Workforce and Vocational Training in CoVa

A Regional Roundup

by Barrett Baker

By Barrett Baker and Susan Smigielski Acker

Coastal Virginia is emerging as a flourishing center for vocational training and workforce development. The region’s educational institutions, in partnership with industry stakeholders, veteran-centric organizations, and nonprofits are placing vocational training at the forefront of their workforce development efforts with the aim of building and sustaining a skilled workforce pipeline capable of meeting industry demand.

From advanced technical training classes, to app development, maritime, and aquaculture programs, CoVaBIZ is shining a spotlight on the initiatives and programs that are contributing to regional economic vitality and workforce empowerment.

TCC Apprenticeship Institute & Skilled Trades Academy

Tidewater Community College has two different programs to promote workforce development. The Apprenticeship Institute pairs students with local employers to combine education with on-the-job experience in a variety of industries, including maritime, advanced manufacturing, HVAC, refrigeration, automotive, and mechanics. On the employer side, TCC works with interested businesses—at no cost to the business—to build their apprenticeship development process from initial concept to full recognition by the Department of Labor and Industry on Registered Apprenticeships and U.S. Department of Labor

In return, on the student side, those interested in learning while getting paid can earn certification and gain skills by combining classroom education with real-life training. In many cases, sponsoring companies cover the cost of tuition related to classroom education, so students who take advantage of this program often graduate without student loan debt, and have a job waiting for them when they’re ready.

For students looking to fast-track their careers, the Skilled Trades Academy offers hands-on, state-of-the-art instruction on the latest tools and equipment. Students can receive short-term training in Maritime Trades (marine coating, pipefitting, and welding), Manufacturing Trades (sheet metal), Industrial Trades (pipe laying), and Construction Trades (roofing, framing, and electrical).

Norfolk State University Spartan Academy

Norfolk State’s Spartan Innovation Academy was launched in 2021, building on NSU’s participation as a community center through HBCU C2 (Historically Black Colleges and Universities Coding and Creativity), an Apple-supported initiative.

The Spartan Academy provides students, faculty and staff with access to industry-leading technology and specialized training for app development. Every incoming and returning student is provided with an iPad Pro to access their studies on and off campus, an Apple Pencil, Apple Smart Keyboard Folio, and AirPods Pro with active noise cancellation. These tools enable students to access all aspects of the NSU academic enterprise and digitally engage with faculty, peers, administrators and NSU learning platforms from any location.

“The Spartan Innovation Academy program is all about giving students the tools they need to be successful inside and outside of the classroom,” said Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, President of NSU. “Moreover, we know that the creativity of our students is endless. I’m excited about the possibilities for coding and app development with the help of our amazing faculty that will be beneficial for the entire Spartan community.”

To better facilitate the effectiveness of the Spartan Academy, NSU utilizes a full-time Apple Professional Learning Specialist, various engineering services, and project management specialists.


To address workforce shortages in tech and nursing throughout the southwest part of the United States, ECPI has developed a new platform to support and accelerate students earning recognized industry certifications. In partnership with Infotec, the leading source for employer workforce development in Virginia, students will have access to valuable resources, practice exams, simulations, and tools to track their progress.

The initiative is targeted at an array of potential students, including first-generation college students, career switchers, active-duty military personnel, and recent veterans, to encourage them to explore and consider a future in the high-demand fields of technology and healthcare.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2021 to 2031, the overall employment for healthcare occupations is projected to grow 13 percent. Computer and information technology jobs are expected to grow by 15 percent.

In an effort to attract more attention to their programs, ECPI recently held an Open House to expose attendees to immersive lab simulations, access to faculty, and provide guidance for the admission process and financial aid consultation. “Beyond introducing potential students to our educational offerings, this Open House is a direct response to the workforce shortages we are currently facing,” said ECPI University President Mark Dreyfus.

