Workforce statistics for the Roanoke MSA. Source: Federal Reserve.
Workforce statistics for the Roanoke MSA. Source: Federal Reserve.

One of the concerns that has vexed employers and economic observers alike has been the decline in labor force participation (a definition that includes those who are working or actively looking for work) since the spring of 2020.  Analysts have speculated and studied the reasons why, citing concerns such as childcare availability, fear of the COVID virus, baby boomers retiring, and other issues occurring nationwide. Recent economic data shows that the labor force is again growing significantly at the state level and nationally. There is even better news here in the Roanoke Region.

The Roanoke Region’s labor force has not only rebounded to pre-pandemic numbers, but also surpassed 2014 numbers, a previous peak. Since May 2020, more than 10,000 workers have entered and/or returned to the regional workforce in the Roanoke Valley, reaching a historic high of 162,259 as of March 2023 (the most recent data available), and exceeding a pre-pandemic high of 161,487 from 2014. That’s right — the Roanoke Region’s labor force now stands at its highest level in nine years.

So, what does this mean for employers and potential investment? This region’s labor force and labor force participation rate had been in decline for a period that began well before the pandemic. Likely a reflection of an aging demographic and retirement, this trend was very much local and not reflected in state and national numbers. For the Roanoke Region’s labor force numbers to show this level of strength suggests that recent in-migration (people moving here) has contributed to the growth of the labor force in a significant way. This means talent attraction and placemaking strategies are working in the Roanoke Region. Ultimately, this means the Roanoke Region is a more desirable location for business investment.

Nationally, there are encouraging trends, as noted by Dean Barber of Barber Business Advisors, an economic and corporate location consultancy. “Women and workers of color have played a significant role in recent gains in the labor market,” said Dean Barber. “In April, the number of women with jobs rose by 305,000 offsetting a 165,000 decline for men…[and] the unemployment rate for Black workers fell to its lowest point ever at 4.7 percent [nationally].” Local data of this variety is not yet available, though it is reasonable to expect that women and workers of color have similarly contributed to our region’s growth in the labor force.

While some of the Commonwealth’s largest metro regions are experiencing outmigration on a net basis, the Roanoke Region is seeing more moving in than out. Efforts like our region’s outdoor branding and events through the Roanoke Outside Foundation, talent attraction efforts through Get2KnowNoke, and tourism promotion by Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge have contributed to continued positive in-migration (or in new residents attracted to the region). 

Public and private economic development partners are actively promoting this region as a great place to live using differentiating factors like cost of living, outdoor assets, available housing, the innovation and biotech hub, climate, and quality of life as compelling messaging. Events like the Blue Ridge Marathon, Ironman, Down by Downtown, and GO Fest attract thousands of participants from all 50 states (and, yes, internationally) who experience the best of our region’s outdoor culture and mountain/metro amenity mix, building upon more than a decade of effort to foster an outdoor brand. The plan to build on our region’s authentic advantages is paying dividends – livability and talent attraction is indeed an economic engine.

This growth extends to the region’s key economic sectors. Private employment in the Roanoke MSA is growing, and most economic sectors have rebounded, including hospitality and tourism. Manufacturing and the goods-producing sectors are now at their highest level of employment since 2008, prior to the Great Recession. Education and health are once again above pre-pandemic levels, as well. There has never been a better time to find a job or to advertise and find labor in the Roanoke Region with growing employment and a growing labor force.  The new, regional job board includes a full listing of job opportunities.

A growing economy provides opportunity at all ends of the economic spectrum. And residents reentering the labor force may require training to support them in switching careers or refreshing their skills. Our region is fortunate to have a tried-and-true workforce development team in place to support them and to place them in jobs. “Our organization and our partners are poised and ready to assist individuals residing in the region in obtaining employment in high-demand, high-wage opportunities. The Greater Roanoke Workforce Development Board and the multitude of partners in the regional workforce development system continue to receive requests daily from businesses in every sector for assistance in developing and filling their talent pipeline,” said Morgan Romeo, executive director of the Greater Roanoke Workforce Development Board. “The jobs are here and ready for the taking and through support, career counseling, training and education, we are ready to help any individual develop their skills and talent to be successful.”

In Development Counsellors International’s “Talent Wars,” research shows that the primary triggers prompting people to relocate (or just to ponder it) are to have a better quality of life, with access to outdoor recreation being a key decision factor. “The outdoors is part of the region’s DNA,” says Pete Eshelman with the Roanoke Regional Partnership. “We created Roanoke Outside to leverage our outdoor assets to attract investment and talent, and the efforts of regional stakeholders is paying off.” The City of Roanoke is improving the Roanoke River with the creation of an in-river park and low-water bridge replacement. Roanoke County continues to develop Explore Park while creating a McAfee Knob shuttle service to alleviate parking congestion. Botetourt and Craig counties are working on the 26-mile Craig Botetourt Scenic Trail. Franklin County’s investment in Waid Park is creating a prime mountain bike destination. And the Jackson River Scenic Trail continues to show off the uniqueness of the Alleghany Highlands. “The outdoors is the fabric that connects our entire region,” says Eshelman, “and it’s what makes a region like ours so appealing to people looking for a better quality of life.”

Success breeds success, and growth has a powerful way of contributing to more growth. News of labor force growth serves as powerful validation of talent attraction and placemaking strategies. The public and private sectors play a vital role in placemaking. And placemaking directly supports in-migration, which supports labor force growth and ultimately unlocks potential for additional business investment and economic vitality for all residents.

Hull is executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership. The Partnership, founded in 1983, is...