The University of Virginia's College at Wise. Courtesy of UVA-Wise.

The economic alarm bell has sounded in rural Virginia.

The sound of the alarm is especially shrill in our region of the Commonwealth.  Population growth, economic growth and individual employment in our region lags far behind other parts of Virginia, according to the “State of the Commonwealth” report conducted at Old Dominion University.  Other recent studies have shown that young people continue to migrate to jobs in other parts of Virginia and even out of the state at an alarming rate.  We also know that the lack of qualified workers is the single biggest impediment to business growth across Virginia, including this region. 

Even amongst the darkest clouds, though, there are some rays of light.  Young people from Southwest Virginia have told us they would be willing “to come home or stay home” if good jobs are available.  Employers tell us when education and experience are properly aligned, they have jobs to fill.

While we must acknowledge the obstacles we face, we also know one strong asset exists, regardless of where in rural Virginia someone might live.  Our best hope to change the narrative relies on a traditional asset with a renewed can-do attitude:  opportunity through education.

Education is still the game-changer which transforms lives.  Education gives our best and brightest students the opportunity to gain knowledge and build skills that are needed to land a good job.  For many students in rural Virginia, educational opportunity may seem like a remote dream unless access to education beyond high school is affordable.   But an opportunity exists in the current General Assembly session to directly address this challenge in a way which enhances students’ employability, meets employers’ needs and can make the dream of an affordable education a tangible reality.

One of the best ways to keep talented students here is to connect them with Virginia employers via paid internships before they graduate.  These experiences benefit students, preparing them for the workplace and helping them pay for college.  But the Virginia Chamber of Commerce recently reported that, although 70 percent of Virginia employers would like to hire interns, only about 10 percent actually do.

It is noteworthy that promising solutions to the paid internship challenge already exist, including an innovative and dynamic program located at our very own UVa Wise.  This partnership highlights the positive outcomes that occur when universities like UVa Wise partner with the private sector and the Commonwealth to create programs which directly impact student learning.

This initiative – UVA Wise “Wise Works” – fits a niche need:  build talent for smaller companies and start-ups in emerging fields and industries.

“Wise Works” developed a collaborative relationship with a Virginia employer which became its first partner in this initiative – Peregine Computer Consultants Corporation (PCCC) – in the high demand CyberSecurity business sector.  The program directly impacts three high priorities critical to creating affordable talent pathways for Virginia college students.  

  1. Paid internships for UVa Wise students, some of whom might not have the family financial resources to accept an unpaid internship, provide the students with much-needed income
  2. These students gain valuable workplace experience in high demand – high wage fields
  3. The participating employer has a larger pool of potential employees for jobs which are currently unfilled because there are not enough qualified applicants to fill them

The internships were funded through resources provided by PCCC, the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative and UVa Wise itself.

The result is an educational success story.  Nearly thirty students have now received paid internships and the number of participating employers has grown to six.  In 2021 alone, sixteen UVa-Wise student participants received a paid internship through the program and nine of those students received full-time job offers from their internship employers.

The Wise Works program created some unanticipated benefits for the region. PCCC has expanded its operations from Northern Virginia and opened a satellite office in Wise County.  Perhaps more importantly, several of the internship participants recently employed by PCCC and other partners are “staying home”, living full-time in Southwest Virginia while working remotely for Virginia employers located elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

This innovative program at UVa Wise barely scratches the surface of what could be accomplished here if more resources were available for more students to receive life-changing paid internships.  For the many economically disadvantaged students UVa Wise serves, paid internships can be that lifeline which enables students to land a good job and launch a career while supporting a family and building a community.

Hopefully, right here at home in rural Virginia.

Furthermore, while many smaller employers in rural Virginia might like to provide paid internships to college students, there often just isn’t enough room in the company budget.  But a substantial investment by the state for paid internships can change the landscape for these smaller employers who would like nothing more than to be in a better position to keep local talent at home.

The good news is that business and education leaders in Virginia are already working together to address the internship challenge on a broader statewide basis.  Take a look at proposals represented by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC) (www.growth4VA.com) and the “Blueprint Virginia 2030” workforce and education recommendations by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce (www.blueprintvirginia.org).

The initiatives suggested by these prominent Virginia business organizations align perfectly with legislation advancing in the General Assembly.

We must scale up internship offerings regionally and statewide so that every Virginia student and every Virginia employer who wants to participate in a work-based learning experience has that opportunity.

The foundation for this win-win arrangement has already been laid through the Virginia Talent and Opportunity Partnership (V-TOP), a collaboration of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, that gives students and employers the tools they need to connect.  This partnership was initiated by the General Assembly in 2018 when it created the Innovative Internship Program at VBHEC’s urging, with the strong support of education and business leaders.   Governor Youngkin, Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke, and Republican Del. Carrie Coyner recently proposed new investments in internships through V-TOP which we strongly support.  The General Assembly should approve this initiative.

Education changes lives.  In the second decade of the 21st Century, experiential learning has become a critical foundational element in preparing students for today’s most in-demand jobs.  Opportunities afforded by more paid internships and apprenticeships will allow us to grow talent in Virginia and keep talent here.  The pieces are in place.  We cannot afford to wait any longer, when we have something that we know works. 

Simply put, there is no better investment the state can make, which will pay dividends immediately, that will keep talent here at home, than devoting more resources toward paid internships.  

Please join us in contacting legislators all across rural Virginia and encourage them to support this critically important effort.

Donna Henry

Donna Price Henry is Chancellor at UVa-Wise and the immediate Past Chair of Virginia’s Council of Presidents.

Mike Quillen

Mike Quillen is a retired executive devoted to the Southwest Virginia region and its residents and a member of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council.