A constant challenge for leaders in small and rural communities is to establish ways to attract and retain talented young working-age adults and the jobs they seek.
Here in Halifax, the Career Tech Academy – one of the programs housed at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center – creates pathways and opportunities to help accomplish just that.
The program is a partnership between Halifax County, Mecklenburg County, Charlotte County, Danville Community College and Southside Virginia Community College. The three constituent counties send their technology-interested students to SVHEC’s Career Tech Academy campus for certificate courses facilitated by the two community colleges.
“In addition to information technology, we have automation and robotics, we have energy systems, we have welding and we have work-based learning,” explained Stephanie Robinson, director of the Career Tech Academy. .
Students from all three counties can apply to participate in CTA in their freshman year, senior year, or both. They enroll directly in their preferred class and, if accepted, will receive dual enrollment credits, which apply to high school and college.
Upon successful completion of the course, students graduate – even walking the graduation ceremony at the community college that facilitated their course – and receive official career certificates in one of four technology fields information/cybersecurity, automation and robotics, energy systems or welding. .
Students completing a first year course and wishing to return to CTA for their final year can either obtain a second career certificate for another of the available courses or apply for the work-based learning programme.
“Workplace learning is for seniors only, where we place them in an internship or paid apprenticeship based on their freshman program,” Robinson said.
Seniors admitted to this program can gain valuable and lucrative work experience while in high school, receive credit toward graduation, and better prepare for the job market.
The program features state-of-the-art equipment and an incredibly robust and diverse curriculum that helps students learn more about their chosen field and the various career options it offers.
“We have a partnership with Microsoft, so a lot of that was donated by them to create that pathway as well,” noted Rosa Dunn, curriculum specialist and career advisor at CTA.
In addition to quality education and career certificates, the CTA program also offers its students career counseling and coaching to help them get the most out of their education.
“Their journeys once they left us could either go straight to work, the workforce programs that we have here at the higher education center, or we have the community college here,” Robinson explained.
“We help them with everything from college applications, letters of reference, connecting them with the Foundation to see if there are scholarships available locally,” she said.
She further explained that one of the hopes here is that the Southside area may be able to retain more talented young people who can contribute to the local community and economy.
“Being able to train here and stay here is about building our future within the community, so I think that’s really important,” she said.
Make the most of the experience
One star Career Tech Academy student making the most of the program is Ethan Wilkerson, a 16-year-old from Halifax County High School who is currently taking the Information Technology/Cyber Security course.
Through the class, Wilkerson studied a cross section of the IT field and was able to explore his talents and preferences within it.
“We do cybersecurity, networks, servers, hardware, software, databases like Microsoft Access and here we do labs, hands-on labs,” he listed.
Wilkerson also said they install operating systems, troubleshoot both hardware and software, and even manufacture Ethernet cables.
Wilkerson went beyond the program by exploring his passion for computer programming, encouraged in part by Dunn, whose responsibilities include promoting the CTA.
“I needed something that I could take to schools because obviously we can’t take those things,” Dunn said, referring to computers and other tech equipment in the classroom.
Wilkerson stepped in and began programming computer games that Dunn can then demonstrate to students on portable devices such as tablets.
To date, Wilkerson has designed several games and programs, including a colorful RGB sequence program that could be used for in-store device displays, a mini pumpkin game, a proving ground app that he uses during of game making, a two-player tapping contest simply called My App and Capture the Gem, a two-player fighting game inspired by Capture the Flag.
Wilkerson considers Capture the Gem his greatest achievement to date and has incorporated both attractive graphics and elaborate features such as field advantage cover elements, multiple combat modes and mutually assured destruction when the characters crash into each other.
Wilkerson is currently working on another game called Meme Mashers, where players can defeat bosses and level up their meme-inspired characters.
Noting that he handles all aspects of the design of the game itself, from programming to graphics, Wilkerson learns about the importance of providing such digital products.
“These simple games, which are only 5 or 6 megabytes, take at least a week. There are a lot of things that come into play,” he said.
“You’ve got the actual core programming, you’ve got the animation, and the graphics and sound design and story building…there’s so much that goes into it,” he continued.
Wilkerson will take this passion further next semester when he joins the robotics competition team HCHS Cometbots, which specializes in robotics programming.
Wilkerson intends to become one of the few CTA students to earn two certificates before graduating from high school, as he applies for the program’s automation and robotics course for his senior year.
He indicates that he intends to continue his studies in information technology at the college level, with Old Dominion University currently being his first-choice four-year institution, noting their diverse IT offerings and new program leading to a degree in cybersecurity.
No matter what he chooses, Wilkerson is well on his way to having benefits under his belt by the time he graduates, giving him a plethora of options.
Robinson, who is a parent herself, is very optimistic about what CTA can offer not only to the students, but also to the future of the region.
“I think as a parent, knowing that our students can go straight to work and get these skills and knowledge and credentials without us paying for them, but our school districts are paying for it, I think that’s critical. , because it is life changing for those who may have never been to school,” she said.