Virginia Tech football coach Justin Fuente. Courtesy of User: B.

We have now come to the point of the autumn where decisions must be made on who we want to lead us. Should we stay the course? Or has the time come to make a change and go in a different direction?

This is the question that animates so many conversations these days.

The governor’s race? Oh yes, that’s important, too, I suppose, but I refer to what some consider a far more momentous decision: Should Virginia Tech fire football coach Justin Fuente?

Things aren’t looking good for the coach; don’t look to me to pile on. However, sportswriter Dan Wolken had a fascinating take in USA Today: “To be fair to Fuente, there’s no way to know whether post-Beamer Virginia Tech is equipped to win at the elite level in modern college football. It’s a fairly remote campus in a tiny mountain town without an obvious recruiting advantage. Its best in-state recruiting areas are in the Hampton Roads and Washington, D.C., regions [that] are more than four hours away.”

Wolken may have been writing about football recruitment, but he may as well have been writing about other kinds of talent recruitment as well. At a time when we’re told (correctly) that talent is the coin of the economic realm, that skill levels of a workforce matter more to companies than many other things, are we in Southwest and Southside simply too far away from the urban crescent to be able to compete?

A few years ago, a study for the GO Virginia region that covers the New River Valley, the Roanoke Valley, the Alleghany Highlands and Lynchburg looked at that very question, or at least something very close to it: How can the region attract the talent that employers need?

Perhaps in light of Fuente’s difficulties, and USA Today’s assessment of the challenges that will face any Virginia Tech football coach these days, we should revisit that study. Its findings won’t help Fuente, or a team that seems to have a propensity for blowing leads, but it might help the rest of us.

This report is now four years old, but some things likely haven’t changed. At the time, the report said that “while many employers reported receiving a significant amount of applications for open positions, most are struggling to find qualified applicants and seeing a mismatch in experience, specialized skills, or even foundational skills that are required.” That sure doesn’t seem to have changed. Just recently, a coalition of business leaders proposed that the state spend – “invest” is the preferred term – $880 million to help create better “career pathways” to develop the talent that Virginia needs. (Reporter Megan Schnabel wrote about this the other day.)

If the USA Today sportswriter’s thesis is right, part of Fuente’s problem is that he has difficulty recruiting talent to out-of-the-way Blacksburg. In terms of economic development, our challenge in this part of Virginia is exactly the opposite – it’s persuading the talent that’s already here to stay here. It’s not just a matter of all those rural counties across Southwest and Southside that are watching their populations decline as young adults move away, although there’s that, too. The Roanoke Valley Regional Partnership, the economic development group for the region from Alleghany County to Franklin County, points out that “the region has a higher concentration of undergraduates per capita than the Boston-Cambridge, San Francisco-Oakland, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill or Austin areas,” all of those high-tech capitals. (The partnership rightly takes an expansive view of the region, counting all the college students from Sweet Briar College in Amherst County to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.) The point is, the New River Valley, Roanoke Valley and Lynchburg areas already have plenty of college students in their midst; they just have trouble retaining them after graduation. We don’t need them all to stay, of course, but the economy would be better off if more did.

So why don’t they stay?

Umm, it’s not because of our geography. After all, they came to college here knowing exactly where we are, and where we’re not.

Some grads move on because we’re not a big city, of course. There’s not much we can do for those folks. But for others, we’re just right, especially those who like an outdoors lifestyle. The report pointed out that “The physical location and its proximity to multiple large metro areas, highways, and air and rail travel were also cited as benefits to allowing for a mix of both small-metro advantages and access to larger areas. Washington, D.C., or Charlotte are not too far away to experience professional sports, attend larger events, or access a wider range of retail and entertainment amenities.” (This is certainly true for me. Having failed in my one-man hashtag campaign to lure the Canadian chart-toppers The Beaches to this part of Virginia, I’m making plans to go to Washington to see them in December.) Indeed, the Roanoke and New River valleys have built an entire economic development campaign around our outdoor assets; Southwest Virginia is certainly doing the same. The county administrator in Grayson County recently said his county is seeing an influx of people who like its remote location, especially in the age of Zoom. A Chamber of Commerce official in Bluefield recently said the same thing. For the people we’re trying to reach, geography isn’t a problem, it’s the solution.

Personally, I’m skeptical of the “Tech has a geography problem” argument that the USA Today writer was making. Is Blacksburg simply too remote a location from which to try to operate a college football powerhouse? Perennial powerhouse Alabama is in Tuscaloosa, which isn’t exactly a major metro. Ninth-ranked Iowa is in Iowa City, which is out in the middle of some cornfields – and about as far from Chicago and Minneapolis as Blacksburg is from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Penn State is in State College, Pennsylvania, which has about the same population as Blacksburg and seems even harder to get to. But I’ll leave college football to the experts and return to economics.

That GO Virginia report identified three bigger problems the region faces when it comes to persuading college students to stay here after graduation.

The first problem isn’t necessarily the lack of jobs available, it’s the lack of second jobs available: “Employers experience more difficulty finding professionals with 5-7 years of experience, including managers or team leaders. In speaking with young professionals in the region, many feel that the region doesn’t have as many opportunities for the ‘second job’ after graduation, or the next step in a career path after an entry level position. For this reason, many leave the region to further their careers, which contributes to this gap in experience.” In other words, why invest in a region if you know you’ll have to leave it anyway?

The second problem: Low wages. We like to talk up our low cost of living, but that often isn’t as big a selling point as we’d like to think it is. “One of the biggest challenges for regional businesses in recruiting talent is the comparatively lower wages in the region,” the report said. “This is especially true when recruiting talent that is not location-restricted and may be receiving offers from companies in other locations with higher relative wages. Though the cost of living in the region is lower, it does not always compensate for lower wages, especially within highly-skilled positions. There can be significant difficulty in communicating this comparison with other regions, especially with college students looking for their first jobs.”

The third problem is one we don’t hear much about (and may not like to hear if we do): We’re too white. Or, to be more polite, we’re not particularly diverse: “As can be common with smaller cities and rural areas, one of the most commonly referenced attributes that is lacking in Region 2 is cultural diversity. This makes attracting diverse talent difficult, as many new residents are looking for a [community] in which to engage that shares their own culture, making it easier to feel at home. The lack of diversity can also promote a perception of a lack of tolerance, whether it is real or perceived.”

Creating more “second jobs” probably requires more corporate headquarters, or at least regional headquarters. Changing our wage structure, or our demographics, won’t happen quickly. And there’s not much that some of us can do about either of those – although anyone flying a Confederate flag could sure help address the latter by hauling the blasted thing down. Every Confederate flag you see makes a statement, one that doesn’t help us build a new economy.

Does any of that help Coach Fuente? No. He may be beyond our help. But communities across Southwest and Southside could study this report and take its findings to heart. We have many problems, but geography isn’t one of them.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.