Frank Ruff: How can our region lead in skills training?

Published 11:36 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Southern and Central Virginians should be proud of our role in leading work skills training. The Growth Virginia region that spans from the North Carolina line north to Buckingham and across Virginia from Brunswick to Henry is leading the rest of Virginia with a program named Great Opportunities in Technology and Engineering Careers, for short GOTEC.

When Growth Virginia started, it was designed to promote the different strengths of each region and let business leaders help guide growth. This was to replace the thinking that all knowledge starts in Richmond. Each region had numerous meetings to determine how to best focus on their region of the state and how best to attract the right industries that fit best for their region considering the assets available.

Additionally, each region was to plan how best to attract and prepare for those new job creators. Our region, Region 3, focused on how best to develop a workforce to meet the training demands of existing openings as well. Our citizens often have good work ethics, but their skills need to be upgraded for today’s opportunities.

This effort led to Dr. Julie Brown, at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, developing the GOTEC concept. As the plan was developed, there was concern that, for too many years, our schools were focused on sending students to college.

‘Students are now being exposed to skills’

The result was not perfect. Some returned to opportunities in the area, but more had to leave the region to find jobs that matched their education. Meanwhile, students who had no interest in college were sent to classes to receive some skills training, but few were trained well enough to take high skilled jobs. Way too many young people saw little opportunity and, therefore, did not focus on their personal future until the end of their time in high school.

With GOTEC, starting in middle school, students are now being exposed to skills currently needed in our communities. Often, this has begun in a mobile unit that visits those schools that don’t yet have the equipment to teach students such things as 3-D printing, welding, precision machining, IT, and robotics among other skills. The goal is to expose students to what opportunities exist in today’s job market.

If they are interested, they can develop their skills to such a degree that they can be certified for many jobs in our area as they graduate from high school.

As an example, Mecklenburg Middle and High School is set up to train in six fields: advanced technology, building trades, agriculture and natural resources, health and human services, business skills, and law enforcement. This training can lead to over fifty career pathways that are needed in the county. I commend Superintendent Paul Nichols and the Mecklenburg School Board for their commitment. Other school systems around us have the same commitment. 

Across Virginia

Other parts of the state are learning of the success this program is having in our region. They are very interested in following our lead. The greatest obstacle currently is attracting the staff needed with the skills and with the ability to teach those skills to young people.

The statewide Virginia Growth and Opportunity Board, GO VA, (on which I serve) recently voted to help expand GOTEC to other regions of the state. To expand, schools are required to follow the blueprint that Dr. Brown has developed.

In turn, the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research will train the instructors needed to fill those positions. In some cases, it will be to train individuals with the needed skills on how to manage in a classroom setting. In other cases, it will train current instructors on the most up to date equipment that is available. Either way, I see a brighter future for the young people of Virginia.

Long term, I hope that not only current students throughout the region will be well prepared for a successful future, but all citizens will have access to these new training tools using our schools in the evening to learn skills to better the life for their families.

Statewide workforce training programs

I am honored that Governor Youngkin has asked me to lead the effort to modernize and streamline the many programs dealing with the workforce throughout the various branches of state government. This is something I am passionate about.

Frank Ruff is a member of the Virginia State Senate. He is now in Richmond for the 2023 General Assembly Session. You can reach him and his office at Sen.Ruff@verizon.net, 434-374-5129, or P.O. Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218.