United Way Leaders Breakfast focuses on Ignite Program successes, expansion


Leaders from the business, government and not-for-profit sectors gathered Sept. 26 in Abingdon to hear about efforts to bridge the gap between the worlds of education and the workforce. “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce: The Leaders Breakfast” was hosted by the United Way of Southwest Virginia.

Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia recapped successes and announced additions to the Ignite Program.

The event featured a keynote by Megan Healy, chief workforce advisor to the governor of Virginia, and involved community leaders Tony Keck, executive vice president of system innovation and chief public health officer for Ballad Health; Scott Robertson, managing editor of The Business Journal of Tri-Cities, TN/VA; and Steve Smith, president and CEO of Food City. Following the breakfast, attendees were taken on a tour of the program’s Careers Expo for Youth happening a few miles away at the Washington County Fairgrounds.

Ignite, a program developed by the United Way of Southwest Virginia, was created as part of their “cradle-to-career” continuum to fill a community void in response to employer and school system needs. The program is backed by data at the national, state, regional, and local levels and has won awards from the Southwest Virginia Technology Council and the Governor of Virginia. 

The program focuses on developing a talent pipeline that prepares the next generation for the jobs of tomorrow, supplying businesses with skilled workers, and building a robust, competitive economy.

Staton recapped the success of the program and its partnerships during its first year: career planning and exploration software for 29,790 sixth through twelfth grade students, local employer worksite tours to 64 middle school teachers across the region, reality store financial simulations to 3,054 eighth grade students, and the hands-on Careers Expo for Youth for 4,317 seventh grade students. 

Staton announced that the next phase of the Ignite Program will include: a credential study to help inform coursework and training leading to the alignment with local employer demand; a Speakers Bureau to present in classrooms across the region; and internships that build on existing models across the region.

Keck said, “Ignite is helping to level the playing field for all of our youth in Southwest Virginia. As I reflect on my own early work experiences and think of those who I have worked with throughout the years, those first lessons you learn in the workplace are among the most important, and ones that we all carry without us throughout our careers.”

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