A wind turbine plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.

“Workforce development” is a phrase in abundant use throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. At the heart of every discussion, whether about investment or scope, is the role of our community colleges. As presidents of the four Virginia community colleges in the southwestern region of the Commonwealth, we’d like to reach beyond the jargon and drill into the meaning and purpose of workforce development. Our lab: the new opportunity for Virginia’s Southwest to participate in the global offshore wind energy supply chain.

The national supply chain is already a $100 billion market, and Virginia’s part in it will grow. The Hampton Roads region has been working for some time on the evaluation of Virginia’s coast for turbine placement, leveraging its ports, shipbuilding industry and strategic location to attract investment. As public and private entities alike already have made plans for placing these structures, Virginia will become one of the centers for wind energy production. 

It is likely that Virginia will become a leading location for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to tap for contract manufacturers who are closer to the US eastern seaboard, as most of the OEMs are headquartered in Europe and Asia. The OEMs need manufacturing partners within hours’ reach of the turbine plants. Virginia’s Southwest satisfies this need – as long as our companies are staffed by competitively talented workers.

Last week, Mountain Empire Community College, Southwest Virginia Community College, Virginia Highlands Community College and Wytheville Community College announced that we will enter a collaboration to support our regional manufacturers and our workers. Formalized through a memorandum of understanding (MOU), we will work together to promote, develop and expand the preparation of workers to enter the employ of regional supply chain manufacturers in the offshore wind energy generation sector.

This MOU is part of InvestSWVA’s Project Veer, which is leveraging the legacy of advanced manufacturing in Virginia’s Southwest to explore entry points for the region’s manufacturers into the offshore wind supply chain. An economic development initiative announced on December 14, 2021, Project Veer was funded by the GO Virginia Region One Council, the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and Coalfield Strategies, LLC. Xodus Group conducted the underlying analysis, which was delivered in 90 days. The consultants engaged the region’s manufacturers along with industry experts, public-sector partners, the Hampton Roads Alliance, Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power, and GO Virginia Region One’s economic and workforce development organizations in order to advance the region’s entry into this new market.

Courtesy of InvestSWVA.

Most advanced manufacturing jobs now require at least one year of formal education and continuing on-the-job training. This is an appropriate initiation point for the design of training and upskilling programs around component manufacturing in the wind energy sector. More than 200 companies within the footprint of our colleges could participate in the manufacture of wind turbine components – which means their existing employees will need upskilling and they will need new workers entering the pipeline. Experts forecast that maximum demand for manufacturers, with skilled workers, will be here by 2024. It’s time for us to make world-class education in this field happen.

Our colleges have committed to four sets of principles in support of our region’s manufacturers and to guide us in designing curricula that will prepare workers.

  1. Connect deeply with the region’s closely-held manufacturers, who have vast supply chain experience and can tell us what they need.
  2. Help regional workers climb off the fence about a manufacturing career, by promoting manufacturing careers as rewarding, professionally and financially.
  3. Participate in a measurable way in strengthening the regional economy, by bridging the gap between legacy and renewable energy sectors.
  4. Write a new chapter for the people of our region, centered in honing talent and developing new skills to help create a forward-thinking economy.

Our institutions have the honor to serve communities in transit to a new destination – a destination we believe presents a chance for financial independence and prosperity, to every resident. As many leaders from around the Commonwealth, the nation and the world have observed, Virginia’s coalfields powered the world for the better part of a century. While the focus often has been on one natural resource – fossil fuel – we believe the most valuable natural resource of our region is our people. Our job is to help equip them – and to inspire them – to be part of the next era of industrial development. For our region, energy production is a natural fit. This MOU affirms our commitment to make the wind energy sector an accessible training and reskilling option for our residents. 

By working together, our region’s community colleges can devise a framework for training and upskilling that is a model for the Commonwealth, attracting investment not just to our region but throughout Virginia. We want to attract not just companies, however. We want to attract workers. We also are delivering the Virginia community college system’s vision of advising and participating in a worker preparation model like no other in the nation.

We want the people of Virginia’s Southwest to see that there are new reasons to stay, to build careers and to establish companies right here in the region. We want agencies, legislators and business partners to see that the community colleges embrace the purpose of helping workers grow the way they want to grow. Our job is to deliver relevant training and education. If we do this, the impact upon our regional economy – in terms of jobs, tax revenue and reputation – will be evident, beyond our geographic boundaries.

Dr. Adam C. Hutchison is president of Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon.

Dr. Dean Sprinkle is president of Wytheville Community College in Wytheville

Dr. Kristen Westover is president of Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap.

Dr. Tommy F. Wright is president of Southwest Virginia Community College in Tazewell.