Martinsville City Council meets here. Courtesy of City of Martinsville.
Martinsville City Council meets here. Courtesy of City of Martinsville.

Today we are going to use data to crown the technology capital of Virginia. 

As with many other contests, we will also gently point out the least technological part of the state. 

Before we get to that, we have a few megabytes of context to explain about why this matters.

The Brookings Institution this week released a fascinating report on “the digitalization of work.” On the one hand, we all know this is happening. Years ago, I’d have been writing this on an Underwood typewriter whose mechanical keys might occasionally get jammed. Now I’m writing on a Dell laptop whose keyboard gave out a few weeks ago. (This is apparently called progress.) On the other hand, this report makes the case that we shouldn’t think purely in terms of “tech workers.”

“Any work can be digital and more and more every occupation has a digital element,” co-author Mark Muro told me. “So we’re trying to get at that rather than just ‘high tech.’” This is something we’ve seen especially in the manufacturing world with the rise of what we now call “advanced manufacturing.” Once we thought of factories as dirty, noisy places; now they’re often clean, quiet computer-based operations. One reason the Eldor auto parts plant chose Botetourt County a few years ago was because Virginia Western Community College has a mechatronics program that combines mechanical systems with computerized ones. In that sense, even many factory jobs today have a digital component to them.

That’s what the Brookings report is about. “It’s essentially about the extent to which workers use digital tools in their work and that’s important because we show a strong correlation between that and pay,” Muro said. “Someone with a more digital job is likely to be more productive and paid more.”

This report attempts to quantify just how much the nature of work has changed and has some eye-opening data to make that point.

In 2002, only 9% of the jobs in the country were considered highly digitalized, while 39% were considered at a medium level of digitalization and 52% were at a low level. (You can read the details on how Brookings classified jobs in their report.)

By 2020, 26% of the jobs were considered highly digitalized, while 51% were at a medium level and only 23% were at a low level.

That seems a pretty good summary of how the workplace is changing. In 2002, most jobs were only lightly digitalized, if at all. Now fewer than one-quarter are. Meanwhile, the percentage of highly digitalized jobs has nearly tripled. 

Not surprisingly, there are pay disparities among these three groups.

The average pay of those in highly digitalized jobs was $79,000 in 2020, the Brookings report says. 

The average pay for those in the medium range was $54,000 and the average pay for those in the low digitalization range was $35,000.

The good news is that we seem to be growing more high-paid jobs. The not-so-good news is that economic disparities are widening. “The wage premium for jobs with a high digitalization level as opposed to a medium level has crept up to 47%, from 41% earlier in the decade,” Brookings reports.

The biggest disparities, though, are geographic. The places with the highest shares of highly digitalized jobs are the ones with the highest incomes; the places with the lowest shares have the lowest incomes.

Brookings has computed digital averages for every metropolitan and micropolitan area in the country, which lets us compare and contrast different communities.

Let’s establish some baselines.

Nationally, an average of 32% of jobs were digitalized in 2002. By 2010, that number was up to 44% and by 2020 it was 48%.

In Virginia, an average of 33.7% of jobs were digitalized in 2002. By 2010, that number was up to 45.8%, and by 2020 it was 49.0%.

You’ll see that each time, Virginia ranked somewhat ahead of the rest of the country.

If you really want to take a big-picture view (which I’m always fond of), you’ll see that the biggest changes came in the early part of the century and then slowed down, although they’re certainly continuing. Might this change have helped contribute to the social forces that led to the rise of Donald Trump? Certainly the hollowing out of traditional employers in the American heartland played a role in that. Those are my questions, not Brookings’, but I just offer those for thought. We know that historically when the world changes quickly for some people, there’s often a backlash.

Anyway, back to numbers. 

Only two other states have a higher percentage of digitalized jobs than Virginia – Maryland scores 49.9 and Massachusetts 49.4. I’m told that data that Cardinal has reported has sometimes been cited in the governor’s cabinet meetings; here are some stats I hope come to the governor’s attention. To the extent that he’s pushing Virginia as a technology capital, here’s some evidence that Virginia already is a tech capital. Silicon Valley may rank high as a metro area, but on the statewide level, California is actually pretty low – 46.9, not that much different from West Virginia at 46.8.

Those numbers also show something else: At the statewide level, the numbers between the most digitalized state and the least digitalized seems fairly small. As we’ve just seen, the three highest states are in the 49 range. The lowest states are Nevada at 45.2 and Wyoming at 45.0.

That suggests to me that the digitalization of the economy has been pretty widespread. Statewide averages, though, can be misleading because averages are, well, averages. The real differences come at the metro level. 

The highest score is in Washington, D.C., which comes in at 55 – lots of office-based government jobs.

At the lower end are places such as Salinas, California, at 38.3 and Madera, California, at 39.7. (This is part of the reason why California statewide is about the same as West Virginia.) If you’re curious about Silicon Valley (and I was), the San Jose metro comes in at 52.3.

Some other well-known tech capitals nationally:

Austin: 50.3

Boston: 50.2

Seattle: 49.6

Raleigh: 49.4

San Francisco: 49.4

So, how do Virginia localities rank?

There may not be much suspense about the most technological part of Virginia, especially after I dropped the number above for D.C. If you’re looking for the tech capital of Virginia, it’s in Northern Virginia.

