More than 100 local business representatives and school administrators came together March 11 for the first meeting of the S.A.W. Employer & Education Coalition.
The coalition’s goal is simple: improve the workforce pipeline between high school graduates and local business owners.
In other words, get high school graduates working as soon as possible.
“The idea of this [coalition] is to promote planning and collaboration through public and private sector to make sure we have all stakeholders,” said Virtex General Manager Walt Carter.
Carter said stakeholders are in business, government, students and education.
“When it’s all said and done, there’s a lot of people involved in this,” Carter said.
The topic of focus for the March 11 meeting was workforce pipeline needs.
Carter said that the coalition’s vision includes having an even larger meeting next year.
Waynesboro Mayor Terry Short provided the meeting’s welcome.
“Our region is accomplishing great things,” said Short, “because we’re working together. The Shenandoah Valley is a special place, and I could not be more proud of the partnerships and the shared vision that we share with our friends in the city of Staunton, Virginia.”
Short said that Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County have a long history of collaborating.
“Our school systems are no exception,” Short said.
Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Cassell, Staunton City Schools Superintendent Garrett Smith and Augusta County Superintendent Dr. Eric W. Bond were present at Wednesday’s meeting.
Each school system is working to prepare youth for the work force. For example, Waynesboro Public Schools opened Waynesboro High School’s Career & Technical Education Center in the fall. The River City’s school system also received two planning grants for education.
“I think today’s event is evidence of our commitment as a region to facilitate a conversation,” Short said.
Cassie Farrish is Staunton City Schools’ Instructional Supervisor.
“As Mr. Short said, each division has individual focuses, but we’re all striving to give our students work-based learning experiences,” said Farrish. “Work-based learning is a school coordinated work-place experience that is related to students’ goals and/or career interests.”
Work-based learning enables students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real world situations.
Dr. India Harris, director of secondary instruction with Waynesboro Public Schools, spoke on the purpose of the coalition.
“This idea of collaboration is not new,” said Harris. “In fact, it’s been part of federal regulation that we have an advisory board in order to receive those funds.”
Harris said what school systems have learned is that “this collaboration has got to start looking very different now. It’s got to start looking more strategic and very, very deliberate.”
What would have been one coalition for each school system has now rebranded itself as the Staunton Augusta Waynesboro Employer & Education Coalition, according to Harris.
Augusta County Schools CTE Supervisor Michael Tetto said that when it comes to workforce development, school systems look it at one way and businesses look at it another way.
“But since we see things from a number of different perspectives, how do we put it all together?” said Tetto.
The answer is the coalition.
“It’s a long-range view. This is not about current job openings. This is about how we establish a pipeline for skilled development and workforce development for the future workforce,” Tetto said.
The challenge, Tetto said, will be how the information the coalition gathers at meetings will adjust curriculum and course offerings in the school systems.
Valley Career and Technical Center Principal Darla Miller shared with the group what the technical school offers Valley high school students, including courses in cosmetology, veterinary science, nursing, dentistry, teaching, welding and electricity.
Students graduate from VCTC with certification in their chosen field and the ability to obtain a full-time job in the field.
Companies are able to hire students during the spring of their senior year at VCTC, and train them to the company’s standards.
“We see it as a win-win for all participants,” said Miller.
VCTC also offers courses for adults.
Miller asked the representatives of local businesses to consider partnering with VCTC in various aspects with internships, scholarships and more.
“Investing in [VCTC] and our students is investing in your future success as well,” Miller said.
Travis Messick, apprenticeship consultant with the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry is based in the department’s Verona office.
“Apprenticeship is one of the oldest forms of training,” said Messick. In Virginia, more than 350 active apprenticeships are registered.
Messick said the department hopes to get more local businesses and school systems in Virginia involved in the coalition.
Following a panel discussion of representatives from local businesses, Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni spoke.
“Because, we’re trying to transition from a culture of high stakes testing to a culture of deeper learning and positive-based learning, and it’s very exciting for our workforce,” said Qarni.
Until recently, the goal was to prepare students for college, but now they are also being prepared for the workforce.
What Virginia’s public education system needs from local businesses is for them to understand the pressure on school boards and superintendents. Qarni said they want to avoid unintended consequences on the educational system because of the workforce pipeline.
“Let’s be really thoughtful in our approach as we transition and evolve into really improving the quality of our offerings in education in the Commonwealth. And we will get there,” said Qarni.
He added that reinforcing the workforce pipeline “is a team effort.”
Dr. James Lane is Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Schools.
Last year, the Virginia Department of Education launched “Virginia is for Learners.”
The VDOE has heard from employers that today’s youth entering the workforce are lacking in five areas: creative thinking, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship.