Posted on Tuesday, June 27, 2017

College Round Up

A new powerline worker training program is giving students (and their career opportunities) a jolt at Wytheville Community College… And speaking of power, a powerful new partnership in the Bristol region leans on Virginia Highlands Community College to help produce more new nurses, who are desperately needed throughout the area.

The First Step Is the Hardest

Submitted by Briana Morris Fillers, marketing & communications manager, United Way Southwest Virginia

The first step is always the hardest – literally, according to Wytheville Community College graduate Jimmy Powers. “When I started the powerline worker program, I had no knowledge of the industry and I had a fear of heights like many of these guys. This was a huge change for me, so that first step up the pole was very difficult.”


CAPTION: Gavin Burnette, Perry Hughes, Mike Morrison, and Jimmy Powers on the site of the powerline worker training program at Wytheville Community College.

Powers, who was born and raised in Abingdon and Chilhowie, spent most of his career at a company that had strong ties to the coal industry.

“When I was laid off after twenty-five years, I felt rejected, to be honest,” said Powers. “Not only was my skill not needed anymore, I felt like I wasn’t needed. I had to realize there were other skills I could learn and other things I could do if I was open to it. This program has given me what I needed to move forward. I feel like my skills are needed. I feel like I am needed.”

The changing job landscape in Southwest Virginia reflects a larger national trend. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, according to Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Perry Hughes, Director of Workforce Development for Wytheville Community College (WCC), said, “You’ve got to get some type of training – whether it’s non-credit or credit. Spend six weeks learning to drive a truck, spend eight weeks learning line working, spend eighty hours learning how to weld, get a two-year degree in nursing, or a four-year degree in engineering – whatever you do, make sure you’re gaining skills in the process that are needed in the workforce. You can get the degree or certification and it will likely be very valuable, but you also need the skills to back it up.”

CAPTION: Student Gavin Burnette trains as a lineman in the powerline worker training program at Wytheville Community College.

Wytheville Community College is joined by other community colleges changing the lives of Southwest Virginians through short-term certification programs. Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon offers several workforce development courses such as mechatronics and CDL programs. Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands has programs in machining and welding among others. Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap recently received a grant to add a powerline worker training program to their current workforce development efforts. Whether their students are entering the workforce for the first time or learning new skills to work in different industry, each of the programs has proven to be successful.

Wytheville Community College’s powerline working training program’s inaugural class of seven students graduated on June 16, with employers still in bidding wars over students. The program, which began in March, provides six weeks of CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) training and eight weeks of powerline worker training to prepare students to work in the electric power industry, which is currently facing a skills gap due to the baby boomer retirement wave.

“As baby boomers walk out the door, they’re taking a lot of skills with them,” said Hughes. “We’ve got a skills gap right now because an entire generation was missed, and that’s what we’re addressing with this program.”

The powerline worker training program’s success is due to a well-executed plan, help from industry leaders like Appalachian Power, dedicated students, and a well-respected, industry-trained instructor, Mike Morrison.

Hughes said, “Mike Morrison has 21 years in supervision and training in the electric power industry. He is out here giving them this set of skills and we’re connecting them to local employers. We’re helping them take the first step toward a career in the industry because the first step is always the hardest.”

CAPTION: Perry Hughes and Mike Morrison (back center) with the inaugural graduating class on site of the powerline worker training program at Wytheville Community College.

Partnering with local industry leaders is crucial to the program. Hughes explained that the equipment used at the WCC test facility is the same equipment used in the industry, activities in the class are actual hands-on projects, and everything students need is included in the program – even equipment like custom belts.

Hughes said, “We went to AEP and asked, ‘What type of climbing equipment are you using?’ And that’s what our students use in the pole yard.” The pole yard at Wytheville Community College is comprised of both 20 foot and 40 foot poles, and all the lines and equipment on the poles have been installed by the students.

Line work might sound technical, as if it only involved hard skills or tangible abilities, but the type of work they do develops soft skills, too, in areas like problem solving and teamwork, especially with a team with an impressive age range of 20 to 53.

Teamwork came easy to graduate Gavin Burnett, a 25-year-old whose previous jobs involved team building on rope courses and aerial adventures. Burnett said, “I was able to encourage some of the other students to climb and help them get over the fear in their heads because of my experience. And I’ve learned a lot from the three older gentlemen in the program that have life experience and wisdom to see the bigger picture. We all bring something to the table.”


CAPTION: Gavin Burnette, June 2017 graduate of the powerline worker training program at Wytheville Community College.

Gavin Burnett attended a four-year institution, but finding gainful employment that didn’t involve sitting behind a desk proved to be difficult. After working three part-time jobs for years, Burnett was introduced to the powerline worker training program. His family encouraged and supported his decision to begin the program. Burnett said, “I’ve always had the opinion that anybody can do anything if they’re willing to put the effort into it. So, it wasn’t a question of whether or not I could do what it took for the class. It was whether or not I had the support. In my opinion, I have the best parents on the face of the planet. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

There are a few other people Burnett mentioned he couldn’t have completed the program without – the ones who created the program.

Burnett said, “If you want to learn, the staff and instructors here do whatever it takes to help you learn and get you through the program, and they don’t stop there. They provide $2,000 worth of equipment and they help you get a job. Everyone that went through the CDL class had job offers. Everyone in this class has job offers. Seven companies have come to talk to us and to offer us positions, and that’s a wonderful feeling.”

The most rewarding part for Hughes has been seeing success of the program so far – not only for the employers, but for the graduates. “When you’ve got individuals who are struggling to find jobs and now all of the sudden multiple companies are coming in offering anywhere from $14-$21 an hour, that’s life-changing. That’s why I do what I do. We’re changing lives. We’re helping people better themselves.”

