Working to address the need for a well-prepared workforce is Ignite, a groundbreaking United Way program. Now in its second year, Ignite seeks to make sure more than 29,000 middle and high school students are ready for future jobs, offering them hands-on experiences in the work world, education from experts in their fields, and a way to explore their own talents.
“We have so many connections with educators and employers through workplace campaigns, and we kept hearing about the gap between the worlds of learning and work,” says United Way of Southwest Virginia communications director Briana Morris Fillers. “Employers couldn’t find employees because people applying for positions were lacking the soft skills they needed for the job.”
Ignite's unique Careers Expo for Youth debuted in September 2017 at the Washington County Fairgrounds. During the two-day event, 4,000 seventh-grade students from 17 area school systems participated in activities provided by 75 employers, from hospitals to grocery stores to manufacturers. By “trying on” real-world jobs, organizers hope, students gain a clearer idea of career options close to home.
“Appalachian Power let kids climb a pole and use a handset. Students were able to practice CPR, use a 3-D printer, experience what it’s like to weld, using a virtual headset,” Fillers says. “It was an energetic, fast-paced event that kept students busy the whole time. They learned that there are a lot more options for careers in Southwest Virginia than they might have imagined.”
One Washington County employer involved in the event is K-VA-T Food Stores, which showcased several of its career paths.
A trained meat cutter, with the aid of a fiberglass cow, explained the company’s in-house meat cutter training. A model distribution center displayed a grocery cart designed in-house.
“We had students practicing how to stack boxes, which seems simple until you try it,” says K-VA-T human resource specialist Levi Tignor. “We had our technology department. And 'Bag a Career with Food City' timed students to see how fast they could bag groceries.”
The upside for his company? The Expo is a chance to attract future employees, who could begin working part time at K-VA-T stores when they are as young as 14.
“A lot of kids think of us only as a grocery store where you get milk, eggs and bread. So it was an investment in the future to showcase all the opportunities we have and open their eyes to what they can do in the future and stay here at home,” Tignor says.
Three excellent higher education choices are available within Washington County.
Virginia Highlands Community College, which marked its 50th anniversary in 2017, offers both career training and academic courses for those planning to transfer to a four-year college. Located in Abingdon, the college serves more than 2,000 students on campus, off campus and online. Its unique Take 10 Program condenses semester-long courses into just 10 weeks, allowing for more flexible schedules.
Emory & Henry College enrolls 1,000 undergraduate students and more than 200 graduate students at its campus in Emory. Its strong liberal arts focus includes 27 areas of study, from mass communications to pre-veterinary. The college offers undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees. “The ampersand in the college's name,” notes its website, “reflects the integrative learning experience at Emory & Henry where students connect what they’re passionate about to what they’re learning via project-based, hands-on work and critical reflection.”
Students can access courses of many kinds at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, where seven colleges and universities offer degree and non-degree programs. Partner institutions include King University, Old Dominion University, Radford University, University of Virginia, University of Virginia’s College at Wise, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech. The Center is also a hub for private and public events, from Lego competitions to arts events to professional conferences.
Families considering private school in Washington County may opt for Cornerstone Christian Academy, open to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The academy adheres to a classical educational approach, with the focus on reading, writing and mathematics from kindergarten through sixth grade; logic and argumentation in seventh, eighth and ninth grades; then effective communication in the remaining three years of the continuum. The academy also has several athletic teams, including cross country, golf, track and field, and volleyball.