Travis Staton, President and CEO, United Way of Southwest Virginia

Bridging the workforce gap

By Travis W. Staton, President and CEO, United Way of Southwest Virginia

The first in the series of four “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” op-ed pieces

July 6, 2018 (Abingdon, VA) – Each day, as President and CEO of the United Way of Southwest Virginia, I have the privilege to hear from our region’s employers, schools and local governments.  For quite some time I was taken aback at the gap between our public and private sectors and learned that local employers, educational institutions, and youth live in different worlds and have essentially different perspectives.

Earlier this year, I learned that school systems have been selecting from a list of more than 600 credentials, but, often, the credentials offered do not align with the needs of local employers.  Even though more than 9,600 credentials were earned by students during the last school year, local data shows that nearly 3,000 youth ages 16‐19 are not enrolled in school or working in our region.

This information may lead one to ask: did the employers and schools ever sit down together to discuss these credentials and which ones are most valuable to the employers?  Which is not a shocker, as national reports show that across the country, only a third of employers report ever communicating with local schools.

The gaining of these insights continues to affirm to me that the United Way of Southwest Virginia has zeroed in on the right solutions.

Listening to our investors, both community members and local employers, we brought together the region’s leaders with more than 200 public and private partners across 17 school systems, 86 middle and high schools, to create the region’s first regional youth workforce development program.  Ignite, a program developed by the United Way of Southwest Virginia, is a commonsense initiative sparking career interest in the next generation of Southwest Virginia’s workforce through two simple strategies: career awareness and skill development.

Already, in the first year of implementation, Ignite has received high honors, from being recognized by former Virginia Governor McAuliffe for preparing students for the new Virginia Economy to just recently being referred to as a model for the entire commonwealth from state secretariat level positions.

During the program’s first year, United Way provided state of the art web‐based software for self‐exploration and career planning to all 29,000 6th–12th grade students in our region to heighten career awareness.  We took numerous educators on local employer worksite tours to aid teachers in understanding the skills needed by local employers and to create project based learning activities based on those needs.  Then we created a regional Careers Expo for Youth where every seventh grader in SWVA learned first‐hand from local employers about the jobs available right here at home.

In the area of skill development, Ignite has created several new partnerships, including one with the US Department of Labor in offering a soft skills curriculum, Skills to Pay the Bills. We have trained educators to teach area students the skills they need to succeed in the workplace like communication and teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving, and the importance of attitude and professionalism. Secondly, we partnered with Virginia Tech’s Cooperative Extension to provide real life financial simulations to all area 8th graders to learn the importance of earning a paycheck and smart money management.

And recently, through a new partnership with GO Virginia, United Way of Southwest Virginia is creating a plan for credential alignment, ensuring that education and training programs in high school match employer demand.  This partnership also provides resources to develop an internship component to connect a student’s learning to on‐the‐job experience.  As research tells us, youth who participate in work‐based learning are more likely to do better in school, attend college or go to work compared to their peers, and as the Annie E. Casey foundation states, “…in the end, work itself is the strongest program.”

Through these combined regional efforts, United Way of Southwest Virginia is bridging the gap by creating a talent pipeline that prepares the next generation for the jobs of tomorrow, supplying our local employers with skilled workers, building a robust competitive economy.

As we embark on building the internship components of Ignite, I invite our region’s employers to be a part of the solution.  On September 26, we will again convene regional leaders at the Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce Leaders Breakfast in Abingdon, VA.  During this time we will roll out additional plans of how you can be involved.

Although these strategies sound quite simple, it will take all of us working together, united.

Read the other OTW articles
Learn about the Ignite Program

United Way of Southwest Virginia fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in Southwest Virginia because they are the building blocks for a good quality of life.  Through an initiative-based cradle-to-career approach, United Way of Southwest Virginia is creating sustainable solutions to address the challenges facing tomorrow’s workforce. United Way convenes cross-sector partners to make an impact on the most complex problems in our region. Through collaboration with government, business, nonprofit and individuals, United Way innovates for positive, lasting social change.  With a footprint that covers nearly 20% of the state of Virginia, United Way of Southwest Virginia programs and initiatives serve the counties of Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Pulaski, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise, and Wythe, and the cities of Bristol, Galax, Norton, and Radford.