Technical education center to be strategically focused on ‘real jobs’

The Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center is in search of a new model to prepare students for the workforce, and Grant Tate is on a mission to find it.

Tate, a tech executive turned consultant who heads the Charlottesville-based firm the Bridge Ltd, is leading CATEC through a strategic planning process that he believes can transform the current state of vocational training in the region.

“All the forces are coming together on this issue,” Tate said, citing the Orange Dot Project—a local 2011 family self-sufficiency study—and recent state and national conversations about the wage gap between high- and low-income earners.

“The thing that was brought out [of those conversations] was that we need vocational training to help start to bridge this gap so people can get real jobs,” Tate added. “So the national pressure is coming, the state pressure is coming, and the local pressure is coming.”

At the heart of this momentum, Tate said, is the large numbers of people who are unprepared to fill the needs of a rapidly-changing economy, which, in addition to being heavily influenced by technology, will require workers to develop soft skills like networking and communications.

“It’s not just showing up on time and all the things we hear about, it’s also how we develop people’s confidence and social skills to be able to push their way through what I think is a complicated system,” Tate said. “We’ve got to find a way to help them, and part of it is not just offering the courses, it’s giving them the navigation tools.”

To gather input on what the new model might be, Tate is currently meeting with a cross section of about 30 area employers. Among them are Crutchfield, the University of Virginia, Martha Jefferson Hospital, and some of the area’s wineries—businesses, Tate said, that aren’t currently aligned with CATEC.

“I would say that the result so far is that the interest in CATEC is huge,” Tate said. “And the businesses aren’t looking at it from a narrow, self-interest point of view…they’re also concerned about how we develop people in their career paths.”

One theme rising from the talks is stronger alignment between CATEC and Piedmont Virginia Community College.

CATEC and Albemarle School Board Chair Steve Koleszar said the closer the two entities can work together, the better.

“We’re trying to create a seamless connection rather than a duplication of effort,” Koleszar said. “For example, we have a Certified Nursing Assistant course at CATEC, and then if a student decides that they don’t want to stop there, they could go on to take further nursing to become an RN at PVCC.”

Valerie Palamountain, Dean of Workforce Services at PVCC, welcomes the partnership’s growth and hopes it is forward-thinking.

“What I’m hoping to see come out of this strategic plan is what’s new on the horizon,” Palamountain said. “Right now there’s a lot of focus on the automotive and building trades, but are there new technologies we could focus on that would help PVCC develop new programs as well?”

Koleszar said that CATEC doesn’t want to prepare students for “dead end jobs or jobs that don’t exist,” and recently, City Councilor Kristin Szakos and Councilor-elect Bob Fenwick called for more innovative programming.

Tate said that’s where the businesses fit in. Early on in his interviews, he said, he learned that the people who could translate jobs into curriculum and training were in the businesses, not the schools.

“Crutchfield has a whole scope of jobs, from technicians who work with the equipment, to people who write the materials, to people who work in the stores, to people who answer the phones,” Tate said. “They’ve got over 200 people who are customer service representatives.”

“If we took customer service representatives as a career path and got the Crutchfield people involved with CATEC and PVCC together in a room and said ‘now let’s design a curriculum to support that,’ we can design the track,” Tate said.

What’s more, Tate added, is that many companies like Crutchfield have a series of tests employees must pass.

“So it raises the question, why not have the path extending back so you can have people come out of high school and start,” Tate said.

To gauge how those high school students choose careers, Tate’s team is also interviewing them, and will include their findings in the report.

CATEC Director Adam Hastings said students come to the regional education center for many different reasons.

“Our students usually fall into one of three groups,” Hastings said. “Students who think for whatever reason that college isn’t for them, students who are going to college but come to CATEC anyway, and students who come because they like the programs.”

“We generally don’t have students who don’t want to be here,” Hastings added. “What we care about is that when they’re here, they take a deep dive into what they’re doing.”

Hastings said that he and the CATEC Board hope to consolidate as many career and technical education center best-practices as they can into the new model.

“We came into this strategic planning process for one reason and one only,” Hastings said, “to determine the best workforce center model to train the local and regional workforce.”

“Quite frankly, what I tell people is that I want to put all other regional career and technical education centers out of business,” Hastings added. “We know business is going to keep growing and stay competitive, so how do we become a regional center that trains at the speed of business needs?”

Tate’s team is still meeting with employers and compiling what they and students want. They will present their initial findings to the CATEC Board on Tuesday, will hear public feedback at a public meeting in January, and will present their final report to the CATEC Board in February.

Tate said that is where his role in the project is supposed to end, but that he plans to stay involved.

“My own personal commitment is that I’m not going to let it go,” Tate said. “I can visualize talks and presentations, because we’ve got a really important issue here.”