CHARLESTON, W.Va. — More than 1,000 West Virginia 9th grade students were in Charleston Thursday for the West Virginia GEAR UP Career Academy.

The event, which featured more than 80 employers, took place at the Charleston Civic Center.

GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is administered by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

Jessica Kennedy, communications director for the HEPC, said the initiative is meant to help students get ready for college and careers after high school graduation.

“The whole purpose is to give them some hands on experience — working with professionals in various fields across West Virginia — to give them a sense of the direction that they may want to take,” Kennedy said.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) met and spoke with students. One boy told him he wanted to become a politician someĀ day. Manchin said kids have the opportunity to be whatever they want to be when they grow up.

“No matter where they’re from, no matter what they think they can or can’t do or if it’s available, it is available. There’s a pathway for it. We just got to show them,” he said.

The program is meant to show students what type of careers are out there, Manchin said.

“This is a big program for us,” Manchin said. “It gives kids a chance. Sometimes kids don’t know if they have opportunities in West Virginia, but they’ve got to do something too.”

Booths representing a number of different careers were set up Thursday morning.

U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) also sent remarks to the students in a video.

Thursday’s event was set up like a job fair with interactive booths and presentations. Robots, drones, video screens were just some of the features. Careers in nursing, science, education, math, engineering, art, criminal justice and more were represented at the event.

Kennedy said it’s important that students continue their education beyond high school whether it be at a college, university or a trade school. She said researchers estimate that within the next three years more than 51 percent of all jobs will require a two year degree or higher.

“Currently, we’re making progress on that, but we have only about 30 percent of West Virginians holding those credentials right now so we definitely need to work to fill that gap,” Kennedy said.

The GEAR UP program offers services in Boone, Fayette, Mason, Mercer, Mingo, Nicholas, Summers, Webster, Wirt and Wyoming counties. It’s a federally funded grant program that helps students in those ten high-need counties prepare for college and career success.

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