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How creativity and connections are putting high school diploma holders into high-paying jobs

  • Joanna
  • August 30, 2016

Now, she said, she recognizes that building workforce opportunities is all about creativity and passion. “It’s exciting,” she said. “The more we do this, the more opportunities we can see.”

Earn a high school diploma, get a commercial driver’s licence and pass a test. Do those three things and you’re in good shape for a job that starts at $22 an hour — and in which many people are making six-figures within a few years of being hired.

Yet as enticing as that might sound, Dominion Virginia Power was worried. It’s baby boomer-heavy workforce was aging quickly toward retirement — and about 50 percent of its new job applicants were failing to pass the Construction and Skilled Trades Selection System exam, a requirement for most utility jobs.

Enter Teri Barnett, the adult education program coordinator at Alexandria Public Schools in Virginia. Barnett felt her district’s adult ed programs were heavy with training opportunities that seemed to interest more women, and she desperately wanted to find career pathway training opportunities for more young men in her community. When a colleague told her about Dominion’s hiring struggles, a light went off.

Barnett reached out to Dominion and a number of other utility providers and contractors. “Everybody realized the need,” she said. “Everyone was willing to meet.”

It wasn’t long before the first 18-student cohort was in a local high school classroom for a 16-week utility jobs “boot camp.” In October a second cohort will begin a more streamlined 10-week course.

And Barnett is dreaming big.

“My vision would be multiple classes year round,” she said. “Putting a couple hundred candidates in front of the employers a year — that would be beautiful.”

Vital to making that happen, of course, was being able to offer meaningful curriculum that addressed industry needs and prepared participants for the test. When Barnett learned that the Center for Energy Workforce Development was already sponsoring a Energy Industry Curriculum Center, she knew she was off to a good start. Her district hired a teacher to facilitate the class — and worked with utility companies to provide guest speakers, tours, practice tests and mock interviews.

Barnett said she’s now on the lookout for similar opportunities to connect industries in need with ready-to-go workers — and the former teacher and school administrator laughed when she recalled how reluctant she was, at first, to move into adult ed. “I thought that only meant night school,” she said.