Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.

Every student who graduates from a Virginia high school should do so with a credential or associate degree that would allow them to “immediately be prepared to go right into life,” Gov. Glenn Youngkin said in Bristol on Wednesday.

The governor said he plans to announce in December he is seeking a budget amendment to fund expanding the program so that a credential or associate degree is a graduation requirement.

Doing so would “change lives and opportunities,” Youngkin told Cardinal News. “So, I believe that we have both the capabilities to expand that extensively. And there’s no reason why it couldn’t be incorporated into our graduation requirements.”

Youngkin appeared at the Bristol Train Station as part of a Speaker Series co-sponsored by Cardinal News and the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. The event, which focused on economic development in Southwest Virginia, drew more than 100, including the Southwest Virginia legislative delegation and local government, education and business officials. Other co-sponsors were the United Company, and the Train Station.

Governor Glenn Youngkin with students from Virginia High School in Bristol. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.

Also in attendance were a group of students from Virginia High School, who were addressed by the governor several times during his remarks.

“There is such a great future ahead of you and what we want to do is work with industry and work with our higher education institutions and professional training institutions to make sure that in high school, you have a chance to explore your dreams, to try new things and if you just decide to go to college, you’ll be ready. And if you choose to go right into the workforce, you’ll have a skill that allows you to stack and build your career.”

The governor acknowledged that expanding and enhancing the current program would be a “big lift” that would require hiring additional instructors at the state’s community colleges.

A big challenge facing the state and nation is the need for more people in the workforce, according to the governor. He said the problem was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, when the federal government “incentivized” employees to stay home.

 Virginia had a labor participation rate of 67 percent, but that number has slipped to 63 percent, which represents hundreds of thousands of workers, Youngkin said.

He urged the VHS students to take a moment to meet some of the business leaders in the room, who might be their future employers.

“Go build a relationship today … because these folks in the room want you to come work for them. You are the scarce resource,” he said.

After speaking for about 40 minutes, Youngkin took several questions from the audience on topics ranging from the need for more child-care facilities to the governor’s energy plan and the learning loss experienced by students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regarding passenger rail service, Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Beth Rhinehart asked Youngkin what he thinks of efforts to bring Amtrak to and through Bristol. The subject has been discussed for decades, but there has been a recent resurgence in interest, she said.

The governor said his administration is “committed to being a big part of bringing rail back to Bristol. It does take three parties. It takes Virginia interests, it takes Tennessee interests and it takes the federal government. And I think we’re leading in making sure we’re pushing this forward.”

Youngkin said he can see a future when passenger rail and cargo commercial rail stretch from Nashville, through Bristol and up into the East Coast. He said he has an “additional aspiration” to connect those services to Virginia’s port and to have an inland port presence. (The recent General Assembly commissioned a study of a possible inland port either in the Lynchburg area or the Bristol-to-Wytheville region).

He added that he has an open dialogue with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

Currently, there is no funding for extending passenger rail service to Bristol in the state’s 2022 rail plan, but Youngkin commended local officials for their leadership and continued efforts to bring the service back to the Twin City.

Previous speakers in the Cardinal News Speaker Series were Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, who spoke in Blacksburg in June about technology, and Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, who spoke in Danville in September about manufacturing.

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...