Hughes said, “With all of our community colleges, our goal is to have employers come looking for our students. We want them to say ‘That’s a community college student and we know they’re ready to go to work.’“

Article 4/11. The written “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” series was created by United Way of Southwest Virginia. The introductory article was released in May 2017, with nine articles to be released online on the first and third Sundays from May-September, and published in various print publications across the region. Each of the nine articles will explore current challenges in Southwest Virginia’s workforce and showcase the valuable members of the workforce in Southwest Virginia. The series will share the stories of local workers and discuss topics that specifically affect our workforce in Southwest Virginia such as local livable-wage jobs, local innovation, the value of working at an early age, the uniqueness of the community college system, and combining passion with skill – just to name a few. Then, our last article will provide an overview of the actions being taken to bridge the gap between the worlds of learning and work in our region to strengthen the workforce of tomorrow. To keep up with the full series of articles, or for more information about United Way of Southwest Virginia’s initiatives to equip tomorrow’s workforce, visit


Bristol Regional, Virginia Highlands Collaborate: Agreement will Increase Number of Nurses in the Area

Submitted by Anne Dunham, coordinator of PR & marketing, Virginia Highlands Community College

Addressing one of the more important health care needs in the area, Bristol Regional Medical Center (part of the Wellmont Health System) and Virginia Highlands Community College recently reached an agreement to increase the number of available nurses. The agreement will allow the college to admit 20 additional nursing students each academic year and becomes effective starting with the 2017-2018 academic year.

Greg Neal, Bristol Regional’s president, said this arrangement is another example of Wellmont Health System’s relentless commitment to broaden the base of students pursuing a nursing career.

“This impressive development for the community and our patients will contribute greatly to our delivery of superior health care with compassion,” Neal said. “The challenge of finding a sufficient supply of nurses is a nationwide topic, and we have engaged in many innovative approaches that are starting to bear fruit. But, we still have additional work ahead and are thrilled to have a like-minded higher education institution in Virginia Highlands that is just as focused on educating more nurses to meet patients’ needs.”

Dr. Gene C. Couch Jr., Virginia Highlands’ president, said he is enthused the college will help grow the nursing profession.

“We are delighted to partner with Bristol Regional Medical Center to enhance nursing education and, ultimately, health care in our region,” Dr. Couch said. “Hands-on instruction in a clinical setting is an important component of our program, and we’re excited to work with Bristol Regional to provide the education our students need to become exceptional nurses.”

To accomplish the goal of increasing the nursing staff, Virginia Highlands will provide faculty for all curriculum instruction, and Bristol Regional will be responsible for much of the clinical instruction. Wellmont will fund another part-time faculty member at Virginia Highlands who will help with skills and assessment courses and assist in the simulation lab housed at the college.

Wellmont will give Virginia Highlands students who participate in this program priority consideration for nurse technician jobs at its facilities. In addition, students who seek nursing positions at various Wellmont hospitals and clinics will receive the same level of attention from the health system.

The Virginia Highlands nursing program has provided nursing education for more than four decades and is one of three partners in the Virginia Appalachian Tricollege Nursing Program. Since its inception, the Virginia Appalachian Tricollege Nursing Program has produced about 4,500 graduates and about 1,600 of them were enrolled at Virginia Highlands.

An estimated 80 percent of the program’s graduates remain in the region. Many have continued their education and are now serving the region as nurse practitioners, nurse managers, nurse anesthetists and clinical nurse specialists.

“This partnership will provide the exceptional learning experiences necessary to prepare nurses for the complex healthcare needs of our community,” said Dr. Kathy Mitchell, Virginia Highlands’ dean of nursing and allied health. “Virginia Highlands will increase the number of enrollment opportunities in the nursing program. This will lead to more graduates with unlimited opportunities for employment.” Bristol Regional has provided clinical training for Virginia Highlands’ nursing program since 1984.

Those who graduate from the program and join Wellmont become part of a vast network of nursing professionals who provide care in many settings – from clinical offices to specialized hospital units. Wellmont employs about 2,200 licensed registered nurses, more than 600 of whom serve at Bristol Regional.

Nurses have partnered with physicians and other medical professionals throughout the health system to repeatedly attain high grades and honors from a host of highly respected national organizations. And as valued members of the organization, nurses have an opportunity to enhance best practices, pursue professional development opportunities and build on on Wellmont’s reputation for providing exceptional care throughout the region.

Tim Anderson, Bristol Regional’s vice president of patient care services, said nurses who have earned their degree from the college and subsequently worked for the hospital and other Wellmont facilities have been assets in creating an environment of care rooted in excellence.

“We have been impressed with the quality of the graduates from the Virginia Highlands program and are pleased to work with the college on this newest initiative,” Anderson said. “Nursing is an honorable calling and a way to profoundly influence people’s lives, and these professionals at Bristol Regional and other Wellmont facilities have performed a tremendous service to the community. Working with Virginia Highlands, we will make further inroads in building our nursing staff and improving patients’ health and well-being.”

Anderson received his associate degree in nursing from Virginia Highlands and was recently honored by the college with the Distinguished Alumni Award.

For more information about the Virginia Appalachian Tricollege Nursing Program at Virginia Highlands, please visit To learn about nursing opportunities available through Wellmont’s program, please visit

CAPTION: VHCC President, Dr. Gene Couch and Bristol Regional Medical Center executives at the agreement signing ceremony in late May 2017.'

Laura Osberger

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