CCHS recessional 2019

Culpeper High graduates join in the recessional after their commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18, 2019.

Among the reasons Virginia regained its No. 1 ranking by CNBC as the best state in the country to do business was its “high-performing education system.” While it’s great to be back on top—the last time was 2011—Virginia can’t rest on its laurels. The commonwealth must continue to improve education opportunities to ensure that Virginians remain open to new skills and technologically adept in the ever-changing workplace.

That was the dominant message at ChamberRVA’s inaugural Education Summit, held last week in partnership with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. State educators, lawmakers and business leaders shared their perspectives on what Virginia is doing well and how to create more opportunities for young people—as well as emphasized the relevance of lifelong learning. What are the challenges to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s workforce?

The event, which drew nearly 400 people to the Richmond Marriott, also focused on the importance of partnerships among schools, business and government. It’s a symbiotic relationship: To have a great education system, the state needs resources. To have resources, you need a strong economy that generates jobs and revenues. To attract businesses and industries that create a thriving economy, you need a good education system.

“Nothing is more important to economic development than education,” said Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. “We are the best state for business in the nation because of education in the commonwealth.”

However, he pointed out, Virginia led the list of top states for business by a small margin, underscoring the need for continued improvements “on every level.”

State educators talked about such concerns as retaining teachers, providing adequate professional development, funding, fighting burnout and making sure new teachers have mentors.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, declared that raising teacher pay to the national average within the next four years would be a top priority in the coming General Assembly session.

Education for students is no longer the three R’s of yesteryear but the five C’s of today, said James Lane, state superintendent of public instruction: creative thinking, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship.

Early childhood education programs play a critical role in setting up students for future success, as does Virginia’s K-12 system and its wide range of options in higher education, from community college to doctoral programs. Investment is key. However, as several speakers said and as we’ve previously noted, not every student is ready for or wants to go to college. Career technical education programs offer another option for students—especially as the shortage of skilled trade workers looms. If a child wants to be a plumber instead of enrolling in college, parents need to overcome the negative stigma of sending their children to trade school.

An essential part of preparing students for success in the workforce, however, is the development of soft skills, those intangible abilities such as communication, work ethic and time management. While a young person might come across well on paper, he or she won’t pass a phone screening without being able to converse easily. A recurring question raised was who is responsible for teaching soft skills: Parents? Schools? Business? The answer is everyone.

“Creating the opportunity for every child in our region to succeed requires that we all work together,” said Kim Scheeler, president and CEO of ChamberRVA. “Educators, government, business and nonprofits all play a critical role in the lifelong learning process. We discovered that more needs to be done to help parents, students and educators understand the diverse range of career opportunities that exist and the path to attain the skills for those careers.”

The United States is in a historically tight labor market—and the key is to attract and keep workers. Virginia’s commitment to higher education and the state’s tech talent pipeline figured prominently in Amazon’s decision to bring HQ2 to Northern Virginia. For businesses, challenges include anticipating future hiring needs for jobs that don’t even exist yet because of the rapidly evolving workplace. This conversation needs to continue, as does the state’s commitment to investing in its future.

To read presentations from the summit, visit:

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Richmond Times-Dispatch