Now hiring qualified candidates: credential alignment through partnership

The third in the 2018 series of three “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” articles by United Way of Southwest Virginia

September 20, 2018 (Bristol, VA) – Sometimes, all it takes to align career-learning opportunities is a simple conversation between people who care about the community and are willing to work together – proven by a new partnership between a Bristol-based manufacturer and a local high school.

Electro-Mechanical Corporation’s Mike Stollings, VHS student Max Chafin, VHS teacher Aaron Hurd, and BVPS superintendent Dr. Keith Perrigan stand together near the CNC machine on the lowest level of the CTE wing at Virginia High School.

Electro-Mechanical Corporation has been in Bristol for sixty years as of September, with headquarters situated just a few blocks from the historic Bristol sign. The privately-held, family-owned company employs nearly 500 workers who manufacture products used by a diverse mix of energy, electric utility, and industrial customers through multiple divisions: Line Power, Electric Motor, Machinery Components Company, and Federal Pacific.

Mike Stollings, VP of Human Resources for Electro-Mechanical Corporation (EMC) said, “Like a lot of other manufacturers in our region, we’ve looked at, talked about, and heard about what is referred to as the skills gap for many years, and it’s true. It’s there. But, we’re facing a resource gap as well. For years, we’ve been placing our target on higher educational institutions that we are so fortunate to have in our area. But, we realize we also need to look further up the pipeline to the troubling number of young people that are leaving our area after high school, and that’s why we are so excited about our partnership with the CTE department at Virginia High School.”

According to the Virginia Department of Education, career and technical education (CTE) programs in Virginia public schools serve more than 640,000 students in one or more CTE courses in grades 6-12. These programs are designed to prepare young people for productive futures while meeting the need for well-trained and industry-certified technical workers.

In the Spring of 2017, several EMC representatives met with Dr. Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools (BVPS) to discuss a partnership at the high school level that would prepare students for a manufacturing career with the company. During the meeting, they realized EMC and other area manufacturers were seeking candidates with a completely different credential than the one being offered at Virginia High School. They discussed opportunities and needs, and were determined to take action.

A view from above shows the left third of the interior of Federal Pacific, a division of Electro-Mechanical, in Bristol, VA.

Less than a week after the initial meeting, the phone rang at EMC. It was Perrigan, with great news: he’d already made the calls, he’d already thought about curriculum integration, and he’d already checked off all the boxes. The curriculum of the high school’s manufacturing course would be modified to align with the right credentials and training to help close both the skills gap and the resource gap at EMC.

The two-semester manufacturing curriculum was introduced in January and will see its first completions this December. Perrigan said students taking the course enjoy solving problems by working with their hands, and the CPT (Certified Production Technician) certification could allow them to do just that at EMC in “touch labor” jobs involving painting, assembly, wiring, and soldering.

Adam Taylor, a student in the first semester of the manufacturing class, said, “At first, I took this class without really knowing what it was. Then I found out I could get the CPT certification if I took the second class, and that meant I could get hired right out of high school.”

In the full manufacturing course at Virginia High School, students not only receive the CPT certification, but they receive OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) training, learn technical drawing using engineering software, and participate in a project-based learning experience by taking their own original products through an entire “mock” manufacturing process.

VHS manufacturing instructor Aaron Hurd assists Andrew Boardwine in learning to use one of the classroom’s 3D printers.

Aaron Hurd, who teaches the manufacturing course, said, “I have the students break into small groups after OSHA training. They develop an idea of a product they want to manufacture and sell. They fill out all the paperwork just like they’re really starting a business, and go through a mock interview to obtain a loan from me. I take funds from our program to purchase what they need to manufacture the product. They manufacture the product here at the school using engineering software, 3D printer, 3D scanner, and CNC machine, just like the experts would, and they have to sell the product to someone with a particular percentage for profit. They can keep that profit and split it amongst themselves.”

The manufacturing course will allow students the opportunity to prepare themselves for a great future, and earn a certification that can lead to a promising career. Hurd said that the goal of the CTE programs at the high school level is to prepare students to be the top employees once they enter the workforce.

Perrigan said, “For two decades or even longer maybe in K-12 education, we have been telling every kid, ‘You’ve got to do this so you’re ready for college,’ ‘You’ve got to do that so you’re ready for college,’ and we have been seemingly ignoring that whole population of kids who are not going to go to college. In doing that, we are making them feel like, ‘Well, if you don’t go college, then, you know, it’s a failure,’ and that’s not what it is. It’s been our school board’s goal for several years to put more focus on career and technical education, and that’s what we’re doing.”

According to Travis Staton, President and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, whose Ignite program is set to assist with credential alignment partnerships similar to the one between EMC and BVPS, some school systems have been selecting from a list of more than 600 credentials without aligning their selections with the needs of local employers.

VHS manufacturing student Ethan Fuller operates the CNC machine.

Staton said, “Even though more than 9,600 credentials were earned by students in Southwest Virginia 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.”

Through a new partnership with GO Virginia, United Way of Southwest Virginia’s Ignite program is focusing on firming up connections between schools and employers. The program will align credentialing with needs of local employers, ensure high school training programs match the region’s demand, and develop an internship component to connect student learning to on‐the‐job experience. The firmed-up connections created through Ignite will mean that employers like EMC and schools like Virginia High can easily collaborate for career-aligned learning opportunities.

Perrigan said, “We are preparing students for a great future. What we hope happens because of this partnership with Electro-Mechanical is that we help our local employers gain the employees that they need, and also set a precedent so that we can develop relationships with other employers in our area in other industries. That’s really what K-12 ought to be about. It ought to be about preparing our kids to come back and give back to our community. I think this partnership is going to be a great model.”

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.