Good jobs are going begging for lack of qualified workers while college graduates with anvils of student debt and no marketable skills are marooned in their parents’ basements.
How did things get so out of whack, and what can public schools do to remedy the situation?
Those topics and more were explored at a business and education roundtable held at Virginia Farm Bureau headquarters in West Creek on May 25. The event was sponsored by Goochland County Public Schools (GCPS), the Goochland Chamber of Commerce, and the county Department of Economic Development. Representatives from area companies, including Luck Stone and Wegman’s, participated as folks in work boots rubbed shoulders with those in business attire discussing workforce needs.
Goochland Superintendent Dr. Jeremy Raley, who literally—sports analogy intended—hit the ground running when he took the school division first chair not quite eleven months ago, asked local employers what qualities they find most important in new hires. “We want your input to design a better K-12 experience,” Raley said.
Education, said Raley is changing. He asked those present to think back to their time in school and recall what it looked like. No longer do students sit in neat rows of desks listening while a teacher lectures at the front of the room. Their desks may be clustered for group projects that develop teamwork and other collaboration skills while absorbing coursework, or they might be using power tools, or learning how to operate a backhoe on a simulator.
A crucial component of education, teachers, who, as one person said, “challenge you, push you, and make your brain hurt,” has not changed.
Raley thanked the School Board for encouraging and supporting teachers who take risks and use innovative techniques to engage students in learning as they “inspire the next generation to make a positive impact”, one of the goals of the GCPS strategic plan. (Visit http://goochlandschools.org/ to read about all the great things are schools are doing to “maximize the potential of every learner”.)
Providing all students with hands on exposure to a wide array of subject matter, many deeply involved with technology, expands their horizons. From the horticulture program where students grow hydroponic lettuce served in the cafeteria, to the Marine Jr. ROTC program that teaches leadership and personal responsibility, our kids are exposed to job specific skills and develop a positive work ethic.
Dr. John Hendron, Director of Technology and Innovation, said that next year, each GCPS student will have a device, either tablet or laptop. They will also have access to 3D printers. Using technology to collaborate on problem solving mimics real word activities.
Hendron used the prevalent technology of the smart phone to poll the attendees about the qualities they seek most in new employees. Choosing from a list of qualities, they responded by text. The winners were: positive work ethic; critical thinking, problem solving; and customer service.
While some jobs require a specific skill set, the ability to learn new tasks coupled with the work ethic is highly valued. “Even if an employee is highly skilled, if they have no desire to be there and work, I can’t use them,” one man said.
The discussion lamented the millennial reluctance to talk to customers. “The ability to verbally communicate is a powerful tool that they do not have,” one attendee observed.
Programs like the GCPS career and technical education (CTE) also give students the opportunity to explore careers that do not require expensive four year degrees. These include the heavy equipment operator course, one of two in Virginia, that offers a pathway to licensure and good jobs close to home, right out of high school.
Parents, said one person, are the biggest deterrent to technical education. They want the status of a college degree, even if their children might be better suited to a more hands on career.
Raley said that GCPS seeks to make learning an authentic experience that embeds essential real world skills into the K-12 learning experience.
While that sounds like buzzword gobbledygook, on a visit to Goochland Middle School last year, GOMM glimpsed classrooms where: boys learned how to plan menus and craft a household budget; students, boys and girls, used lathes and bandsaws to build robots; groups of students gathered around computers learning geography; and others worked individually and collectively to solve problems.
Partnership between schools and employers can pay huge dividends for our students and community.