A "help wanted" sign in Fincastle. Get used to seeing these. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

See more of our coverage of Virginia’s changing demographics.

Some of us grew up in an era when talent meant the ability to twirl a baton or play a piano. 

Today, at least in business settings, the word “talent” has a very different meaning. Call it talent or workforce development or some other jargon, the point is the same: Localities are as focused on recruiting workers (especially skilled workers) as much, if not more, than they are recruiting companies.

The Roanoke Regional Partnership, the economic development agency for a region stretching from the Alleghany Highlands to Franklin County, has a director of talent strategies. The Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance has a director of talent and workforce development. At the Southwest Virginia Economic Development Summit in May at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond told his listeners:  “Small towns are going to need to recruit talent the same way they recruit companies.” We’ve seen this emphasis on talent attraction take some unusual forms. Some places literally pay people to move there, such as West Virginia’s Ascend program, which has designated Lewisburg, Morgantown, Shepherdstown and most recently Elkins as eligible communities. In Virginia, the Tobacco Regional Revitalization Commission has a limited version of that program, in which it will pay off a certain amount of student loans for recent college graduates who agree to work in those counties in Southwest and Southside in certain high-demand (and hard-to-fill) fields, such as physical therapy, math and science education, and information technology.

For anyone who wonders why all this is necessary, look no further than a recent batch of census data that sheds new light on the aging of America — and the looming workage shortage. You think there’s a worker shortage now? As the great philosophers behind Bachman-Turner Overdrive once sang, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” (And yes, I realize I’m showing my own age by quoting a defunct ’70s band where half the members are now dead.)

We often speak in terms of great, sweeping trends — the ongoing retirement of the baby boomers and how there are fewer young adults to replace them in the workforce. As another great philosopher, Tyrion Lannister of “Game of Thrones” fame, once said: “People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large.”

So let’s look on a locality-by-locality basis at how this will play out.


The 2020 census showed that in Roanoke there were at that time 6,507 people in the age 60-64 cohort, all of them moving toward retirement if they weren’t there already.

Labor statistics generally count the “working age population” as starting at age 25; that helps filter out most college students, even though a lot of people enter the workforce sooner than that. So let’s look at those ages 20-24, the age cohort starting to move into the workforce at the same time that those 60-64 are moving out. In Roanoke, there were 5,878 people in that age bracket. That means when those 6,507 older people exit the workforce, there will be only 5,878 coming into the workforce in Roanoke to replace them. That’s a deficit of 629. That’s how many people Roanoke will need to attract to keep the available workforce the same.

Ah, you say, but that age 20-25 cohort in Roanoke is low because a lot of city students are off at college and get counted there. Very true, but how many are coming back to Roanoke? In theory, over a five-year period, we need to persuade 629 of them to come back. Or 629 from anywhere, just to stay even. That’s a rate of 125.8 per year. And technically, the city would need to attract more than that, because we can’t assume that all 5,878 of those people in the 20-24 cohort will stay. Some will inevitably move, so what Roanoke needs is a net of 629 new people over five years to balance off those at the other end of the age spectrum. 

This is the workforce crisis at a glance.

Roanoke is actually in pretty good shape compared to many localities. Let’s take a look.

Danville and Pittsylvania County

Danville had 3,233 people in the 60-64 cohort but only 2,575 in the 20-25 cohort. That’s a deficit of 658. Here’s a city less than half the size of Roanoke but with a slightly bigger deficit of potential workers to replace the retiring ones.

Neighboring Pittsylvania County had 4,999 in that older age cohort but only 2,919 in the younger one. That’s a deficit of 2,080. This is a figure that a potential employer looking at the Southern Virginia Megasite — or a potential employer anywhere — is going to worry about. Sure, you’ve got the land, but do you have the workers? If you wonder why county officials have so much interest in the proposed 614-acre housing development near Tunstall, which would add 1,900 units to the county’s housing stock, this is why. Here’s a place to put the new workers that the county will need just to stay even. (My previous column looked more closely at the demographic math behind that development.)

Martinsville and Henry County

Now let’s take a look at Martinsville and Henry County.

