Dulce Garcia was a junior in Chesterfield County Public Schools during the 2021-22 academic year when she decided to steer her education toward a trade, rather than a college degree.
Becoming a beautician or hair stylist seemed like the obvious choice, initially, she said.
“Last year, my first option was cosmetology, but it was, like, too girly, and I didn’t like it,” Garcia said while attending the Trades and Industry Career Fair at the CCPS Career and Technical Center in late March.
The teenager spent two weeks exploring cosmetology at the school district’s Courthouse Road technical center, one of the two campuses available to CCPS students.
What changed her mind, she said, was her mother’s example as a tradeswoman.
“I wanted to be like my mom, because my mom works in an insulation company,” Garcia explained. “And sometimes I help her, so I want to be like her.” The student contacted administrators with CCPS’s Career and Technical Education program to change her track toward engineering, except that program was full. So she switched to the CTC’s electricity program, but then was redirected again.
“My electricity teacher of last year – he was friends with my plumbing teacher – and he was like, ‘You should apply for plumbing,’ so I did it.”
At the job fair hosted March 31 at the Hull Street Road campus of the Career and Technical Center, Garcia was dozens of Chesterfield high school students who signed up to shop careers with participating companies who were in turn shopping for young, trade-ready and trainable workers.
Karen Johnson, a career experience consultant for CCPS, coordinated the job fair and said the event reflects a fast-evolving focus of the school district: to help young people identify and pursue careers that match their strengths and interests.
For dozens of students that day, the career fair was the culmination of that process and a prelude to the ultimate goal – an interview and a job offer.
“All the students in those trade programs – in electricity, plumbing, HVAC, carpentry, advanced engineering, manufacturing, mechatronics and precision machining – there’s about 140 of them today,” Johnson said. “They’re going to go in and see all the employer partners and visit with them.”
Throughout the center’s spacious meeting rooms, local companies such as Proseal America, Woodfin, Atlantic Constructors, Dominion and Davis & Green Services were stationed at display booths to offer students direct access to professionals in their target industries.
In a couple rooms of the event space, potential employers were set up to offer one-on-one interviews in 15-minute slots, whether students chose to network or to earnestly seek a job.
“That could lead to a summer internship. It could lead to a job offer right away,” Johnson said. “We had some students that are seniors in the electricity program that are ready for full-time employment and they could get an offer today.”
Dulce Garcia said she started with an interview at the event with Davis & Green Services, which offers plumbing, electrical work, heating and air service. Later, she made her way to the company’s display booth and talked to Christopher Manzelli, a master electrician.
Manzelli spelled out for Garcia her options after graduating CCPS with her foundational coursework in electricity and plumbing, noting that she could complete her certifications as an employee.
“You earn as you learn,” he said.
He emphasized to high school senior the economic leverage she was acquiring by moving from technical education directly into a career path. “You’re already ahead of your peers,” he said, “one year into a trade. … While your peers are in their junior year of college, you’ll have a [certification] card in your pocket, running a truck, making money.”
When the CCPS Class of 2022 graduated in late May, 57 of them were already committed to jobs across 42 different companies.
That school-to-workforce pathway that students find at CCPS – having the option of bypassing college for a quicker entry into a career – is an example Chesterfield administrators offer to other Virginia localities.
On site for the career fair was Erika Temple, a coordinator for work-based learning for the state, and an employee of CCPS in the same capacity until last year, Johnson noted.
“One of the reasons I invited her today,” she said, “was to see how Chesterfield was running the event so that it could be emulated in other counties.”
Through its technical center, CCPS has built a track record with dozens of companies throughout the region, including Proseal America, a global packaging machinery manufacturer based in Chesterfield. Ted Jones, Proseal’s training and development manager, said the technical center has sent 25 apprentices into its employment.
“We have massive respect for what CTC achieves,” he said, “and how they train [students]. There’s a much higher level of maturity than the average high school senior because of the environment that’s created. It’s a work environment here.”
He said that CCPS students graduating with technical center training consistently have well-matched skill level and adaptability to what we do.”
CCPS’s career and technical program has leaned into the concept of work-based learning to the point that its roster of 10 career experience consultants covering all county schools outnumbers the teams in sizable localities such as Fairfax and Loudon, according to Katie Stokes, the department’s coordinator.
Stokes says that a statewide consortium of work-based learning administrators regard Chesterfield as a successful model for best practices and that the county’s program is a leader in Virginia.
Johnson adds: “It is a state initiative to expand work-based learning in elementary, middle and high schools. … Lower-level experiences – like a career fair – could start in an elementary school, start planting those seeds and then as you move throughout your high school experience, you gain more in-depth knowledge of what a career pathway could look like through an externship, a youth registered apprenticeship, clinical experience and things like that.”
One of the region’s largest employers, Dominion, also keeps its antenna pointed to that ready workforce and has partnered with CCPS to help prepare students with mock interviews.
The energy company’s coordinator of workforce development and planning, Matt Kellam, set up shop in the CTC’s auditorium at the March event to network with students, answer questions, build familiarity and recruit prospects.
“One of the things that’s really important,” Kellam said, “is that we will always have workforce needs and demands, and in order to create the right awareness about who we are as a company or an industry, we have to make sure we get in front of those audiences, whether it’s high school students, colleges, military. … They don’t always identify the breadth of opportunities that we have.”
Like Jones, Kellam credits CCPS with preparing its students to engage with employers. “I know the caliber of the curricula that they’re going through,” he said, “and I know the schools and the instructors do a really good job of making sure that their curriculum and certificates are industry-aligned.”
Johnson highlights the push and pull of the CCPS relationship with local employers, who must go through an onboarding process with the career program to prove a commitment to the future if its students.
“To be onboarded, it means they’re wanting to work with us in work-based learning. They want to offer our students this type of experience, like a career fair, a job shadow, an externship, an internship, a youth-registered apprenticeship,” Johnson said. “So they want to partner with us, and they want to develop students. We don’t want to encourage partners to come in and use it like poaching like employees. This is about developing kids. So they’ve all agreed to be our partners in that.” ¦