VIMS Shellfish Aquaculture Program

Interested in something a little different? Did you know that Virginia is the east coast leader in oyster aquaculture and the nation’s leader in hard clam production of the kind of clams grown in Virginia? According to Bill Walton, Coordinator of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS), aquaculture is a growing field and there are plenty of opportunities out there.

“What we’ve found is that the industry is having a hard time finding skilled and able labor that can get out there and work the farms and hatcheries,” said Walton. “Part of what we’ve heard is, it’s not necessarily high-tech. In some cases, we’re seeing more and more demand for hands-on, boots-on-the-ground skills that may be a little rarer today than they previously were. So, at VIMS we’re creating the workforce development program to meet specific aquaculture industry needs.”

VIMS currently offers an oyster aquaculture trainee program where those accepted get paid to work while they receive training. In addition to offering advanced courses and training for more complicated skill sets, VIMS is also moving into offering more short courses with a focus on an applied skill, such as learning to grow algae for a hatchery, or potentially working a specific piece of equipment.

ODU Digital Shipbuilding

In 2018, the Virginia Digital Shipbuilding Program was launched, thanks in part to a GO Virginia grant received by the Virginia Modeling Analysis and Simulation Center, which is part of the Old Dominion University Research Foundation. The program was created to address the dire need for a pipeline of talent in shipbuilding and ship repair through curriculum development, education, and outreach to let people know what industry career opportunities exist.

At the same time, the Hampton Roads Maritime Industrial Base Ecosystem (MIBE) was operating as an organization focused primarily on ensuring the sustainment of the Navy’s fleet through building, repairing, and modernizing ships. When retired Navy Rear Admiral Mark Whitney was brought in as director of MIBE last June, he recognized there was some overlap in the two programs and brought them together under the name Virginia Digital Maritime Center in August 2023.

“Aircraft carriers are now being completely built using 3D modeling to design and construct the ships,” said Russell Czack, Assistant Director for ODU’s Virginia Digital Maritime Center. “That’s the kind of technology that is now emerging or finally being adopted by the industry, and we want to make sure we’re keeping abreast of those technologies, and making sure that the future workforce is aware of them and that they are being trained to do those types of jobs.”

workforce development in coastal virginia

Hampton Roads Veteran Employment Center, Newport News

With the high number of military veterans in the region, the Hampton Roads Veteran Employment Center in Newport News, plays a critical role in helping veterans, soon-to-be veterans, their spouses and their young adult dependents gain meaningful employment. Cassie Dawson, coordinator for the center, said “the goal is for them to plant roots in Hampton Roads.”

The center is based on “Four Pillars of Success.” Several times a week, subject matter experts on a variety of topics offer advice to individuals transiting out of the military. For those who have the drive to start a business, on the first Monday of every month, aspiring entrepreneurs can collaborate with business experts and owners to develop a business plan, Dawson says.

For job seekers, each Tuesday there’s a small-scale job fair featuring certified hiring professionals from local industries. All hiring employers are vetted through the Virginia Values Veterans program, Dawson explains. “Employers are vetted because there is a lot to consider when hiring a military veteran or spouse,” she adds.

Wednesday is HERO day which stands for Healthcare, Housing, Empowerment, Resiliency, Opportunity. It’s time set aside for veterans to learn about the various social services available from federal, state and local agencies. Continuing education options are available on Thursdays with Department of Defense and Virginia approved SkillBridge providers, employers, college representatives, and apprenticeship programs.

New Horizons Regional Education Centers

For nearly 60 years, New Horizons Regional Education Centers have worked with high school students and adults to help prepare them to be workforce-ready. The seven programs, in five locations, offer 26 career and technical programs accommodating approximately 1,500 youth and 800 adult students each year, says Executive Director Casey Roberts. Program Centers include Career and Technical Education Center, Governor’s School for Science and Technology, Center for Autism, Newport Academy, Center for Apprenticeship and Adult Training, Youth Workforce Center and a Family Counseling Center.

New Horizons is owned by the six Peninsula school divisions with 23 high schools participating. And the programs are successful. Since 2017, the center has tracked students transitioning from school into the workforce. Roberts says there is an 86 percent job retention rate.

