CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Department of Tourism’s Workforce Committee met for the first time to discuss their plans to grow the tourism workforce in the state based on a number of initiatives created through a $5.1 million EDA grant.

The grant, which is available through 2025, will help support each component of the tourism and hospitality industry workforce starting with K-12 students and on up to higher education programs and professional development opportunities for those already working in the industry.

Multiple sub-grants that’s a part of the over $5 million Economic Development Administration grant awarded to the tourism department last year is being divided up between the West Virginia Department of Education, state community and technical colleges, and the Department of Economic Development for the development of various different initiatives all with the focus on growing the industry’s workforce.

The first sub-grant awarded to the WV Department of Education for K-12 initiatives is going towards the implementation of tourism curriculum in schools, specifically on a middle school level. The curriculum is being implemented into the existing Explore Your Future program which introduces career paths to students.

Another aspect of introducing the tourism workforce to middle-schoolers is through a partnership the Tourism Workforce Committee is currently trying to get underway with middle school teachers and administration to take students on field trips to well-known recreational areas around the state.

West Virginia Tourism Department Director of Destination Development, Ennis Smith, said through the sub-grant, middle schools across the state would be encouraged to apply for funds to take students on the field trips to these locations free of cost to them as a learning opportunity for the students.

“To start really getting into the frame of reference at a middle school-level that tourism is a career path they can go into,” Smith said.

Chelsea Ruby, Secretary of WV Dept. of Tourism

State Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby said once all of the funding for the field trips are awarded to schools, the committee will reach back out to their convention and visitor bureau partners around the state who have volunteered to help with workforce initiatives, and ask them if they could meet with the schools visiting their area for the day to explain everything they have to offer and do there.

Ruby said the field trips would also simply get students knowledgeable and inspired by all of the outdoor recreation and tourism hubs their home state has to offer.

“I’m often surprised when students come in and I ask them, ‘have you been to Blackwater Falls?’ ‘have you been to Seneca Rocks?’ ‘have you been to New River Gorge Bridge?’ and I hear ‘no,no,no.’ “So, the first goal is to get them acquainted with new areas of the state, the state’s history, heritage, etc,” said Ruby.

Smith said the schools can request the field trip funding for this particular round which closes Feb. 1. She said this is a pilot program and they are seeing how it can work to be launched again next year.

Smith said Epic Grants for high school students are another subcomponent of the WV Department of Education’s grant, and they revolve around tourism projects students do in their communities, such as updating signage on their local trails. She said while these grants aren’t currently open to apply for, there will be another round being launched in the near future.

The next sub-grant ties into both the Department of Education and the community and technical colleges, Smith said, called the Tourism Pathway Program, which creates career pathways related to tourism and hospitality available for students transitioning from high school to those community colleges that have partnered with the program.

Smith said the program is meant for the high schools and the community colleges to work together to help students discover the thousands of job opportunities becoming available in the tourism industry in the state.

“How can we encourage institutions at the college level and high schools in their areas and beyond to go into an agreement, because that’s what they need to do, to create these pathway programs,” Smith said.

Right now they have four colleges they have awarded the grants for the program to. They include Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College, New River Community and Technical College, and West Virginia Northern Community College.

The Workforce Committee is also currently working to establish online training courses through the partnering colleges. Blue Ridge is already in the developing process of their online pilot course that will cover training in customer service for tourism, leadership, team building, and event planning.

Finally, the last sub-grant to the Department of Economic Development is to continue to rollout funding for a program known as Train Your Team. Through the program, eligible tourism businesses who apply receive up to $2,000 annually per employee in tuition and training costs.

Smith said it’s a beneficial opportunity for all businesses in the tourism and hospitality industry that’s meant to increase capacity to serve visitors in some way, through the application of some kind of specific and personalized training for employees.

“This is really an incredible opportunity for tourism businesses to apply for and upscale the existing workforce,” she said.

She said these businesses must be located in West Virginia and are contributing to the tourism industry in some way. The tourism department is accepting applications for this on a rolling basis through mid to late 2025.

Ruby said when they launched the Workforce Needs Assessment survey to assess what tourism businesses need to help with the workforce development process, they had received over 300 responses, and she said a training program of this kind was at the top of that feedback.

“This was the number one issue that was identified for us is that employers did not have funds set aside, or had very minimal funds set aside for training to use that training for new employees,” Ruby said. “So, when we set up the grant we allocated a significant amount to this program.”

Ruby said, however, that it has been slow getting applications for the Train Your Team initiative in and she still encourages more tourism businesses to apply.

Smith said that in addition to those schools and departments receiving the sub-grants, some additional funds from the EDA grant will be going towards covering funding for more tourism marketing and advertising.

For more information about all of these initiatives visit the WV Department Tourism.