen, there's an answer to “what’s next?” They’ve already discussed referral options with Horizon Behavioral Health and Johnson Health Center.

"Whether it's access or referral to drug and alcohol treatment,” said Bowman. “That’s something we need to consider as a part of our whole workforce ecosystem."