By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Those with the West Virginia Department of Education are preparing students for a wide-range of workforce opportunities, but they can always use extra help – especially from the state’s business and industry leaders.
Clinton Burch, technical education officer for the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE), told members of the Senate Workforce Committee on Friday that prior legislation has helped them achieve many goals relating to career and technical education (CTE); however, a new initiative, designed to get students out of the classroom and receive actual job experience, is going to require more of a collaborative effort.
The Classroom 2 Career initiative, resulting from the passage of Senate Bill 303 – the Students’ Right to Know Act, gives students the chance to learn from those who actually work in a career they are interested in, Burch explained. Students get the opportunity to receive hands-on learning, take a national credentialing exam, and enter the workforce upon graduation.
“We are trying to work with as many businesses and associations from around the state to truly create internship opportunities for students,” Burch said, adding that a recent questionnaire shows 98% of the state’s students did not want to move more than 50 miles from their hometown.
“They want to live here, in West Virginia,” Burch noted. “They want to be here. So, we are trying to make those connections.”
He further explained that the WVDE began this initiative by working with individual county boards of education, which are often in need of personnel such as bus drivers, mechanics and secretaries. Students get to complete an internship while still in high school and, following graduation, “walk right into a career.”
“What we are hoping is that the same type of model can be carried into some of our other industries that are lacking in workforce needs,” Burch said. “So, we are really trying to wrap that up in our Classroom 2 Career initiative.”
A similar program, Discover Your Future, is designed for middle school students.
Following the passage of House Bill 4790 during the 2020 legislative session, career and technical education programs were allowed to be taught in middle schools, Burch explained. This program is now available in 32 counties.
“What this does is, this introduces students to the 16 national career clusters,” Burch said. “It’s not to say, ‘Hey, you need to decide on what you want to be when you get older.’ It’s designed to actually introduce them to career literacy – meaning they get to see all of the options that are available.”
Guest speakers, field trips and partnerships with high school counterparts are all a part of the program, Burch noted, adding that the WVDE is now collecting a list of business and industry experts who wish to speak to students about career options.
Programs like Discover Your Future, and others, “gets kids excited about thinking about their future – thinking about careers and futures right here in West Virginia,” Burch said.
According to Burch, over 50,000 students in grades six through 12 participated in at least one technical education course during the 2021-2022 school year. Of those, over 7,000 students specialized in a particular career field while in high school, such as welding, construction and nursing – with 53% choosing to pursue post secondary education, and 44% entering the workforce at entry-level positions. The remaining 3% entered the military.
“Almost half of them were entering into the workforce right out of high school, because the programs that we offer in high school now actually are aligned with industry,” Burch noted.
Additionally, there are 25 ACE (Advanced Centers for Education) located throughout West Virginia, which offer post-secondary career and technical education, such as training to become an LPN or receive a CDL as well as 71 adult education centers.
Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker – himself a vocational program graduate – expressed his appreciation for the passion Burch displayed toward CTE programs, saying they “kept me interested in school and wanting to go to school.”
“This day and age it seems like your welding and electricians are your big paying jobs with little educational cost when they are done,” Smith noted, before Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, added, “I knew probably in 7th or 8th grade that I wasn’t going to college.”
He said that a vocational program kept him in school and “out of trouble.”
In response to a question from Committee Chairman Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, regarding adult CTE enrollment numbers, Burch noted that “last year alone, we had over 30,000 folks go through some part of our adult education program.”
Adults from ages 18-80 have entered into these programs, Burch continued. Many courses helped them train to become an EMT or a firefighter while others gained the skills to pass a citizenship test or learn English as a second language – an especially large program in Putnam County.
“We’ve got to get the workforce propped up for the future,” Rollans said. “What you all are doing is going to turn the corner for workers in West Virginia. So, we are behind you. Whatever we can do to prop up the programs and expand things – we’ve gotta get people into the workforce so they sense value in their lives and they can be good citizens.”