By Brianna Hatch
Rockbridge County, eager to meet the national demand for mechanics and firefighters, plans to upgrade career and technical education programs.
Supervisor of Career and Technical Education (CTE) Paige Owens said that plans to add a fire and rescue program, and expanding the EMT program, are in direct response to these shortages.
“We’ve already set up a couple meetings with some of our local industries to try to see what we can do to help their needs for employees and training,” Owens said.
There is a national shortage of vehicle technicians in both independent shops and larger manufacturing facilities, according to Inside Business. The Virginia Fire Chiefs Association reports a statewide shortage of firefighters.
The Floyd S. Kay Career and Technical Education Center, located next to Rockbridge County High School, will get a major facelift in the spring of 2023. The estimated budget of the project is $7.7 million, according to a feasibility study done by Quinn Evans, a Richmond architect firm.
The Board of Supervisors and school board are still working on how to fund the project. Instead of raising taxes, the county could take on new debt once loans for earlier elementary school renovations are paid, said Chief Operations Officer Randy Walters.
“The building is nearly 50 years old at this point. It really needs to be updated,” Rockbridge County Superintendent Phillip Thompson said. “Those programs have grown since that building was built, and it truly needs to be reconfigured for a more modern educational space that fits the needs of our students in the 21st century.”
According to Walters, the next step is to choose an architect and engineering firm. Then, for six to eight months, they will meet with teachers and stakeholders to design the building. The plans will then be presented to the school board and board of supervisors for their approval to move forward.
While the Kay building needs basic structural updates like plumbing, electricity and tiling, the main goal of the renovation is to make the learning space more flexible.
“We have building and trades, we have auto mechanics, we have auto body, but those classrooms can’t truly be switched out to whatever the need is,” Walters said. “With the new building, we want to have as much flexible learning space as we can so that 10 years from now, if we have to build a specific product that’s in high demand in our area, our high school can easily adapt to train students for jobs like that.”
Walters said the district has a Career and Technical Advisory Committee, composed of local businesses and manufacturing plants, that meets several times each year.
“We meet with them and ask: what programs do we need to train our kids? What jobs do we need to be training our kids for?”
Both Thompson and Owens said that student demand and use of CTE programming in Rockbridge County High School has increased in recent years. According to Owens, enrollment in CTE classes is 2,173 students.
Owens said this is the highest enrollment in CTE he has seen in his 25 years of working in the building. He thinks this is due to a combination of factors: one being more students interested in careers right after high school.
“There are a lot of kids who just prefer to do hands-on type activities,” Thompson said. “They look forward to having those job skills to be able to go out directly to the workforce and work in a field that we can get them a certification for right there at Rockbridge County High School.”
Another factor is COVID-19, Owens said.
“We didn’t have as many kids in the program [last year], because they weren’t able to get a true experience from that program,” he said. “Now that we are back and able to offer everything, we are getting more kids coming back in.”
But there is still a “stigma” associated with the Kay building, Thompson said.
“When you go into that older part of the building, you can just tell it’s old. It’s old tile, it’s old flooring, it just needs to be updated badly,” he said. “And so, a lot of kids just don’t really want to go to that part of the building, they’d rather stay on the academic track and do those academic classes.”
Thompson thinks the new modern renovations will help engage and draw more students, even college-bound ones, to CTE classes.
“There are exciting programs that many kids will take an interest in, and if it takes an updated building and updated facilities in order to be able to draw them into that I think that’s a win-win for everybody,” Thompson said.
Rockbridge County is also focused on increasing student awareness of CTE programming to draw more interest.
“We know that in order for those programs to be successful, those educators, those teachers and those programs had to sell their product. They almost have to recruit kids in there and show them that this could be an exciting option for them to explore,” Thompson said.
Rockbridge County hosts CTE fairs to spark middle school interest. They also have partnerships in the community that allow CTE students to work in a local business of their career section, to apply the skills they have and learn more on the job.