Southwest Virginia has several rites of spring. The NASCAR race at Bristol (technically in the other Bristol, but let’s not get technical). The Dr. Ralph Stanley Hills of Home Festival in Dickenson County. And the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
I missed the first, will miss the second but did not miss the third, which is why today I’ll be writing about the Southwest economy rather than about trading paint on turn three or the three-finger technique that made Stanley such a fine picker.
Cardinal sent two-thirds of its news staff to this event, which underscores the importance we attach to covering the economy of our coverage area in Southwest and Southside. Megan Schnabel filed this report on some surprising data presented by Jason El Koubi, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership: Southwest Virginia lost fewer jobs during the pandemic than most parts of Virginia and has now recovered all those and gained a smidge. (The place that fell the most: the New River Valley. The place that has recovered the least: the Eastern Shore. You can see those charts and numbers in Megan’s story.) El Koubi also pointed out that while Southwest (and Southside) are projected to lose jobs through 2025, the numbers are relatively small – meaning it wouldn’t take much to put both those regions into the plus column. “This is an accomplishable goal, folks,” El Koubi said. We’re accustomed to hearing Stanley’s classic “Man of Constant Sorrow,” but that doesn’t seem to apply to these numbers. That seems kind of a big deal.
Here are my other takeaways from the event, which drew 236 people in person and 51 online.
We interrupt this column to bring you this message: Of the four other sessions of the forum, Cardinal News has written stories dealing with all four. In the talent session, Andy Sorrell of the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission talked about how the commission has a program to pay the student loans of recent college graduates in certain high-demand fields. Amy Trent wrote about that. Julie Brown of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville talked about getting middle schoolers interested in welding. Amy Trent wrote about that, too. In the housing session, the founder of the housing company Alquist talked about how 3D printers can be used to build affordable housing more quickly. Randy Walker wrote about that. There was a session on casinos; Grace Mamon has written several stories about those. And the day wrapped up with a session on child care; Grace Mamon has written about that, too. All these stories were made possible thanks to the donors who have helped fund us. We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that relies entirely on donations, which is why you didn’t have to scale a paywall to read this. Want more journalism for and about Southwest and Southside? You can help fund us, too. We now return you to your regularly scheduled column.
OK, so back to the takeaways I promised.
- This forum shows the importance of a university. Universities have a unique convening power. This forum, now in its seventh year, happens because UVA Wise makes it happen. (UVA Wise might also attribute this to its donors who help underwrite the event.) My point is that universities do more than simply educate students; they can be forces in other ways, and here’s a good example. In theory, some other institution could organize such an event, but there’s nothing like a school, which is usually seen as a neutral party in whatever local rivalries there might be. That brings me to …
- Every region could hold a summit like this. Maybe some do and I just don’t know it because those events go by other names. Certainly there are lots of things that are called summits. The Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce held a “workforce summit” the same day as this forum. The Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance has a workforce and education summit scheduled for December. I wonder, though, why every region doesn’t have something like this. In fact, while this event was aimed at Southwest, much of the content wasn’t Southwest-specific. The tobacco commission talent attraction program applies to most of Southwest and Southside. Brown talked up the Go Tec program (more on that to come) that started in Danville and Pittsylvania County and has now spread from Hampton Roads to Wythe, Carroll and Grayson counties in Southwest. Alquist is building houses in Pulaski – and Williamsburg. The casino session was focused on Bristol, but there’s an easy way to do one focused on Danville. Why couldn’t someone put together a road show that makes a stop in every region, with a goal of giving community leaders everywhere a solid baseline of information? Here’s some of the information they’d hear:
- Middle school matters. There was much discussion of the worker shortage, which, as I pointed out in an earlier column, is driven by demographics. The pandemic has merely accelerated a phenomenon that was going to happen anyway. “You’re going to [have to] figure out how to achieve the same productivity with relatively fewer workers,” El Koubi said. He predicted that over the next five to 10 years, we’ll see “more technology” – automation – and also “a lot more pressure on immigration reform.”