Martinsville had 1,095 people in that 60-64 group and just 701 in the 20-24 bracket to replace them, a deficit of 394.

Henry County had 3,977 in the older cohort and 2,442 in the younger one, a deficit of 1,535. 

I promise I won’t run through the numbers for every locality but just a few more to touch more of our geographic bases.

Bristol and Washington County

Bristol had 1,176 in that soon-to-retire age group and 878 in that soon-to-enter-the-official-workforce age group, a deficit of 298.

Neighboring Washington County had 4,234 in the 60-64 cohort and 2,979 in the 20-24 cohort, a deficit of 1,255.

OK, just one more: Highland County is the smallest county in the state. It’s also the oldest. Here’s how old: Highland has 258 people in that older age bracket, just 66 in the younger one. 

I could go on and on — and on and on — but you get the idea. In most parts of Virginia, particularly in rural areas and small communities, there are more people in that soon-to-retire group than there are in the soon-to-be-working group. This is why there’s such emphasis on recruiting young adults, or new workers in general. 


Overall, Virginia does have more people in the 20-24 bracket (591,882) than the 60-64 bracket (549,412), but those surpluses are concentrated in certain places — mostly Northern Virginia, Richmond, parts of Hampton Roads and, of course, college towns. You may have noticed I skipped over Lynchburg. That’s because the Hill City is really a college town. Thanks to all its colleges, Lynchburg has more people in the 20-24 group (11,451) than the 60-64 group (4,270). Most of those will move on, of course, but the city is better positioned to persuade some of those to stay in town than other communities. Demographically speaking, Lynchburg is one of the “haves,” along with Montgomery County and Charlottesville and Harrisonburg and any other place lucky enough to have a college of some size. All those communities have a head start on economic growth potential because they have a future workforce right there in their midst. In vast swaths of Virginia, though, the imbalance of baby boomers retiring and younger adults entering the workforce is only going to get worse as the years go by.

Let’s use a different locality as our example here.

Pulaski County

The census showed Pulaski County had 2,596 people in the 60-64 cohort and only 1,785 in the 20-24 cohort. When we look at the age brackets younger than that, we see even fewer people, with the under-5 bracket having the smallest number: 1,551. 

Again, this is typical, and this time there’s no statewide surplus squirreled away somewhere. The 2020 census found every five-year age cohort under the age of 20 was smaller than the one ahead of it. This is a direct consequence of lower birth rates. I looked more closely at those in a previous column; this is simply another way to visualize those, and their impact. This is why colleges are worried about keeping future enrollment up; see the story that education writer Lisa Rowan wrote about how Roanoke College is reinventing itself. This is why companies are worried where their workers are going to come from. And this is why those who pay attention to Social Security and other entitlement programs are wondering where the future money is going to come from. Social Security — as I hope everyone realizes — isn’t like a bank where you pay into your account. It’s a program where each generation pays for the one ahead of it. That worked just fine when we had big generations paying for smaller ones; it won’t work if we have smaller generations paying for bigger ones. 

There’s only one demographic fix for this and it’s a controversial one with some people: more immigration. Higher birth rates would not solve the workforce problem for 20 to 25 years, and we’re quite unlikely to have a baby boom on the scale of the one we saw in the post-World War II era, when most women weren’t in the workforce and a single paycheck could support a large family. A decade ago, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke at Bluefield University and emphasized the need for the United States to “rebuild the demographic pyramid” by encouraging immigration, with an emphasis on young workers with needed skills. Immigration was a polarizing topic at the time and it’s become only more so since then, but the math is the math. Absent immigration, we will have fewer workers to drive the economy, and fewer taxpayers to pay into entitlement programs. Retirees who want to count on seeing their Social Security check have a vested interest in seeing more immigration, whether they realize it or not. Somebody’s got to pay.

In the meantime, companies will look for more ways to get by with fewer workers — this is why you see those touchscreens at some fast-food restaurants that let you place your order. It’s not that people don’t want to work — there may well be a problem with that — but even if everyone showed up in the workforce, we still wouldn’t have as many workers as we once did.

See my previous column on why the worker shortage is here to stay.

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