Education goes beyond just learning facts and understanding content—it’s an ongoing process. The goal of education is to prepare students for life after high school. At Henrico County Public Schools in Henrico, VA, our goal is to help ensure students are prepared for the future workplace with the “three E’s”—enrolled, enlisted, and/or employed. We want our students to graduate with a plan and a career pathway. Our Career and Technical Education (CTE) program is one way we do that.

Most schools have historically failed to celebrate graduating students who immediately enter the workforce.

We have traditionally celebrated students entering college by having their names and colleges highlighted or allowing students to wear their college attire. We have also celebrated students entering the military through various ceremonies. But if a student planned to start working right after high school, you would often hear the students say they were just going to work next year, as if this were a lesser choice. We wanted to find a way to celebrate the commitment students make to enter into a career, while at the same time add value to that choice. To that end, our CTE program decided to host a “CTE Letter of Intent Signing Day” event last year for the first time.

Much like a signing day for star athletes, the CTE Letter of Intent Signing Day is a way to honor a student’s choice to enter the world of work. We celebrate and recognize high school students who are graduating and completing a CTE concentration and entering the workforce (or some form of postsecondary training directly connected to developing the workforce, such as apprenticeship programs). Other objectives of the program include:

  • Highlighting the many lucrative opportunities for students so that parents understand the value of alternatives to a four-year college
  • Encouraging businesses to engage with students prior to graduation to help fulfill their workforce needs
  • Inspiring students to continue to strive for excellence as their high school career ends and their future career begins

By promoting the career decision students make through the CTE Letter of Intent Signing Day, we hoped to change the perception of entering the workforce. The result has been a huge success; I have been contacted by schools in just about every state in the country requesting information so they could duplicate the event.

Building Partnerships With Businesses

We began planning the event in October, developing templates for “Letter of Intent” promotional materials and a simple, one-page explanation document. These materials allowed us to begin recruiting business partners. In order to help businesses understand the value of the event, I personally met with each business interested in participating. Through these meetings, businesses began to understand that the letter of intent was not a contract, but a way to identify a student who would meet their hiring needs and also help to provide a career pathway plan for development, similar to a four-year college track.

Once business partners were identified, we planned opportunities for students and potential employers to connect and build relationships. This occurred in various ways. Some businesses offered short internships, some offered field trips, and some came in to meet with students and talk about their business/industry. The goal was to have students identify not only with a career pathway, but with a company so they could begin forming relationships early. One student, who attended the event and got hired, said the event opened his eyes. “I was hanging around with some knuckleheads, but when I starting talking to my potential employer, I realized I needed to step it up and leave them behind,” he said.

After businesses had the opportunity to build relations with potential employees, jobs were “posted,” and students applied for the positions they were interested in. Many employers were so impressed with the students they interviewed that they hired more students than they had originally planned.

Lights, Media, and Star Treatment

The culmination of the year was the actual event, our first CTE Letter of Intent Signing Day, which involves all nine schools that feed into the Advanced Career Education centers as well as the academy at Virginia Randolph. The businesses and the students involved sat at a table in front of an audience of parents, other students, businesses, reporters, and school personnel. As each student was announced, the business representative had the opportunity to speak about the value of participating in the event.

Next, a moderator highlighted the student’s four-year plan and the “perceived value” of the business’s offer to the student, which included projected salary for four years and assigned monetary value to perks such as health insurance, retirement benefits, and continuing education/training funds. Then students signed the letter of intent. The employer then presented the student with a hat or shirt that had their logo on it, shook hands, and posed for photos. The flash from cameras and the video equipment of local news agencies added excitement. As students exited the area to move to an interview space, the next business representative and student moved to the table. The event was fittingly held at the Junior Achievement Finance Park, a new facility dedicated to helping students understand and develop career pathways while learning about finances.

Interviews with the students, parents, and business representatives were conducted, social media posts were made, and all the major news outlets broadcast stories of the event. Mike Rowe—host of the TV series “Dirty Jobs” and voice of the long-running series “Deadliest Catch”—responded to one of our Facebook posts about his support of the event, and it went viral. “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,” Rowe said in the post. “Here’s hoping others will follow Henrico’s lead.” The Facebook post quickly led to Henrico Career and Technical Education receiving national recognition from and Fox News.

The actual letter of intent that the students and employer signed outlined the value of CTE courses specifically. Working with employers, we were able to show a career progression over a four-year period and identify training/educational opportunities provided by the employer. This not only helped the students and parents understand the value of the opportunity, but it allowed us to quantify the value of this training with a number.

For example, many students face debt after college of up to $200,000. Business A commits to paying a student $45,000 the first year, with a $2,500 step increase each year (so the fourth year is $52,500 for total salary of $195,000 for four years) plus benefits such as insurance, retirement, and vacation. They also commit to paying $10,000 in education and training costs each year for four years. This would equate to a value of $235,000 plus benefits ($195,000 salary, $40,000 in education/training benefits). So instead of being $200,000 in debt and struggling to find a job, the value of this student’s choice is $435,000! In other words, net gain for a student would be $235,000 (money earned) plus $200,000 (money saved) = $435,000, without the calculation of benefits including insurance and vacation time. This was powerful in helping parents and students start to rethink a career.

The economic success of a community requires that members of that society contribute to its financial health. Strong schools attract residences and businesses to the area. Knowing that schools are producing students who are focused and prepared to enter college or the workplace is key to their success.

Mac Beaton is director of career and technical education for Henrico County Public Schools in Henrico, VA.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Create Your Own Event

Build from these tips for making a CTE Letter of Intent Signing Day a success at your school:

  • Start small. It is important that the businesses, students, and parents understand the value and the purpose of the event.
  • Take the time to meet with the businesses individually. Build a strong partnership with businesses in the year before launching the event. A partnership should be a handshake, not a handout.
  • Make it a first-class event. Take the time to plan this event so that every detail is covered. This should be a highlight for the students, business partners, and the community!