Not everything can be automated, though, which makes “talent pipeline” the hot phrase whenever economic development is discussed. That’s put a lot more emphasis on career and technical education in high school – many trades are facing huge talent shortages – but Brown said that’s too late to start trying to interest students in certain fields. “If we wait to grab them until after 18, especially for an advanced manufacturing career, we’ve already lost them – they’ve already picked something else,” she said. That’s why the Go Tec program was founded in Danville, a city that is trying to position itself as a center for advanced manufacturing. The program’s goal is to go into middle schools to start introducing students to certain career options, especially those in the trades. “Middle school still isn’t soon enough,” she contends, but that’s where the program is focused now. One of the signature parts of the program is to get simulated welding machines into middle schools – and train teachers on how to use them – to expose kids to a welding career. For schools that can’’ afford the machines – one supplier’s website lists them at $56,000 apiece – there’s a Go Tec bus that can show up that’s equipped with simulators. Here’s some unsolicited advice: Every chamber of commerce ought to be inviting Brown in to speak and every school division ought to be booking an appearance by the Go Tec bus.
“Come to a middle school and I’ll show you where those workers are,” Brown said. When business prospects come to her region, “we take them to the middle school. We show them those young people who are diverse and getting on welding simulators. … If you want to sell a company, show ’em a sixth grade female on a welding machine out-competing her peers.” (Amy’s story on this program had just such a photo.) There’s your talent pipeline.
- A single career day doesn’t cut it. Brown said students need to be constantly reminded throughout their schooling what job opportunities are available in their own community. “How do we make sure the name Hitachi gets in front of them seven times, the name Goodyear,” she said, ticking off names of companies in Danville. “There need to be multiple touch points. … We’ve just got to do a better job of showing them the opportunities.” She joked that we need an app for job matches. “Swipe right – it’s amazing to me we have algorithms that can match people for relationships but we don’t have one that can match people for jobs.” Perhaps this is an idea for the Start-Up Slam that Danville is launching?
- Localities need a uniform pitch. The local government, the school system, the business community – they all need to be telling the same stories to prospects. “What impresses them, they go to different places, they hear the same elevator pitch,” Brown said.
- Society doesn’t reward teenagers who work. “We’re concerned about labor force participation rates for young people 16 to 24 – they’re not showing up in the workforce,” Brown said. “Why are young people not showing up? For many of them, it’s that they don’t have time.” Many are involved in extracurricular activities. Those are important, she said, but we as a society also place value on those. Colleges look for those sorts of things in applications. “I have yet to see a high school graduation that gives points for working a part-time job,” Brown said. “We need to change some of these strategies.” Work needs to be celebrated.
- Companies will need to change to adapt to a new workforce. I said that every chamber of commerce should invite Brown to speak. They won’t like this part of what she has to say, although maybe they need to hear it anyway. “Here are the realities of this labor pool,” Brown said. “They’ve never not known air conditioning. Many of our manufacturing facilities aren’t climate-controlled.” If companies want workers, they need to do things to attract that workforce, she said. “Try to tell a young person that they need to lock their phone in a locker for four hours. We can’t have kids on their phones driving forklifts, but does that mean they’re getting a break more often? These conversations are going to have to happen if we’re going to attract this new workforce, so the way we do business is going to have to be different.” Ophthalmologists should sponsor Brown’s talk because I guarantee you she will make some eyes pop out.
- We need more people in computer-related fields. We’re getting them, too. El Koubi talked about the statewide impact of the Amazon HQ2 under construction in Arlington. He admitted that yes, it might seem odd to go to Southwest Virginia and talk up a Northern Virginia project but he explained why. “Amazon will position every part of the state for economic growth,” he said. As part of the deal to win Amazon, Virginia offered an unusual incentive package: “We’re going to double the production of bachelor’s and master’s students in computer science,” he said. Public universities across Virginia have committed to increasing the talent pipeline in computer science. At UVA Wise, he said, that has meant 350 students enrolled since 2017. The odds are not all of those will go to work for Amazon; some will stay in the region, so that helps build up the local talent pool in data science. And that brings us to this …
- Video games are not a waste of time. Zachary Mannheimer, founder and CEO of Alquist, the 3D housing company, talked up how 3D printing is about to revolutionize the housing industry (and, perhaps, a lot of others). One of the keys behind that is the ability to write code. “If you can code, you can operate a 3D printer,” he said. It’s the sexy 3D printing part that might help entice into the building trades people who previously weren’t interested in them. That’s when he offered this insight: “My kids play Minecraft all day long. It drives me nuts, until I realize it’s training them for this industry.” (We might need an ophthalmologist’s help after people recover from this thought, too.)
