According to the Virginia Department of Education, it is currently estimated that 63 percent of all jobs in the United States require specific training or licensed skill sets. As a larger percent of jobs now require some type of postsecondary education or training, high school students are left with an urgent need to gain credentials and skills that will help them gain employ-ment after graduation.

When students leave high school with credentials in hand, they are more likely to stand out in today’s competitive job market. Without credentials that align with the needs of employers, students are less prepared for the regional workforce. However, through conversations with both regional employers and leaders in the school systems, United Way of Southwest Virginia dis-covered that there was a gap between the credentials employers wanted and school systems provided.

Schools in Virginia offer Career and Technical Education (CTE) learning opportunities to students. The program is designed
to prepare students for many of the jobs in Virginia that are forecasted to experience the fastest growth in the coming years. More specifically, the CTE programs prepare students to become well-trained industry-certified workers. Southwest Virginia school systems, though, have limited budgets for these programs.

Believing that the gap between schools and local employers could be bridged, United Way of Southwest Virginia prepared a Credential Study to identify the types of entry-level credentials that Southwest Virginia employers require. This was done to help schools align their credential offerings with the needs of local employers.

United Way of Southwest Virginia collaborated with employers across the region to complete the Credential Study. Employers completed a survey that asked about their current work-based learning efforts in the schools, as well as their perception of the importance of “soft skills”. Over 100 employers responded to the survey.

United Way of Southwest Virginia then worked with every high school in the region to compile a list of credentials offered by each school.

According to the study, half of all employers within the region claimed that they did not require credentials for entry level positions. Of the credentials that were required at entry level, the most frequently required by Southwest Virginia employers were Accounting-Basic Assessment and the Licensed Practical Nurse Examination. Welding, General Management Assessment, Human Resources Management Assessment, Microsoft Office Specialists, ServeSafe Manager Certification, and AutoCAD Certifications followed closely behind.

Due to the additional requirements for graduation stipulated by the Virginia Department of Education, high schools offer an array of credentials. Approximately 310 different credentials were offered in 2018 among the 39 Ignite high schools.

The study concludes 44 percent of the credentials that are offered by at least one school were not required by any employer who responded to the survey. There were 69 credentials that at least one employer reported as a requirement that are not offered at any of the reporting schools in the region.

The Credential Study commissioned by United Way of Southwest Virginia provides a starting point for schools and employers to connect and have conversations. By collecting and analyzing data from schools and employers, the Study shows both sectors where they can come together to provide high school students with the entry level credentials they need to be prepared to enter the workforce after graduation.

Lastly, the study explored the top “soft skills” that employers are searching for within a potential applicant. Soft Skills are essentially a set of traits that an employee can offer to any organization, such as teamwork, professionalism, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication skills. According to the survey, teamwork ranked at number one and was trailed by enthusiasm, attitude, and oral communication by a few decimal points. The survey provided evidence that many employers feel that applicants lack some of these vital skills.

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, “The core skills that the youth needs to succeed in the work-place is not something that they are born with. Instead individuals are born with the capacity to develop these skills and capabilities through the right experiences and practices.” The Harvard University report states that “Adolescence is an important window of opportunity for building these core soft skills”, which are critical in order to succeed in school, social interaction, and work.

One participating employer stated, “Written and oral communication skills are vital. Soft skills are crucial! Knowing how to make eye contact, make general conversation, interview, and dress professionally are the things that we evaluate an applicant on as soon as they walk into the interview.”

Additional takeaways from the study include:

• Local school systems fully support work-based learning activities and welcome employers into their classrooms. Many of the employers that participated in the Credential Study report that they are involved in a variety of activities, ranging from one day events to long-term job training sessions. United Way of South-west Virginia’s Ignite Program is in every school in Southwest Virginia, providing career exploration, career readiness, and skills development to more than 30,000 students.

• Schools can help students gain the soft skills they need to be successful in the world of work by emphasizing teamwork, professionalism, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication skills in their curriculum.

“We are hopeful that this study will spark conversation between educators and employers. We need to recognize that our schools need resources to hire qualified instructors, allocate space, and purchase equipment to offer some of these credentials. Sometimes schools are forced to choose the credentials they can afford to offer, which isn’t good business sense for any of us,” stated United Way of Southwest Virginia President and CEO Travis Staton. “This study prompts us to ask how we can better equip our schools and instructors to have the resources, tools, and capacity they need to prepare our future workforce.”

Click here to read the full 2019 September edition of the Business Journal