In Southwest Virginia—and in much of the country—there exists a gap between the worlds of learning and work. According to the Virginia Department of Education, less than half of high school graduates in Southwest Virginia go on to technical training, two-year or four-year higher education, or the military. Based on local employer feedback, Southwest Virginia is experiencing a workforce shortage and cannot fill open positions. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in 2015, more than 3,000 of Southwest Virginia’s youth between the ages of 16 and 19 weren’t in school or working.
Together with dozens of community partners, United Way of Southwest Virginia is addressing the problems facing tomorrow’s workforce through initiatives spanning from cradle to career, creating opportunities for youth who are ready to enter and advance in the region’s workforce. One initiative—the Ignite Program—was created in 2016 to fill a community void in response to the gap between learning and work, and focuses on hands-on learning and career awareness. The initiative serves more than 29,000 students in 86 schools across 16 school districts—in every middle school and high school across the entire United Way of Southwest Virginia service area (approximately 15% of the state).
Hands-on learning components of the Ignite Program include soft-skills curriculum, financial simulations, and soon, pilot apprenticeships through a summer youth work program. Career awareness components of the program include a web-based career software session, teacher tours of employers and a Careers Expo for Youth. The 2017 expo was held from September 26-27 in Abingdon, Virginia. The event hosted more than 4,000 seventh-grade students from 46 schools, giving them an introduction to local careers and better preparing them for state-required career assessments. But, this was not your average career fair. In fact, it wasn’t a career fair at all—it was an immersive, hands-on career experience.
The students moved through four zones filled with more than 75 activities in 16 different career paths, all while seeing firsthand what careers were available in their region. With the guidance of industry professionals, they participated in chemistry experiments, climbed utility poles, practiced CPR and used 3D printers, among other career-oriented experiences. Candace McCraw, a seventh-grader, said the expo gave her a better idea of what careers are available locally, and that exploring options in such an immersive way was helpful to her in visualizing what careers really look like.
“In the classroom, they can tell you a lot of things,” said Candace, “but when you get out and do hands-on activities, it’s like a day off, but you’re still learning.”