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By FRED PACE

HD Media

HUNTINGTON - High school students may believe they are ready to enter the workforce after graduation, but according to reports, employers say many students are not.

In an effort to strengthen local economies while providing increased opportunities for career exploration for West Virginia students, the West Virginia Department of Education's College and Career Readiness program has partnered with four county school boards and local chambers of commerce to enhance workforce development. The four counties selected are Wayne, Hardy, Monongalia and Fayette.

This past week school officials, members of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce and other key stakeholders came together at Spring Valley High School's Career and Technical Education (CTE) building to evaluate opportunities for continued collaboration with career readiness and workforce development.

"Public education is the bedrock of workforce development," said Frank Vitale, former member of the West Virginia Board of Education and president and CEO of Forge Business Solutions, who is heading up the project. "We want to bring business and industry to education so that they can have input on how high school students are being educated."

Vitale said the project's goal is to provide a comprehensive, high-quality learning system that empowers students to reach their full potential, promotes their development as productive and responsible citizens, and prepares them to meet workforce and economic demands.

"According to the U.S. News and World Report, 50% of STEM jobs, which are science, technology, engineering and math, in the United States do not require a college degree," he said.

Vitale said Forbes Magazine reported that out of the top 14 hiring qualities in the United States, things like life experience, self-awareness, explorer mindset, common sense and empathy, emotional intelligence, the right personality, ability to innovate and the potential for creativity ranked higher with employers over advanced degrees, which ranked ninth.

"In West Virginia, 7 out of 10 adults, or 70%, have less than a two-year degree. But what we have historically done in education is to try to push our kids into going into four-year programs," Vitale said. "It's not until recently that great school systems, like here in Wayne County, are offering the kind of college and career readiness programs that we are talking about here today."

Vitale said today's approach to college and career readiness must ensure that students understand the career opportunities available in the workforce, give them the education and career and technical training necessary to be successful in their chosen pathway and a clear plan to achieve their goals.

"When I look at student achievement, Wayne County is one of the top achievers of all 55 counties in the state," he said. "Then when I compare the fact that Wayne County Schools ranks 45th in spending per student, that tells me that you are one of the most efficiently successful school districts in this state."

Wayne County Schools Superintendent Todd Alexander said CTE courses and simulated workplace experiences are all part of the efforts to improve workforce development.

"The chamber of commerce has partnered with us and we also work with the Wayne County Economic Development Authority to make sure we are doing everything we can to provide a good workforce to businesses in our region," he said.

It was estimated that 315 to 325 students enrolled in at least one simulated workplace course at Spring Valley High School (SVHS), including 62% of the junior and senior classes.

One of those students is 17-year-old Gabe Yeoman, who will be a senior next year at Spring Valley High School. He said CTE and simulated workplace courses help high school students to better transition into college, post-high school vocational and technical training and those going straight into the workforce after graduation.

"I know someone that took CTE and simulated workplace courses in high school and is now making a six-figure salary," he said. "That's impressive, and it's the kind of goals I have in mind as well."

At SVHS, students in the simulated workplace program are treated as "company employees" while taking a total of four block classes to become CTE completers. The curriculum puts students in the driver's seat of their education.

"I believe the simulated workplace prepares us as high school teenagers for real-world and real-life scenarios that we are then going to be able to apply at a real workplace in the future," Yeoman said.

Participants "work" for and hold different titles within different areas of study and operate the classroom environment as closely as possible to a business. At SVHS the program includes specialties in baking and pastry, accounting, agribusiness, therapeutic services, global logistics, health informatics, careers in education, JROTC, welding, automotive, carpentry and Project Lead the Way (PLTW).

During this week's gathering, Yeoman and other students made presentations that included a biomedical project, reverse engineering of a lawn trimmer and design of a tiny home for a project with Stepping Stones, a local organization designing a tiny home village for youth aging out of the foster care system.

Students from SVHS, along with CTE students from Wayne and Tolsia high schools, designed tiny homes that were energy and cost efficient while also providing adequate living space.

"We designed a 320-square-foot tiny home," said Marshall Fortner, a senior at SVHS. "We created a sink on top of the toilet so that the sink water could also be used to flush it. That design conserved water, while also creating additional space in the bathroom."

Alexander said Wayne County Schools' plan is to continue to expand on CTE and simulated workplace courses and programs.

"These courses are vital to workforce and economic development," he said. "With challenges like declining population, we have to do everything we can with workforce development to make sure that those who are recruiting businesses into the area have the skilled workforce they need to make this area attractive to new businesses. That will bring more jobs and opportunities, which would stabilize our population and enrollment numbers. Economic development is really one of the key strategic things we have to look at with our educational system."

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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