Research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Courtesy of the institute.

A new talent attraction incentive program in Virginia is intended to challenge the notion that you have to move from the country to “the big city” to find a technology-based job. 

Amendments to the state budget coming out of the House of Delegates allot nearly $1 million to expand and develop the technology sector in the New River Valley-Roanoke Valley-Lynchburg region — including a provision to pay skilled workers $10,000 to move to the area.

Erin Burcham.

“Here’s a budget amendment that our region has put forward to creatively think about how to bring in high-level talent, encourage in-migration numbers and to try something new in our region,” said Erin Burcham, executive director of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council. “It’s really about our regional economic development, our tech council, different organizations, the localities in the region partnering with the industry to recruit.”

It’s unclear if the legislature will agree on budget amendments before it’s scheduled to adjourn this week; Gov. Glenn Youngkin has raised the prospect of a special session to deal with the budget. However, if approved by the legislature and the governor, the $975,000 provided to GO Virginia Region 2 will allow the RBTC and the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance to launch a marketing campaign to invite skilled workers with three or more years of experience to apply and move into the region. The group has identified three target objectives: fill existing vacant tech jobs in the area, bring back regionally based work held by out-of-area remote workers, and recruit remote workers who aren’t presently associated with a local company in the hopes that they will bring their business with them.

A key component is both encouraging local companies to hire regionally based remote workers, and encouraging remote workers currently living elsewhere to move into the area. 

And $10,000 can be quite encouraging. That’s the sum that approved applicants would receive to help defray their relocation costs, with a stipulation that they remain in the area for a set amount of time. 

This program would be the first of its kind in Virginia, though some neighboring states, including West Virginia and Tennessee, have already initiated similar strategies. (Read our previous editorial column about those incentive programs.) A program called Ascend West Virginia, which was funded by Brad Smith, the former CEO of Intuit, offers people $12,000 along with outdoor recreation incentives to move into four cities in the state. In Johnson City, Tennessee, the economic impact of a group of 24 new remote workers in the area has been estimated at $420,000 a year. The populations in all of these areas have been declining in recent years; these talent attraction programs are seen as a step toward reversing the tide.

The initial money from Virginia will fund a two-year pilot project that proponents hope will continue with additional financial support, with the goal of placing up to 56 tech workers across the region in the first two years of the pilot program. RBTC is also intent on building a cohort-based system among the new arrivals to help them create both professional and personal networks — and help the workers and their families integrate into the local community. 

The groups across Region 2 are collaborating on the marketing outreach and application process. To determine its area’s specific technological needs, the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance is waiting on the results of a comprehensive workforce strategy by the Talent and Workforce Steering Committee. These findings will inform the alliance on what initiatives it should prioritize with the state money, according to Megan Lucas, its CEO and chief economic development officer. 

The pandemic precipitated significant changes in the realm of remote work and the information technology industry. Yet companies in Southwest and Southside are continuing to grow, and their need for tech workers grows with them. For example, Carilion Clinic is in the midst of a major expansion of its flagship hospital in Roanoke. And Burcham’s group, in partnership with other regional organizations, has been working to expand the Roanoke-New River Valley biotech sector.  

“COVID definitely shifted the competitiveness of technology workers, and to keep our region competitive we just need to have a stronger pull to technology talent,” said Burcham. “Our tech sector is growing and our biotech sector is growing, so to make sure as we are growing in biotech, autonomous systems and software development and ag-tech [agricultural technology], we’re focused on bringing in talent that aligns with the companies starting here.”

The program has the potential to impact more than just the region’s technology sector. Data from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia show that both Roanoke and Lynchburg are experiencing higher rates of people moving out than moving in. However, the talent attraction project has the potential to stem this outflow along with the local economy reaping some of the benefits as well. 

This was the case with Tulsa Remote, a similar program launched in 2018 that offered $10,000 for remote workers to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma. In just four years, the city managed to recruit 2,000 people into jobs leading to a boost of $10.7 million to the economy. The median income of these Tulsa workers was $85,000, a comparable figure to the amount Region 2’s tech workers would be making, according to Burcham. 

Cities across the country are experiencing more than just economic gains as a result of the technology recruitment plans. 

“In addition, the social impact of the program has been really strong,” said Burcham. “These people who are coming in making $85,000 to $100,000 in their remote job – they’re joining boards, they’re contributing to nonprofits. One woman even started a nonprofit. She saw a gap in resources in Tulsa and left her remote job to start a nonprofit. They’re really participating and that’s a question on the application, is if you’re interested in participating in the local community.”

Should the final version of the state budget include the funding for the talent attraction incentives, the program is scheduled for a tentative launch within the first quarter of 2024.

Emily Hemphill is a Political Science and Journalism major at the University of Mary Washington and sports...