ABINGDON — As the sun rose on an autumn morning, business and education leaders from across Virginia’s coalfields gathered for breakfast to celebrate their latest effort to reverse their region’s downward spiral.

Over buttered biscuits and scrambled eggs, they listened to high schoolers explain all that they learned during summer internships doing real and meaningful work. Across town, a parade of buses turned into the Washington County fairgrounds. They were bringing 4,720 seventh-graders from 19 school systems to a career fair aimed at giving them a hands-on look at the types of jobs and careers they can find at home.

Both of these programs are part of Ignite, an initiative created by the United Way of Southwest Virginia to get at the root causes of poverty. Ignite aims to bridge the gulf between what schools teach and what businesses need. In its few short years, it has won recognition and awards and has spawned similar events, including the Career Quest held last month at the Salem Civic Center for 5,000 seventh-graders.

More importantly, Ignite is helping to create hope that the coalfields can alter its trajectory of declining population and rising unemployment.

“The University of Virginia in Charlottesville is projecting a population loss of 20% for southwestern Virginia if current trends go unchecked,” said Scott Robertson, managing editor of The Business Journal of the Tri-Cities Tennessee/Virginia, during the United Way’s Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce breakfast.

Businesses would lose customers and employees. Educators would lose not just students, but funding that is based on headcounts. The jobless rate in Virginia’s westernmost counties is the highest in the state.

“I ask you to look at the other alternative. We don’t let those troubling trends go unchecked. We build on the high quality education that’s being provided in Southwest Virginia by bringing employers and educators even closer together,” he said.

The United Way started Ignite four years ago as a way to develop the workforce in a region of the state with a high percentage of young people who were neither in school nor working.

Travis Staton, the nonprofit’s executive director, said half of high school graduates weren’t pursuing post-secondary education, and of those who did, half dropped out after the first year.

So the United Way asked kids about their plans. In one school system, 67% of the students said they were going to college, but only one in four were taking the classes required to earn an advanced diploma, a prerequisite for attending a four-year college or university in Virginia.

“There’s a disconnect when they aren’t on the right path,” he said.

Nor were students and educators aware of the employers in the region and of the types of skills they require. Staton said the United Way wanted to connect schools and businesses but first had to persuade everyone to set aside parochial interests and work together as a region.

‘Ready for change’

Thirteen years ago, when the United Way in Washington County hired Staton, he said his first task was to stabilize the organization. Next up, the board wanted to look at its mission and move beyond raising and dispersing funds.

He remembers that then-board chairman Sean McMurray, who was CEO of Johnston Memorial Hospital, said, “If we put a million a year into utility assistance from United Way, 50 years from now, we would have spent $50 million. Come year 51, people would still say I need help with my light bill. Did we help them get a job? Did we help them write a resume? Learn how to budget? To be energy efficient?”

Staton said they knew if they wanted to get at the root causes of poverty, they couldn’t go it alone.

“We would never have enough resources locally that we would need in order to leverage outside funds, state grants, federal grants and private foundations,” he said.

So the Washington County organization began approaching neighboring United Ways.

“When you think about United Ways, typically on their boards they have some of the heaviest hitters in the county,” he said. “People were very territorial because they want to make sure money raised in their community stayed in their community. But also, employers serve the entire region. Their workers come from Marion and Weber City, and they don’t want to be divided by which United Way to give a corporate gift to. They want to know they are united together for the region.”

Staton said they pitched the impact that local resources would have in attracting foundation support if they worked as a region. It took a decade.

“We pulled off eight different mergers and acquisitions. That’s a statement to the region that people are ready for change. People are hungry and eager,” he said.

The United Way of Southwest Virginia covers about 20% of Virginia, from the New River Valley and west to the Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky borders.

While they were building the organization, he said, an anonymous donor gave $100,000 with the direction to use it to do whatever was necessary to gain the highest nonprofit ratings obtainable from Charity Navigator and Guidestar.

Today, the United Way works with an annual budget of about $3 million. More than $1 million comes from foundations, Staton said.

It is tackling poverty through the lens of workforce development with programs targeted for health, education and financial stability.

While it supports a number of birth through pre-K and elementary school programs, Staton said it also wanted to make a difference sooner by grooming middle and high schoolers for the types of jobs that are available in the community and for the types that will evolve with technology.

Middle schoolers are required to work on a career path. The United Way has made software available to all the schools to guide students in selecting careers around their interests and then helping them understand the classes they would need.

Business leaders come to the schools and meet with educators and students. Teachers are invited on field trips to employers so they have a better idea of the kinds of jobs available.

Seventh graders are taken to a Careers Expos, where employers have hands-on exhibits for them to try, from scaling utility poles and building trucks to learning about aviation and drones.

No more guessing games

There is still much work to do to connect schools and businesses.

All of the schools offer career readiness credentials meant to give students a resume boost in applying for jobs by showing employers they’ve learned particular skills such as office software, welding, auto mechanics.

Staton said last year the United Way wanted to see if the training matched employers’ needs so they surveyed 100 businesses.

They found not one of the 39 high schools offered 69 credentials that the employers wanted. At one school, nearly half of the credentialed classes offered were not needed by any of the employers.

The schools have their own workforce challenges, and a shortage of funding and equipment. But programs are beginning to change. Becky James, assistant superintendent of Wythe County schools, said Ignite sparked talks with business leaders that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

“If we know what they need, we can dovetail it in. That’s the nice thing about this particular project. All the people are at the table instead of playing guessing games and trying to figure out what we think they need,” she said. “Curriculum folks are at the same table as industry folks.”

Wythe created an industrial maintenance program in response to the needs of Mitsubishi Chemical Advanced Materials.

Tim Felts said his company often couldn’t find qualified base-line operators to run the equipment or technicians who can set up and troubleshoot.

“We want to recruit just more than a warm body. We want technical skills,” he said.

Felts’ son, Conner Manuel, was one of the 36 high school students participating in Ignite’s first summer intern program.

Manuel said he didn’t understand what his dad did, or even what manufacturing was about.

“When I heard ‘manufacturer’ I thought of Volvo, and they make big trucks. But what they [Mitsubishi] do is make plastic, and I got to go out onto the floor and see exactly how it works and what each step is, so now I know it can be a broad spectrum of things,” he said.

Felts said they are trying to get kids excited about manufacturing and the jobs and opportunities that are close to home. His company encourages employees to have their children intern.

Staton said the 36 interns earned a total of $45,000 through 5,000 hours of work. The goal for next year is to place 80 interns with 40 companies. During the breakfast, several of the employers said they were surprised by the value the students brought to their workplaces, and the students talked of all that they learned through working.

All said they would do it again.

By Luanne Rife

Click here to read the article in The Roanoke Times