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‘Shape Our Future’ tourism education initiative to launch statewide

By Matt Young, WV Press Association

CRAIGSVILLE, W.Va. – Gov. Jim Justice, along with several state officials, during a Tuesday press conference at the Nicholas County Career and Technical Center (CTC), announced the launch of the “Shape Our Future” initiative – West Virginia’s new hospitality and tourism education program.  

The new initiative has been developed as part of  the W.Va. Department of Tourism’s statewide “Tourism Works” program, and seeks to develop the workforce for the anticipated growth of tourism jobs over the next three years. Also on hand for the press conference were Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby, State Superintendent of Schools David Roach, and Clinton Burch, technical education officer with the W.Va. Department of Education. 

“This is one of my all time favorite projects,” Ruby told the students and community members in attendance. “We’ve all heard people say that there are no jobs in West Virginia. That’s not true, and today we’re here to talk about the explosive growth in tourism. Today, as we speak, there are over 70,000 people in the state who are working in the tourism industry.”

According to Ruby, tourism-employment in West Virginia is projected to grow by “more than 20,000 openings” each year for the next three years, adding that “about half of those will be management level positions.” As stated in data released by the Higher Education Policy Commission, these “management level positions” are expected to command a salary in the range of $60,000.

“I’m here to tell you that there are going to be a lot of really great opportunities,” Ruby said.

The Tourism Works program is being funded through a $5.1 million grant provided by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. According to a statement from Justice’s office, the “education component” of the program focuses on preparing students for the “substantial increase in job openings,” and connecting them with “viable career opportunities.”

The statement adds that, “Tourism brought in approximately $5 billion in visitor spending last year – a record for the state – along with nearly $300 million in recent private tourism investment and tourism tax credit applications, which will expand tourism infrastructure in the state.” 

Next to the podium was Clinton Burch, who began by praising Justice for the partnerships the governor has created between “business and education,” noting that, “Career technical education in the State of West Virginia would not be possible without partnerships like you’re seeing here today.”

“We want to grow this opportunity across the state,” Burch said. “Last year alone, the State of West Virginia had over 50,000 students participate in a technical course in either high school or middle school. That number has doubled over the last five years.”

“When you hear 20,000 jobs in tourism over the next three years, that’s why we all put our heads together and said, ‘How do we tackle this? How do we bring education to the forefront to really make the economy and the workforce be ready for this demand that’s coming?’” Burch added. “That’s what you’re seeing here today.”

The announcement was made at the Nicholas County CTC in recognition of the students who participated in the construction of the “Almost Heaven” swings that have been placed in scenic locations across the state. Additional projects include the “Good Gauley Coffee Shop,” a student-run coffee shop and roastery, as well as numerous planned future tourism projects.

When Justice addressed the audience, he began by saying, “It’s amazing what you’re doing. Really and truly, you’re absolutely doing greatness like you can’t imagine.”

Justice reciprocated Burch’s praise, and complimented both Ruby and Roach, as well as everyone in attendance, by saying, “The people that are right here amongst us right now are the engines that make this country run all the time.”

According to Justice, the anticipated 21,000 upcoming jobs may “turn into 210,000 in the blink of an eye.” 

“We’re going to start teaching and training our students to be ready for these jobs that are on the way, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Justice added. 

Through the Shape Our Future initiative, hospitality and tourism curriculum will soon be available in schools in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties, and a “Tourism Pathway” program is currently in the pilot-stage. Once fully integrated, the Tourism Pathway program will afford high school students the opportunity to earn college credits and career certifications in hospitality and tourism. 

Through additional partnerships with the W.Va. Department of Economic Development and the state’s Community and Technical Colleges, the Department of Tourism plans to create additional educational opportunities through the Tourism Works program in the coming months. 

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