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Community-college students meet the Wiz

Glenn DuBois was, of all things, booking a vacation on when inspiration struck. “I was quite amazed that I could go to one place to plan a vacation and shop and compare prices and shop hotels and create an account and plan an itinerary and pay for it. I was with one of my vice chancellors, and I said, Couldn’t we do something like that in higher education?” said DuBois, the chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, detailing the first step toward the rollout of the Virgina Education Wizard, a one-stop online career-planning resource for current and prospective community-college students in Virginia.

I’m underselling it there by at least half. The Wizard is what we wish we all had when we were in high school thinking about college or between jobs thinking about what we were going to do next with our lives.

“In our economy today, we have folks who have worked with an employer for 20 years who are finding themselves unemployed. And they are in their late 40s, early 50s, and they have 20 years more service they could provide to the region, they have roots in the region, and they need to retool. Or if you’re in high school, it’s not like it was when I came out of high school. There was a fairly small, finite list of opportunities that were available to me. Today, students coming out of high school have a very confusing array of opportunities available to them, and it’s often hard for them to sort it out, and this is a tool for them to sort it out. The Wizard is an instrument that they could use to calculate where their skills and abilities are, what resources are available to them in the form of financial-aid programs, demands for those skills locally, so they can begin the process of retooling for their own futures,” said Jim Perkins, the president of Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, which served as the backdrop for today’s public unveiling of the Wizard.

Wizard users are first directed to an online survey that helps match up aptitudes and interests to possible careers, then can navigate to pages that give detailed and up-to-the-minute information on how the labor market is for the career fields that they think they want to pursue, in addition to information on course offerings and degree programs that they can enroll in and opportunities for financial aid and scholarships and other available monies that are out there.

It’s a lot of bells and whistles, but it’s all oriented toward not just a good cause, but an essential one, in the form of workforce development, at which the Virginia Community College System is proving to be quite adept. “It’s kind of scary to think about trying to think about running a business in today’s environment without a Blue Ridge Community College,” said Martin Lightsey, the founder of Specialty Blades, a surgical-blade manufacturer that he started in the late 1980s with one employee and now has 200 employees at locations in Rhode Island and Virginia, including 100 in Staunton.

Lightsey remembers when BRCC was new on the scene back when it opened in 1967. It now plays an essential role in the development of the local labor force, including the labor force at Specialty Blades, whose employee base includes a number of Blue Ridge graduates and more who have taken classes at the school.

“If you want to be successful in manufacturing today, you have to do something that the rest of the world cannot easily replicate. If you’re doing that anybody can do, your business is already in Asia, or nonexistent,” Lightsey said.

“If we’re going to succeed, those 70 employees who didn’t get a four-year degree are going to have to have skills in advanced technology. Frankly, those employees are just as important to the success of our business as the 30 of us who do have a four-year degree,” Lightsey said.

The Wizard, which users can access online on campus at BRCC as well as on home computers with Internet connections and in local public libraries online, is just one of the ways Blue Ridge Community College is reaching out to the local workforce. The school will begin construction on a $7.2 million, 23,000-square foot advanced technology center in June that when it opens in late 2010 will be the new campus home to the school’s design and drafting programs, electronics programs and advanced manufacturing, physics, computer and mathematics programs.

“These aren’t separate disciplines anymore. These are disciplines that are integrated and are needed in an advanced manufacturing environment,” Perkins said.

“The jobs that are advanced and high-skilled and are producing a product that is different and can’t be done other places, that’s the future of manufacturing in America. Where we come in, we really need to provide the training and the educational skills that those employees will need not only as they begin their career, but as they continue in their career,” Perkins said.


Learn more about the Virginia Education Wizard



Story by Chris Graham