William Byrd High School graduates at the Salem Civic Center. Courtesy of Roanoke County schools.

If there’s any locality in Southwest and Southside Virginia that’s not trying to grow its population, I sure haven’t heard of such a place.

On the contrary, trying to grow the population is usually an official policy, which plays out in different ways.

The Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission has a program where it pays off student debt for recent graduates who move to the commission’s 40 localities in Southwest and Southside to fill positions deemed critical.

Highland County, at 2,232 the least-populated county in the state, is looking for ways to promote itself as a good home for remote workers.

The Roanoke Regional Partnership, the economic development group that covers the area from Alleghany County to Franklin County, has set an official goal of a 10% increase in population growth from in-migration by 2027. It’s been a big proponent of “quality of life” amenities as a way to attract new residents.

Pulaski County has set an ambitious goal of not simply reversing decades of population decline but growing its official 2020 population of 33,800 to 40,000 by 2030. It has invested in schools and is counting on population growth from Montgomery County to spill across the New River.

Botetourt County, which hasn’t had a problem with population growth, has still seen a demographic challenge: not enough young adults. Accordingly, it’s pushed apartment growth as a way to broaden its population base.

Other localities surely have responded in their own ways. There’s one thing, though, that no locality has done, that I’m aware of: No locality has set up a program to keep track of its high school graduates as they go off to college and then persuade them to come home.

This strikes me as a missed opportunity. Every locality bemoans the paucity of young adults and yearns to attract them. Yet each year a whole graduating class of seniors walks across the stage to accept their diplomas, and localities make no effort to keep up with them. If we want to recruit people, especially young adults, to live in Southwest and Southside, why not start with our own children?

Now, it’s easy for me to sit here and opine about something somebody else should do, especially when there are some tricky logistical details involved that I’m conveniently skating past. First of all, who would do this? Schools don’t consider this part of their duty; their duty seems to end once they hand out diplomas. Perhaps some other entity of local government could do this, but there are some legal issues regarding privacy involved, I’m told by those who know such things better than me. The county administrator can’t just requisition a list of graduating seniors and all their contact information. These are serious impediments, and there are good reasons why they’re impediments, but they also seem like ones that someone could work around with a little creativity.

What we need is a) some inducement for graduates to voluntarily sign up for updates and b) some entity to manage that.

Both of those seem like solvable problems if somebody wants to do the work.

Of the two, the sign-up question seems the bigger challenge to me. Or maybe not. We live in an era when some colleges start recruiting future “student-athletes” when they’re in middle school. Why aren’t localities, desperate to reverse population declines, already recruiting their own students? We all know that not much actual learning goes in the final days of a school year. By then, most seniors are 18. Send somebody out to the local high school to meet with the seniors and talk up all the things that locality has to offer – and use that as an opportunity to collect contact information. Maybe there are better ways to do that; there probably are. I’m just showing one way to do it.

Let’s assume the goal here is to keep track of all those high school graduates who go off to college. Presumably those students come home for holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, maybe even spring break. They might be home for the summer, too, unless they score an internship somewhere. (That’s another issue: Gary Larrowe, the county administrator in Botetourt County, tells me he recently spoke to some Virginia Tech seniors and asked them their plans after graduation. All had jobs lined up someplace other than here. He asked them how they had managed to line up jobs already in places as far-flung as Arizona. Easy, they said. That’s where their summer internships had been. His takeaway, and mine, too: We need more internships.)

In any case, there are certain times of the year when we know college students are likely to be home. Localities that want to keep in touch with them can schedule events then. Throw a party. Hold a reception. Do something fun that would be a draw. (I’m the last person to ask about what that would be. When I was in high school, I was in charge of the music for a dance in the gym after a football game. I put together a killer playlist, or so I thought. Who knew that Suzi Quatro wasn’t what kids back then wanted to bebop to?)

The point is, don’t wait until after those students graduate from college and then hope that they’ll come home just because you’ve built a greenway. By then, those students have already set their sights on Charlotte or Atlanta or who knows where. Most of us grow up with only a limited knowledge of our hometowns, so let’s not assume that those graduates know what the rest of us know, because even the rest of us may not know everything there is to know about what opportunities might be available. Localities ought to be acting more like college sports programs, tracking their recruits and keeping in touch with them as they move through school. Haylee’s majoring in computer science? Make sure she’s connected with local companies that involve information technology. Noah’s majoring in accounting? Make sure he’s connected with local accountants and companies that require those services. Make sure they both know how easy it is to telecommute from home – the level of internet service may have improved greatly since they were in high school. Make sure they both know what services are available if they decide to start their own companies.

All right, you say, that sounds great, but it also sounds like a lot of work. Who’s going to do it? Good question! Here’s where I’m supposed to have a good answer, as well. I don’t. In theory, this should be a function of the county (or city) economic development office, but let’s not pretend that people are sitting around in those offices with nothing to do. At last fall’s Senate Finance Committee retreat in Roanoke, the senators heard reports about how many rural localities simply aren’t staffed to do real economic development. “We see a lot of county administrators doing economic development – the way they’re also doing planning and zoning and filling potholes,” said Cassidy Rasnick, then deputy secretary in the Office of Commerce and Trade. So let’s not count on the localities that most need to be recruiting their own graduates to actually be able to do so. They need some other entity to do this. So who?

Well, let’s not assume this has to be a government function. There are chambers of commerce. There are Rotary clubs. There are Kiwanis clubs. There are Ruritan clubs. There can be new groups formed – volunteer groups. All these problems are solvable; it’s just a matter of finding someone who wants to do the work to figure them out.

All I know is that many decades after I graduated, my college alma mater still has ways to track me down to ask for money. Surely localities that are trying to grow their populations can figure out a way to keep up with their own kids.

Dwayne Yancey

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