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Education

Loudoun Education Leaders Push Through the ‘Paper Ceiling’

The Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce brought together business, education and government leaders Friday morning to discuss the state of workforce development, as part of its 2022 PolicyMaker series.

Northern Virginia Community College President Anne Kress and Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler highlighted the ways their organizations are helping students find career paths that work for them—for many, leading them down a trade path and not to a four-year college.

Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College speaks at the Loudoun Chamber Policy Maker series about preparing the next generation of Loudoun’s workforce on Sept. 16. [Alexis Gustin/Loudoun Now]

“There are diverse career pathways that students can complete in total at our Loudoun campus. Some of them you might expect and some you might not,” Kress said, highlighting data center operations, veterinary technicians, horticulture, and music technology to name a few.

She introduced the concept of the “paper ceiling,” and said it’s something they fight against at NOVA. She said many jobs require a bachelor’s degree to start, but she said NOVA’s new Business Education Center—a one stop shop for employers to engage with the school to help them understand what type of workforce an employer needs—helps them look at skills the student actually needs.

She said part of what they do in the Business Education Center is scrape the skills from an employer’s position and try to find the best fit. “It’s almost customized, individualized, it’s almost a prescription for helping fill these needs,” Kress said.

“It’s interesting to me how a bachelor’s or above is often the entry level criteria for a job even though at the very same time there is national survey after national survey that says business and industry leaders don’t believe that students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees actually have the skill sets needed to be employed by their organization,” Kress said. She said that often business leaders tell her they see applicants who are over-credentialed and under-qualified. “So at NOVA we really focus on skills, and we focus on skills across the spectrum,” Kress said.

She said NOVA offers everything from a very short-term credential that someone can earn in four months or less and will get them hired the next day, to associate’s degrees in career and technical education pathways as well as information technology and healthcare trades and others that lead to immediate employment, all requiring less than four years to complete, and all in demand and well paying.

“Students are getting that message, and I’d encourage all of you as folks who think about hiring people that a bachelor’s degree might not be what you need,” Kress said.

She mentioned how on Thursday she met with a global clinical research firm that for a long time never hired anyone without a master’s degree. She said now they have 84 openings, and they are now looking to build an experimental track to get people who are interested in biostatistics or being a clinical research analyst and looking to hire NOVA students and move them along this track.

Kress said at NOVA, they analyze and mine data to understand what the trades mean to Northern Virginia, and are building a trade school at their Manassas campus because there is such a need for trades in the area. She said it’s important to make sure when they start a student in a career path that there is a real career at the end.

“I strongly encourage you, and maybe even plead with you, to think about who you are hiring and how you can reimagine that workforce pipeline, because in so doing that, you are going to expand those opportunities not just for our students to grow and prosper, but for your business to do the same,” she said.

Ziegler spoke about the opportunities given to students while attending county schools. He said since becoming superintendent last year he has been pushing to expand educational opportunities in schools, including the new International Baccalaureate program coming to Heritage High School and Loudoun Valley High School, a dual language immersion program that will be at Sanders Corner and Potowmack Elementary Schools next fall, and a future health science academy at one of the high schools.

He spoke about empowering students as one of the four main goals of the division’s new strategic plan, the “One LCPS 2027 Plan for Excellence.”

“One of the things I insist on as we develop partnerships with these pathways is that students leave high school with an industry-recognized credential. So, they leave with an opportunity to earn and learn, and continue their education with a credential in hand,” he said. “So in addition to getting rid of the paper ceiling we will need some help with the age ceiling, because when an 18-year-old comes to you with that certification, they are really qualified to enter the workforce.”

Dan Smith, chief of staff for Loudoun County Public schools sits with School Board member Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian) at the Loudoun Chamber breakfast on Sept. 16. [Alexis Gustin/Loudoun Now]

He pointed out at Monroe Advanced Technology Academy, there is a wait list for every single program for the first time in several years. Those programs include welding, auto mechanics, biomedical technology and pharmacy tech.

“We know that the need is great and that students want to be ready for a career, and college isn’t the only option anymore,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler said the most recently published data showed 98% of county high school students graduate and 85% enroll in some sort of post-secondary education. He also pointed out that over 14,000 total credentials were earned in 2022, 2,800 students completed the CTE pathway, and 45 students left school with their state license, meaning students graduated ready to go to the workplace.

He credited the success of the programs to the excellent business partners. Ziegler said they want to highlight those partnerships by recognizing the students who are going directly into the workforce this year with a signing day, similar to when an athlete signs with a college. They will be students who have completed the career technical education sequence or have an industry certification, according to Ziegler.

“When you hire somebody, we celebrate you, we celebrate that student and we recognize that that is just as much an achievement as gaining an athletic or academic scholarship,” said Ziegler.

Ziegler said the preparation to succeed in Loudoun County schools starts early.

“Our career thinking starts in elementary school. We start students thinking about problem solving, we get them thinking in logical terms and sequential terms. And we start them programming at a very young age,” Ziegler said. “We are starting to think about career readiness from the time a student arrives with us in kindergarten all the way through when they graduate. We think that is important to the success.”

Ziegler said the division continues to look at ways to expand pathways through various programs like medical science technology, but said they recognize the need is there for programs like auto mechanics, HVAC technicians and construction technology.

“We recognize we need to rebuild these programs. Years ago, we had all these programs at school and through the ’90s we kind of got brainwashed by this college-only pathway. Now we are trying to swing that pendulum back, so we are preparing kids to leave high school ready to enter the workforce,” said Ziegler.

Panelists also including Loudoun Chamber Board of Directors Chairman and Modern Mechanical owner Shawn Mitchell and Dominion Hospital Vice President of Human Resources Thuy Nguyen also took questions and discussed changes in the workforce, including ways each of their organizations are developing different career paths for those interested in high wage, in-demand jobs that don’t require a college degree.

The next PolicyMaker Series for the Loudoun Chamber is Oct. 20 at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne and will feature a debate between Virginia’s 10th Congressional District candidates, Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA-10) and challenger Hung Cao (R).

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