Kirk Cox, president of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
Kirk Cox, president of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

A few years ago, Botetourt County Administrator Gary Larrowe attended the Industrial Systems Engineering symposium at Virginia Tech. He was shocked at what he found: “250 or so new engineers hitting the work force and basically none were staying around here or Southwest Virginia.”

Many of the students he talked to had jobs out of state, in places as far-flung as Arizona or overseas. When he asked how they managed to land a job so far away, the students explained that they’d had internships at those companies. “I asked when/how did they line up the internships and they replied that it was through their ISE clubs,” Larrowe told me via text message. “And did it as a sophomore. So early in their education. The internships are all over the US and even some international opportunities.”

Local government officials in the Roanoke Valley have long looked upon Virginia Tech — and the other colleges in the region — as an asset to be tapped. Here are thousands upon thousands of college students graduating every year; if communities can persuade just a slightly larger fraction of them to stick around, that could go a long way toward filling jobs and building a bigger, younger and more talented workforce to replace baby boomers as they retire. What Larrowe got that day was both a rude awakening and an epiphany: If communities are marketing themselves to college seniors, they’re too late. If communities really want to attract more new young adults, then they need to make sure their employers are offering internships so there’s some kind of deeper relationship with those students before they’re about to graduate. 

He’s not alone. 

That’s exactly the message being pushed by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, a group of business leaders across the state who, as the name implies, are interested in higher education. Their focus of late has been on the so-called “talent pipeline,” which is where a lot of the state’s demographic trends converge, sometimes in unhelpful ways. And that’s led them to focus on internships. 

The short version of that concern over the “talent pipeline”: Virginia has jobs to fill. Baby boomers are retiring and there aren’t enough younger workers coming along behind to fill all the openings. That’s a nationwide problem but in Virginia it’s exacerbated by the fact that more people are moving out of the state than moving into the state. That’s true not just for retirees but for all age cohorts. Put another way, Virginia is exporting college graduates at the same time that we need them even more. Businesses need more of those graduates to stay in Virginia, so the Virginia Business Higher Education Council is focused on how to make that happen. 

One way is to dramatically increase the number of internship programs across Virginia, on the theory that if more Virginia’s college students intern at companies in-state, more are likely to get hired after graduation and stay in the Old Dominion.

That’s what recently brought the council’s president, Kirk Cox, the former Republican speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, through Harrisonburg, Abingdon and Roanoke on what seemed partly a fact-finding tour and partly a tour to drum up political support for the council’s agenda.

In an interview during his stop in Roanoke, Cox laid out a five-point program that the council would like to put before Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the General Assembly that convenes in January: 

1: Small businesses need stipends to offset the cost of hiring interns — most jobs are at small businesses, but they’re also the ones least able to afford interns.

2: Set up internship centers at every college in the state that are focused solely on connecting companies to potential interns, and students to potential internships.

3: Some interns need financial aid for things such as housing and transportation — it’s hard to find short-term leases, and some interns may not have cars.

4: Set up an online portal for one-stop shopping on internship information.

5: All of this needs to be marketed.

There’s no cost estimate for this yet, but these are the priorities that the council would like to see put into action.

Kirk Cox, at right, leads a roundtable discussion in Roanoke among business and education leaders and college students. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
Kirk Cox, at right, leads a roundtable discussion in Roanoke among business and education leaders and college students. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Cox’s Roanoke roundtable, which pulled together a mix of business leaders, education leaders and college students, saw a lively discussion that illustrated both the challenges and opportunities of trying to create more internships. 

Mark Pace, president of Roanoke construction firm E.C. Pace, called out one of the most obvious challenges: Some companies simply aren’t set up to take interns, or have never even thought about it. He likes to have interns at his company, which specializes in highway construction and utility work. He likes interns so much that when he talked to the head of another prominent Roanoke company, he asked if it had an intern program. Told that the company did not, Pace says, “Me, being me, I asked: Why not?”

The answer: “I don’t know what we’d do with them.”

On the other end of the spectrum is CytoRecovery, a Blacksburg-based life sciences startup. (Cardinal wrote about this company last November.) Vice president Alex Hyler said the company employs eight people full time but managed to bring on eight interns this summer, doubling its workforce. 

The challenge for her was not managing those interns but finding them in the first place, she said. “Arlington, Virginia, is so much cooler than Blacksburg” — or at least that’s the impression students have, she said. “No matter how many times I explain to them [that in Arlington] they’ll live in a closet with four people, it doesn’t matter.” She said many Virginia Tech students simply don’t know what’s in the region. “To them, it’s Blacksburg, it’s college, there’s nothing beyond that,” Hyler said. “You have to think about the lifestyle for that young professional.” Convincing them that there are job opportunities in Southwest Virginia beyond graduation is also a hurdle. “I still struggle very mightily to win that argument.” 

Cox said that as he travels the state he finds strong support for more internships, it’s just the details that are complicated. At his meeting in Abingdon, several people said “it would be a real game changer for us” if local students could intern remotely through tech companies in Northern Virginia. Cox said he’d be happy to bring that up with the Northern Virginia Technology Council. 

He’s also found obstacles to internships on both the business side and the intern side. “I’ll still go to businesses all the time and they say, ‘I don’t know where to go to find interns,’” he said. For students, housing and transportation are bigger problems than some may realize. One Virginia Tech student in attendance said he had a driver’s license but didn’t have a car, so he could only do internships where public transportation is available — which rules out any rural area. Cox said when he was in Harrisonburg he heard from one employer who wondered if James Madison University could make dorms available to interns during the summer. Kim Blair of Roanoke College said her school is already doing that. “Northern Virginia would tell you that’s their biggest problem by far — housing,” Cox said, which makes the prospect of those remote internships from Southwest Virginia so interesting. 

Cox said that illustrated another of the challenges he’s found. “Every college I go to is doing innovative stuff — they don’t always share it very well,” he said. He singles out Richard Bland College, a public junior college in Prince George County associated with the College of William & Mary, for a program that allows some students to attend classes twice a week and then do a two-day for-credit internship at a local manufacturer. It’s an apprentice program coordinated through the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education. “I was up in Harrisonburg the other day, one of the advanced manufacturers said, ‘We need more internships’”— but knew nothing about the Richard Bland program or the FAME initiative. “Everything’s doing something well,” Cox said. “One of the key things we can do is connect them.”

Cox, with an eye toward getting legislative approval for state aid for internship programs, points to polling that shows broad support across the political spectrum. “There aren’t a lot of issues where you can poll 70%, 80%, 90% approval. You don’t have to do the Democratic/Republican thing — Louise Lucas [a Democratic state senator from Portsmouth] likes it as much as Mark Obenshain [a Republican state senator from Rockingham County]. That’s the key.”

He also sees internships as key to economic growth. If companies offer more internships, those students are more likely to stay in the state. “I think the prosperous states in the next 20 to 30 years are the ones that can develop their talent and keep their talent — not the ones that attract the Fortune 500 companies.”

After all, there are only 500 of them and not all are looking to expand, but Virginia graduates 112,240 college students each year and most of them are looking for jobs.

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