Employablity skills, college readiness draw debate

Published 9:27 am Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Willie J. Bell, Franklin City Public School system superintendent, talked about the rural horseshoe, of which Franklin is a part. Bell said more funding goes to the urban centers, but it’s the rural schools with disadvantaged students that could really use the support. -- Cain Madden | Tidewater News

Willie J. Bell, Franklin City Public School system superintendent, talked about the rural horseshoe, of which Franklin is a part. Bell said more funding goes to the urban centers, but it’s the rural schools with disadvantaged students that could really use the support. — Cain Madden | Tidewater News

Although Bobby Cutchins of Bobby’s Tire and Auto Care said he understood that local industries need employees with technical skills, he said there is another set of skills he’d like to see developed for workers applying to his business.

“We need people to come out ready to work,” Cutchins said to Virginia Community College System Chancellor Glenn DuBois at this past week’s town hall for business and industry leaders. “They need to be able to make eye contact with the customers and understand basic etiquette. They need to be able to count change back, and to treat people like they’d want to be treated.”

DuBois said that all around the state, and particularly in the rural horseshoe to which Franklin belongs, he hears about entry-level applicants coming out lacking the soft skills.

“They don’t show up on time,” he said. “They are not giving it 100 percent, they don’t work well with others, and you can’t ask them to be innovators.”

Virginia is sort of two states. There is the urban base along the coast and the D.C. metro — the golden crescent. Then there is the rest of the state, the Eastern Shore, jumping Hampton Roads and picking back up around Franklin and heading to the mountains — the rural horseshoe.

If the golden crescent were its own state, it would rank No. 2 in educational attainment, as 47 percent have at least an associate degree and only 10 percent of adults did not graduate from high school.

On the other hand, the rural horseshoe, with its population of 2.2 million, would rank dead last in the union with just 27 percent having at least an associate and 19 percent of adults having failed to graduate from high school.

“Virginia looks really good in the big picture,” DuBois said. “It consistently ranks as one of the best places to raise your kids, the best state to do business and the best state to retire, which I hope to do some day.

“I think I have traveled every road in the commonwealth, and that picture is uneven. The picture of success is very uneven.”

Offering a certificate for those soft skills is one thing that DuBois said the system could do, as teachers could certify that students show up on time, put in effort and showcase some of the other soft skills.

These skills are part of the puzzle, but another piece is the value that parents and students place on the bachelor’s degree.

Herb DeGroft, a former member of the Isle of Wight County Public School Board, said it blew his mind when a principal told him that the assumption was that every student would go to college.

“I said, ‘You have to be out of your mind. Around 50 percent don’t make it,’” DeGroft said.

A student from a family of teachers decided that he wouldn’t go to college. Instead, he’d look at the power plant in Surry and see what he could do.

“Today, without spending 10 years beyond high school, he’s a fully qualified control operator making six figures,” DeGroft said. “That’s the kind of initiative we need, but it has to start at the family level, and how do we undo two generations of brainwashing about having to go to college?”

DuBois said that attitude is slowly changing. As students are going off to college, failing, ending up working in retail or coming back home to live, parents are starting to wonder what their $100,000 debt paid for.

It’s not all on the parents though, as what child wants to grow up and be a welder or a truck driver?

“They are mostly knuckle heads, and when asked about what they want to be, they want to be an actor,” DuBois said. “Our career coaches need to be full time. They need to at least work with ninth graders, and I say go back further than that.

“We need to work on career interests, as by the time young people are getting to college, they still don’t know. They usually just settle by default on something.”

More to that topic, Alvin Blow said he spent 22 years in vocational education, which today is referred to as career technical education. He said the system spent too much time emphasizing the top students who were going to do well no matter what.

“Nobody emphasizes middle America,” Blow said. “Now you can see what that has cost us in society with a lack of a middle class.”

Franklin City Public School System Superintendent Willie J. Bell Jr. said money is decreasing everywhere in education, but one tremendous drop was CTE, and particularly in the rural horseshoe.

“I believe if we are going to truly address this, we have to look at that horseshoe,” Bell said. “That’s where most of our kids are that need an opportunity. We need to look at funding for smaller divisions, like Franklin, Southampton, Sussex and Brunswick.

“Our funding has decreased in career tech, but is increasing on the academic side. It’s almost like we are talking out of two sides of our mouth.”

DuBois said the legislature has more needs than it has resources to fund, and because of that he felt like K-12 education and community college systems needed to partner better.

“We have things, you have things. We have people and you have people,” he said. “What more can we do with the resources we have?”

Community colleges should not wait for students to get to them to begin work on college readiness.

“Half of the students come to us not ready for college courses,” he said. “They end up in remediation courses, and what happens? They end up demoralized because they are not in college classes and many end up dropping out.”

DuBois hoped that once he left, the community would get back together to talk this out at the Regional Workforce Development Center.

“People aren’t running to Richmond to make things happen anymore,” DuBois said. “They are coming together and asking how to solve their problems.

“This is a good place where the community can roll up their sleeves and have these conversations. We need to bring our resources, our leaders and our people together to make a commitment to change the world.”

For more on DuBois’ workforce development town hall, see page B1.