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A joint venture among county government, the county’s public schools and local business seems to be paying off. Called Bedford One, the program works to show high school students what area businesses do.
“It was wonderful that this happened on my watch,” commented Sue Montgomery at a business appreciation breakfast Tuesday morning.
Montgomery retired as Bedford County’s director of economic development last year, but still does consulting work. She’s also still involved with Bedford One.
“It’s one of those remarkable things that grew from the ground up,” she said.
Montgomery said that it all started with roundtable meetings that she held with local businesses in 2003. Businesses kept telling her that workforce issues were their biggest problem.
“Students didn’t seem to be prepared to go to work,” she said.
After some consideration, she adopted some features of a program that was up and running in Lynchburg. In 2007, she conducted a survey of high school seniors, asking their interests. Montgomery said that, at first, not all students took these seriously. That changed, in subsequent years, when students realized that the adults were actually going to follow through on the information the surveys were producing.
The next year, juniors were included in the surveys and results were provided to the school division’s career coaches. This was followed by asking businesses to come to the schools, and open their businesses to school tours. According to Roger Cheek, chairman of the Bedford County Board of Supervisors, 19 companies currently do site visits.
“I’d like to give my sincere thanks to the business community for reaching out to the students,” said Dr. Douglas Schuch, the county’s superintendent of schools.
Dr. Schuch said that the reality the school division is facing is that many students, who graduate, aren’t necessarily prepared for either the workforce or college.
“We feel we have an obligation as a school system to do a better job,” he said.
Dr. Schuch said that, prior to beginning work on a school division strategic plan, school staff conducted student focus groups. One of the issues that came out of these is the need for students to be able to see businesses in action. Another fact they discovered is that students who do internships while in high school are more connected to the workforce. He said that the school system hopes to expand internship opportunities.
“We have to have a partnership with the community,” he said.
A major focus of Bedford One, is to show students what sort of job opportunities are available in the area. Many, the Bedford One steering committee members discovered, don’t know this. Jasmine Jordan, a Liberty High School senior, for example, told the Tuesday morning gathering that she didn’t know that anything like TEVA, formerly Barr Labs, existed in Bedford until she took part in a site visit. Michael Moorshead, retired vice president and general manager of Barr Laboratories, said that, in most cases, the teens’ parents don’t know, so they can’t help their children in that respect.
Moorshead also called for a greater emphasis on vocational education.
“I think more of them [students] need to be going into the trades,” he said.
There is a genuine shortage. Bob Ingram, of Griffin Pipe Products, notes that his company can easily find laborers in the current economy, but he struggles to find skilled tradesmen.
“We have such a shortage that we have our own apprenticeship program,” he said.
Under this grow-your-own approach, Griffin pays the cost for apprentices to take classes at Central Virginia Community College. Meanwhile, the students have full-time jobs with Griffin and earn a paycheck. The apprenticeship program takes five years to complete and at the end, the students who successfully complete it, have a state-issued journeyman’s license in a skilled trade.
Griffin is one of the companies that provides site visits for high school students and one former student, who currently took the tour, is working for the company.