In addition, New Horizons operates the regional Center for Autism, and Newport Academy. Both serve students with unique barriers to learning.

Virginia Peninsula Community College

Virginia Peninsula Community College (VPCC) is not just for students preparing to transfer to a four-year college. It also plays a major role in preparing students to excel in the skilled trades.

Todd Estes, Vice President of Workforce Development, says the college understands the area’s skilled workforce needs and offers courses in allied health, skilled trades, commercial driver training and licensing, cybersecurity and information technology.

Taught by subject matter experts, VPCC offers training and programs in hundreds of subjects on the Williamsburg and Hampton campuses. Business management classes that address diversity and change management are offered with customized training programs for businesses.

Estes says the college frequently evaluates programs to ensure they’re workforce essential. “We want to deliver training that’s needed in the local area. We want to make sure we’re hitting the mark,” he says.

VPCC partners closely with Tidewater Community College on the Southside and with Paul D. Camp Community College, which covers Franklin, Suffolk, Isle of Wight and Southampton counties. They also collaborate with the Hampton Roads Workforce Council. Estes maintains community college is affordable especially with financial aid from the Commonwealth.

The Academies of Hampton City Schools

The mission of the Academies of Hampton City Schools is to meet industry demands for skilled workers and align with a student’s passion for career success, says Veronica Hurd, director of the academies.

Hampton City Schools Academies and the academies were designated in 2017 as part of the Ford NGL Community Network supported by Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropy arm of Ford Motor Company. The school system Hampton City Schools became the first Ford Next Generation Learning (Ford NGL) K-12 community in the nation in June 2023.

There are 16 different academies with 44 career pathways in areas of engineering, healthcare, information technology and entrepreneurship which are taught alongside traditional classes. Students can explore an industry via job shadowing and other activities. Students begin in ninth grade by exploring different career options. In tenth grade they learn about more about different careers in the classroom environment. By the 11th and 12th grades, students began their career immersion experience with internships and job shadowing, she says.

Hampton City Schools is not resting on their laurels. Hurd says they are working with the city and the Hampton Roads Workforce Development Council to obtain paid internships for academy students. “We are working together with the community and industry to create a viable workforce for now and beyond,” she says.

Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School

The apprentice school has been preparing students for shipbuilding careers for more than a century. Students can learn one of 19 trades with the benefit of earning while they learn. Students are paid $18 to $19 per hour, says Dr. Latisha McCain, director of Education for The Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding. “When a student starts at the apprentice school, they become an employee of the company,” she says. The many benefits offered to employees explain why each year, there are approximately 3,000 applicants for 250 open slots.

Programs last either four, five or eight years. The eight-year program is in partnership with Old Dominion University and students earn a bachelor’s degree. The program begins with academics in the first year and then moves to three days on the job and two days in the classroom, McCain adds. In addition, leadership skills are taught. For those who need extra tutoring in math and science, the shipyard offers a night school at no cost to the employee.

McCain said their athletic program is an important draw. There are six College Level Division III sports, and athletes come from 19 states to play.

Virginia Technical Academy

Virginia Technical Academy (VTA) is a trade school that’s less than 10 years old. During that short time, they’ve moved from a 900-square-foot building to a 20,000-square-foot building where students learn electrical work, plumbing, construction, HVAC and appliance repair, and are offered networking and professional support. Plans are in the works to offer solar energy classes in the near future, says David Gillespie, VTA president.

Gillespie, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and chief electrician, says all of those trades are in high demand and are a pathway to securing a good financial future. For those financially challenged, tuition assistance is offered from various organization. Military veterans can use the G.I. Bill, he adds.

Professionals already in their trades can get their licenses renewed. “We have a lot of people who require renewals,” he says.

Gillespie and VTA worked alongside Commonwealth Catholic Charities to provide training to Afghan refugees and they have plans to do the same for other refugee groups. Additionally, through a program called Second Chances, the school is training former prison inmates.

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