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Virginia county's 'signing day' celebrates seniors heading to jobs, not college

Henrico County, Virginia, wanted to express the value in students graduating with career and technical certifications. Local companies agreed.
/ Source: TODAY

For high school seniors, April means looking forward to graduation and what comes next — which, for many, means college.

But in Henrico County, Virginia, public school officials decided to share some of that end-of-year focus on seniors who will instead be heading straight to jobs and careers after graduation, armed with training and industry-based certifications they earned in high school. The county held its first-ever "Career and Technical Letter of Intent Signing Day" on March 28 to celebrate those students and their imminent employment.

"Henrico Schools’ Career and Technical Education program decided that athletes weren’t the only ones who deserved to have their hard work recognized as they look to the future," the county explained in a post on its public Facebook page. "Students and representatives of their future employers both signed letters-of-intent outlining what students must do before and during employment, what the employer will provide in pay and training, and an estimate of the position’s value."

Though signing days are a familiar ritual for high school athletes committing to college teams, doing the same for vocational students is a new concept, said Mac Beaton, director of Henrico County Public Schools' Certified and Technical Education program.

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For their first signing day, Henrico County recognized 12 seniors as they signed letters of intent to work as machinists or apprentices with local and national companies such as Rolls-Royce in their aeronautical division, paving and construction firm Branscome Incorporated, Tolley Electric Corporation, and Howell's Heating & Air.

Beaton told TODAY Parents the idea came from an ongoing struggle to show the value of this kind of education and training. "We're always trying to figure out how to address the skills gap when the general mentality of parents is 'I want my child to go to college,'" Beaton said.

"One way to do this is to help them see the value of career and technical education," he said. "When you start talking data that affects parents’ pocketbooks, that gets their attention."

Over 5,000 students earn industry-based certifications in Henrico County each year, and those certifications represent training that could mean immediate employment for students following their high school graduation.

"With tech the way it is now, when employers hire, they want someone they don’t want to have to train, and college doesn’t necessarily train you for these jobs," said Beaton.

Beaton said he had specific goals when he planned the signing day. "I wanted the students to see how the skills that they had been learning at school apply to the workforce and how they were going to use them," he said. "I wanted to do the signing day early so the companies can invest in the students up front, and when they hit that workforce June 17, they are ready to roll."

He also hoped to help parents get excited about their children's futures. "How many parents can say, 'My child has full health insurance, two weeks of paid vacation, and will be making $40,000 a year' when they are graduating from high school?" said Beaton, adding they are planning more signing days.

Tyler Campbell, 18, a senior at the Highland Springs Advanced Career Education Center, signed a letter of intent to begin working for Branscome Inc. following his graduation in June.

"Seeing how many people showed up for the signing day, I could tell it was a big deal. I got really excited," said Campbell, whose mom and sister were both in attendance. "This is basically my dream job. To get it feels so good."

"Dirty Jobs" host Mike Rowe shared the signing day photos on his own Facebook page, commenting, "This is the way forward. No attempt to close the skills gap will ever succeed until or unless we celebrate those who are willing to learn a skill that's in demand. This is not just a terrific idea, it's a model for every other technical school in the country... Here's hoping others will follow Henrico's lead."

Beaton himself could not afford college when he graduated from high school and felt lucky to join an apprenticeship program as an electrician before becoming a teacher. "There are multiple pathways to achieve the same goal," he said.

"We get so caught up in thinking that every child will go to college and get a job, but the ultimate goal of every parent is to have their child working, making a good wage and happy," said Beaton.