The Washington metro – which covers the aforementioned D.C., plus Northern Virginia and parts of Maryland – comes in at 51.8.

Here’s how it’s become digitalized:

How jobs in the Washington metro have gone digital. Based on data compiled by Brookings Institution.

Now let’s look at all the other metro – and micro – areas.

How jobs in Virginia’s metro and micropolitan areas have gone digital. Based on data compiled by the Brookings Institution.

What you see is that in 2002 the D.C. metro had the most digitalized economy in the state, at 37.7, followed by Charlottesville and Richmond at 33.2. Martinsville had the least digitalized economy at 26, but many other localities weren’t that different. Danville was 27, Harrisonburg was 27.7, Staunton 28.4.

By 2020, the D.C. metro is still the most digitalized economy, at 51.8, followed by Charlottesville at 49.5 and Richmond at 48.5 – so the gap between the Washington metro and others has widened, as has the gap between Charlottesville and Richmond.

Yes, I realize the chart above looks like a tangle of spaghetti, so here’s a close look at just the last 10 years that helps show the separation between localities better. 

How jobs in Virginia’s metro and micropolitan areas have gone digital over the past 10 years. Based on data compiled by the Brookings Institution.

OK, maybe not that much better. Let’s narrow things down by just looking at the state’s top five most digtalized markets.

How jobs in Virginia’s five most digitalized metro and micropolitan areas have gone digital over the past 10 years. Based on data compiled by the Brookings Institution.

Now it’s easier to notice two things. The first is that growing separation between Charlottesville and Richmond. In 2002, they started at exactly the same place – 33.2. And you’ll see that until 2010 the lines overlap. Then Charlottesville starts to gain at a faster rate. 

The second thing I notice is the rise of Blacksburg. In 2002, it was in fifth place – at 30.8, which actually put it behind Bluefield at 31 (not shown on this chart). In 2010, it was still in fifth place. But over the next decade, it pulled ahead of Hampton Roads and now is just a decimal point behind Richmond – 48.5 for the capital metro, 48.4 for the Blacksburg metro. This speaks to the rise of the tech sector in the New River Valley that we’ve written about before. (The last time I referenced a Brookings report, it was to point out that Brookings said New River had the third fastest growth of tech workers in the country.) This is one of the reasons we at Cardinal want to add a technology reporter – to help cover this growing economic sector. (You can help make that happen by helping to fund us.)

Now let’s look at the bottom five. 

How jobs in Virginia’s least digitalized metro and micropolitan areas have changed. Based on data compiled by the Brookings Institution.

In some ways, this doesn’t appear to show much change – Martinsville starts in last place and ends in last place. Perhaps the surprising thing for some is that Bluefield outranks all the others. (Keep in mind that all these place names refer to either metro or micropolitan areas, so cover more than that specific locality. The Martinsville micropolitan covers Martinsville and Henry County; Bluefield covers both Tazewell County on the Virginia side and Mercer County on the West Virginia side.)

Now let’s take a closer look.

How jobs in Virginia’s least digitalized metro and micropolitan areas have changed. Based on data compiled by the Brookings Institution.

What we see a little more clearly here is how Harrisonburg and Danville have been moving up somewhat faster than their 2002 peers. Danville in 2002 had the second lowest digitalization scores of any metro or micropolitan area in the state. Now it’s pulled even with Staunton and is just a shade behind Harrisonburg. I can only assume this is because we’ve seen the Danville economy transform. In 2002, Danville was still in the throes of the collapse of the textile industry. Now it’s become a center for advanced manufacturing and, as we’ve seen, that’s a field that’s become digitalized. Its growth rate of digital-related jobs has been 66%, the second highest in the state. Harrisonburg’s rate was 63%.

What might surprise some are the localities that don’t make either the top five or the bottom five, meaning they’re somewhere in the middle. For instance, the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area. You might think that a statistical area that encompasses the heart of coal country would score low. Big Stone Gap’s score of 47 is actually a little higher than Roanoke’s 46.9, an indication that perhaps we shouldn’t think of coal country in stereotypical terms.

Some other observations:

  • In 2002, Blacksburg and Roanoke had almost the same score; since then Blacksburg has opened up a gap over Roanoke – another sign of the growing tech sector in the New River Valley.
  • In 2002, Roanoke had a more digitalized economy than Lynchburg; today Lynchburg ranks somewhat more digitalized.
  • If these communities were states, the Washington metro would be No. 1 in the country, while Charlottesville would be more digitalized than any state except Maryland. Blacksburg would rank eighth. On the other hand, the Virginia localities at the low end of the spectrum would be the lowest in the country. That’s another way to visualize the disparities we have in the Virginia economy.

Nonetheless, despite everything I just said, we should remember that the differences here remain relatively small; it’s just our impressions of communities that haven’t caught up to the reality. Otherwise we’d understand that Roanoke has a more digitalized economy than Boise, Idaho, a city that’s often singled out as a rising tech hot spot, and Asheville, North Carolina, a place that has long occupied Roanoke’s mind. And we’d understand this: Since 2002, the Washington metro has seen its digitalization grow by 38% – but Martinsville has seen it grow by 69%. That’s a faster rate of change than any other place in Virginia.

Dwayne Yancey

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