Training a Skilled Workforce Increases Business, Strengthens Communities and Improves Economic Opportunity
August 8, 2022
By Knox Singleton, CEO, Opportunity Scholars
for The Voice of Business,
Virginia Chamber of Commerce
As members of the Virginia Chamber, we can all probably agree that a highly skilled, well-trained workforce is the number one priority of the business community. Many of us would add “diverse” to this description of our most desirable workforce.
On a macro level, the lack of a skilled workforce clearly leads to a drag on economic growth. In Virginia, good-paying jobs requiring career, technical or post-high school education are going unfilled by the thousands.
On a local level, our communities in much of Virginia are failing to prosper as they are unwittingly exporting their most talented youth. The vast majority of students who have the means to go away to college will not return to the communities in which they were raised.
Local employers are finding that far too many of the students who remain local are NOT getting the training they need to fill the job vacancy pipeline. Because of the lack of education and skills certification, these students must accept poorly paying jobs and subsequently enter the ranks of the working poor – from which they are unlikely to ever emerge during their working lives.
This problem is even more dire among diverse populations. Students who fail to get additional education post high school are most frequently from underrepresented community segments, although all races and ethnic backgrounds are included.
In 2019, a number of business owners decided to create a regional – but scalable – organization that would address the economic workforce challenge. Opportunity Scholars, a 501[c], was created targeting these three goals:
Opportunity Scholars was thrilled to be endorsed in Blueprint Virginia 2030 – the plan of action to ensure the Commonwealth strengthens and secures its position as a leader in the global economy and as the best state in the nation for business:
“Support community-based efforts like the Opportunity Scholars Program that seeks to better prepare all students for life after high school through community engagement, career counseling for different pathways, and financial supports such as income sharing agreements.”
Beginning at the grassroots level, Opportunity Scholars helps those students who most often fall through the cracks – the average academic achievers from middle and low income families – by providing guidance and financial support so that they can achieve required technical credentials leading to high-demand, high-wage employment. The Opportunity Scholars model is a transformational catalyst for individual, family, community and economic growth.
Our team includes public education counselors, teachers and administrators; higher education professionals; community and business leaders/partners; and the students’ families. The support of a student’s family is critical to their success. Without the buy-in of the family, a student is unlikely to continue their education/training after high school and instead opt for a full-time job that contributes to the family income, but is low-paying.
Opportunity Scholars’ counseling team and leadership is purposefully diverse in order to develop trust with students and families of limited means, many of whom are not native English speakers. There is great opportunity for employment which is rewarding in every sense of the word but it takes a whole team to make it happen for many middle and low income students.
How is Opportunity Scholars different from other scholarship-based organizations? Our model provides an education and financing strategy that is efficient, affordable, sustainable and scalable. Here’s how it works:
During high school, students take advantage of low or no cost dual-enrollment community college classes, decreasing the time and expense involved in apprenticeships and after High School training.
The Opportunity Scholars model is based on a collaboration of local public schools, community colleges and universities, cutting costs by more than 75% when compared to traditional residential education in a public university.
After high school, students attend college or technical school locally, living at home to avoid paying college room and board (average cost savings – $12,000 to $14,000 per year). They are employed part time in work related to their target career pathway.
Opportunity Scholars covers the cost of tuition, required tools/equipment, fees and books. Students are only required to pay back into the Opportunity Scholars’ Education Fund after they finish their education/training/apprenticeship and attain high-wage jobs.
Select local employers have agreed to partner with Opportunity Scholars and provide internships and/or defray some or all of the student’s educational costs.
After scholars have completed the program and are successfully employed, their repayment funds enable recycling to the next generation of students to join the Opportunity Scholars pathway to success.
While most useful programs with similar goals connect the few (<10%) students with high academic performance with college scholarships, Opportunity Scholars targets the MANY students (>90%) who can successfully pursue technical or career education to a good-paying job. The goal of Opportunity Scholars is to help at least half of all students currently left behind to succeed.
We believe the Opportunity Scholars model will change lives, creating economic mobility for families with limited resources through targeted education/training pathways without saddling students with high debt upon completion. We believe the Opportunity Scholars model can invigorate local economies by building a pipeline of professional, career and technology workers to help businesses grow. Opportunity Scholars addresses the two biggest and interconnected challenges facing Virginia: the economic opportunity gap and the skilled labor shortage. It’s a win-win for Virginia.
About Opportunity Scholars
Founded in 2019 by Knox Singleton (former CEO of Inova Health Systems) and Scott Miller (Director of the Virts-Miller Family Foundation and owner of Selma Estate Wines), Opportunity Scholars is a 501 [c]. We believe that by supporting high-value education and training for our youth, we are strengthening local families, local communities and local businesses.