One perennial challenge for small and rural community leaders is to establish ways to attract and retain young, talented, working-age adults, and the jobs that they seek.
Here in Halifax, the Career Tech Academy — one of the programs housed at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center — is creating 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 tech-interested students to the Career Tech Academy campus at SVHEC to take certificate classes facilitated by the two community colleges.
“Besides information technology, we have automation and robotics, we have energy systems, we have welding and we have work-based learning,” explained Career Tech Academy director Stephanie Robinson.
Students from the three counties can apply to participate in CTA during their junior year, senior year or both. They apply directly to their preferred class, and if accepted will receive dual-enrollment credits, which apply at both the high school and college levels.
Upon successful completion of the course, students graduate — even walking in the graduation ceremony at whichever community college facilitated their course — and receive official career certificates in one of the four subject areas of information technology/cybersecurity, automation and robotics, energy systems or welding .
Students who complete a junior-year course and wish to return to CTA for their senior year may either earn a second career certificate for another one of the available courses or apply to the work-based learning program.
“Work-based learning is only for the seniors, where we put them in a paid internship or apprenticeship depending on what their year-one program is,” Robinson indicated.
Seniors admitted to this program can gain valuable and lucrative work experience while still in high school, receiving credits toward their diploma while better preparing themselves for the job market.
The program features state-of-the art equipment and an impressively robust and diversified curriculum that helps students learn about their chosen field and the different career options within it.
“We have a partnership with Microsoft, so a lot of this was donated from them to create that pathway as well,” noted Rosa Dunn, curriculum specialist and career advisor at CTA.
In addition to the quality instruction and career certificates, the CTA program also offers its students guidance and career coaching to help them make the most of their education.
“Their pathways once they leave us could either be going straight into work, the workforce programs that we have here at the higher ed center, or we have the community college here,” Robinson expounded.
“We help them with everything from college applications, reference letters, we connect them with the Foundation to see if there’s scholarships locally,” she said.
She further explained that one of the hopes here is that the Southside region 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, that’s building our future within the community, so I think that’s really important,” she said.
Making the most of the experience
One star student at the Career Tech Academy who is making the most of the program is Ethan Wilkerson, a 16-year-old Halifax County High School junior currently taking the information technology/cybersecurity course.
Through the class, Wilkerson has studied a cross-section of the IT field and has been able to explore his talents and preferences within it.
“We do cybersecurity, networking, servers, hardware, software, databases like Microsoft Access and right here we do labs, hand-on labs,” he listed.
Wilkerson also said they install operating systems, troubleshoot both hardware and software and even make ethernet cables.
Wilkerson has gone above and beyond the curriculum by exploring his passion for computer programming, prompted in part by Dunn, whose responsibilities include promoting CTA.
“I needed something that I could take out to schools, because we can’t take these things obviously,” Dunn said, referring to the computers and other tech equipment in the classroom.
Wilkerson stepped up to the plate 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 Pumpkin Mini Game, a testing field app that he uses when creating games, a two-player tapping contest simply called My App and Capture the Gem, a two-player combat game modeled off of Capture the Flag.
Wilkerson regards Capture the Gem as his greatest accomplishment to date and has incorporated both attractive graphics and elaborate features such as home-field advantage cover elements, multiple modes of combat and mutually assured destruction when the characters crash into each other.
Wilkerson is currently working on another game called Meme Mashers, in which players can defeat bosses and level up their meme-inspired characters.
Noting that he does every aspect of the game design itself, from the programming to the graphics, Wilkerson is learning just how much effort goes into making such digital products.
“These simple games, that are only like 5 or 6 megabytes, take at least a week. There’s a lot that goes into it,” he said.
“You have the actual core programming, you have animation, graphic design and sound design and story building … there’s so much that goes into it,” he continued.
Wilkerson is going to take this passion further next semester when he joins the HCHS Cometbots robotics competition team, specializing in robotics programming.
Wilkerson intends to become one of the so-far-rare CTA students who earn two certificates before graduating high school, as he is applying for the program’s automation and robotics class for his senior year.
He indicates that he intends to continue pursuing information technology at the collegiate level, with Old Dominion University as his top-choice four-year institution at present, noting their diversified IT offerings and new cybersecurity degree program.
No matter what he chooses, Wilkerson is on track to have advantages under his belt by the time he graduates that will yield a plethora of options for him.
Robinson, who is herself a parent, is very optimistic about what CTA can offer not just for students, but for the region’s future as well.
“I think that as a parent, knowing that our students can go straight to work and get these skills, knowledge and degrees without us paying for it, but our school districts pay for it, I think that’s essential, because this is life-changing to those who might not have ever gone to school,” she expressed.