- We need a new solution for child care. If the day began on an upbeat note – Southwest Virginia’s job count has bounced back better than other parts of the state – it ended on a downbeat one. Child care isn’t working. Cardinal’s Grace Mamon explained earlier this year why that’s a problem for a lot of rural localities. A session with Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia; Ballad Health vice president Tony Keck; and Agida Manizade, founding president of Radford Child Development Inc., highlighted that point in vivid colors. During the pandemic, women left the workforce at a faster rate than me. Four in five unemployed workers say that child care is an obstacle to returning to work. So here we have a worker shortage – and people out of the workforce who might return if there was adequate child care – so why isn’t this a solvable problem?
“The math doesn’t work,” Keck said. Child care is labor intensive – we can’t bring in robots to do that. Right now, we don’t pay those child care workers much money, which means they’re increasingly hard to find. Child care providers could pay more – but then they’d have to charge more, and if they did, then the cost becomes prohibitive and it simply becomes too expensive for some people to return to work. “The numbers just don’t work,” Keck said. Manizade agreed: “We can’t think the way we’ve always thought about it, because the old ways aren’t working.”
Keck offered some solutions, but they’re going to challenge a lot of political orthodoxy: “Either the government or employers or both are going to have to more heavily subsidize child care,” he said. “Families can’t pay enough to attract the level of teachers we need,” which means some companies can’t attract the workers they need.
Keck cited Ballad’s situation. The company is short 600 nurses. Nurses are generally women. A majority of medical school students are now women. His company did a survey and found that 98% of respondents have had their career affected by child care issues. “You never hear of a number like that,” he said. Yet there it is. The healthcare industry, more than others, depends on making sure there’s child care. Ballad’s solution: It’s going to start subsidizing child care. From a market perspective, it simply has to. But there are obviously fiscal limits to what any single organization can do. That prompted a comment from someone in the audience: Amanda Livingstone, Smyth County’s tourism director. “This is not a woman problem, this is a family problem, this is an economic development problem,” she said. “Child care is foundational to what we all want to achieve in this region.”
Don’t believe it? Try this. There was a whole session on how the coming Hard Rock Casino – set to open in a temporary facility on July 8 – will be transformative for Bristol. But Allie Evangelista, president of Hard Rock Casino & Hotel Bristol, pointed out that her facility will be open 24/7, which means some workers will need child care outside of what most of us consider regular business hours. Will there be companies that can provide child care on those overnight shifts? Or on holidays and weekends? That leads me to wonder: Can conservative rural areas figure out a solution before the rest of the country? They’re the ones who need jobs most, which means they have the most incentive right now.
A final observation, which I offer gently: Gov. Glenn Youngkin was invited to speak at the summit. He did not. His schedule on Wednesday simply showed a series of meetings with different cabinet secretaries. Maybe there was some super-important event that was not on his public schedule. Still, this seems like a missed opportunity. Youngkin was elected on the strength of votes in Southwest Virginia – turnout in Russell County, for instance, surged by 15 percentage points from what it was four years ago, the largest increase anywhere in the state. And Youngkin’s share of the vote in Southwest Virginia hit unprecedented levels. In Lee County, he took 87.6% of the vote. His vote share topped 80% in all the coal counties. He told Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt recently he wants to make sure Southwest Virginia doesn’t feel left out. His secretary of commerce and trade, Caren Merrick, recently made a swing through Southwest and, by every account I heard, people who met with her were impressed. House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, said the governor has lots of ideas for Southwest Virginia. “I know the governor is really into back offices – banks, data,” Kilgore said. These sound like smart plays, and Youngkin has more connections in the business world than most governors, which ought to work to our advantage. Youngkin could have had a friendly audience, in the home of his strongest supporters, to tell them what he’s doing to help them build a new economy. I hope he finds an opportunity before next year’s summit to do so.