Localities Look to Expose Students to the Workforce Early in Life

By Amir Vera, The Progress-Index

The workforce of tomorrow.

That’s been the mission of the Tri-Cities over the last decade as programs have begun in different localities to give young adults first-hand experience in a professional setting. The reason for the rise of these programs is the growing trend of young adults in today’s workforce. In 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 27.3 percent of the workforce was between the ages of 16 and 19 years old. The region, however, is looking to start training these young people from an even earlier age.

“Since we started at an early age, we can get accustomed to how things flow in a workplace, how to conduct ourselves and how to dress,” said 18-year-old Jokia Ridley who works as a secretary in the Petersburg City Council clerk’s office. “Most people that are our age don’t really know how to go in, build their own resume or fill out an application by themselves. For us, it’s basically nothing new because we already established ourselves. We know what we need to know once we step out on our own.”

Ridley, like other teens and young adults in the region, is part of a youth workforce initiative. Her program is based in Petersburg and is known by acronym P.O.W.E.R., or Promoting Work Ethics and Responsibility, which looks to help at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 21 years old find employment or train them in the basic principles of professionalism.

“We work on those soft skills because our goal is to empower our students to complete their education and become employable,” said Sheila Trice-Myers, youth services coordinator in Petersburg. “We take them to job interviews and job fairs and we teach them how to present themselves during an interview.”

These soft skills are crucial to a workplace environment. Yet, according to a report from the nonprofit organization Educational Testing Service, young people in today’s world lack these skills. The report states that while this generation — known as Millennials — is the most educated generation, they do lag behind their international peers when it comes to obtaining these soft skills in the workplace.

“A lot of emphasis has been placed on the content and the knowledge of what to do, but not the other things that go along with that knowledge base. For example, I may know my job once I get there but trying to get me there on time may be an issue,” said Sharon Yates, director of secondary and career and technical education in Dinwiddie.

It is because of facts like that, as well as a more competitive job market, that these youth workforce programs have arisen in the Tri-Cities. Colonial Heights also participates in the P.O.W.E.R. program. In both Colonial Heights and Petersburg, the program runs year-round helping students and places them in jobs in city government and local businesses during the summer. Students in both cities are paid during the summer working program.

“The city is benefiting from getting prepared kids to work. They’re getting kids that have received training in work-readiness and professionalism,” said LaToya Harvey-Harrington, youth workforce specialist in Colonial Heights. “The students have the opportunity to explore different professions. They are getting the opportunity to network.”

In the counties, summer programs that help students explore their interests are also held. In Dinwiddie, students participate in what is known as a work-based learning program. Sharon Yates said it is a four-week program where students between the ages of 14 and 18 years old work 16 hours a week in county departments or local businesses.

“Hopefully some of the students will grow an interest to some of the jobs available in the county and once they finish school they can come back,” Yates said.

In Prince George, coming back is just what some students have done. Young students often return to their place of work as volunteers because they may only participate in the county’s work program once. Known as the Youth Workforce Academy, the program allows students in grades eight, nine and 10 to work in county departments after taking evening classes for seven weeks.

“They learned all types of skills related to work experience [such as] how to dress, how to conduct yourself in an interview and how to write a resume,” said Percy Ashcraft, county administrator.

The City of Hopewell also participates in summer workforce enrichment. According to Becky W. McDonough, CEO of the Hopewell/Prince George Chamber of Commerce, while Hopewell does not offer their original program anymore they do focus their workforce development on specific fields. This year the Dream It Do It Technology Camp will be held July 29 to Aug. 1 at the Industrial TurnAround Corporation in Chester to help students understand career opportunities in manufacturing and other skilled trades. The Hopewell/Prince George Chamber of Commerce will be working with Virginia Manufacturers Association, area manufacturers, high education institutions and the school divisions of Hopewell, Prince George and Dinwiddie.

Presently, students have enjoyed their time with the current workforce programs in operation.

“It’s been a good experience for me, I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of people within the education system,” said 17-year-old Thomas Davis, rising senior at Dinwiddie High School who currently works as a receptionist at Dinwiddie Elementary School. He has shown interest in becoming a teacher.

Other students have enjoyed getting out of their comfort zones.

“Whenever you work in a workplace, you want to feel comfortable so you want to try your best to be outgoing and get to know who you’re working with. It’s something I’m trying, getting out of my comfort zone,” said 14 -year-old Nikaylah Brown, who is working as an intern in the Prince George human resources department.

The long-lasting lessons are what students said they took away from the programs.

“It was cool. I enjoyed learning how to make money and how to sell myself under a minute,” said 15-year-old Mikell Peterson, who works as an intern with the Prince George general services department.

While there are still many young adults who do lack the skills needed to obtain employment, these program throughout the Tri-Cities have been successful in exposing a small population to the workplace environment so that they may pass on these lessons they’ve learned in their short, yet valuable, time as professionals.