The Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill is the largest mega site in the Southeast United States. But Linda Green of the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance said that smaller sites should be developed alongside the mega site. Photo courtesy of the City of Danville.
The Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill is the largest mega site in the Southeast United States. But Linda Green of the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance said that smaller sites should be developed alongside the mega site. Photo courtesy of the City of Danville.

Want more about Virginia’s changing demographics? We’ve collected all our coverage in one place.

Last year, Hyundai announced it would build an electric vehicle and battery plant near Savannah, Georgia. This was a major prize: 8,100 jobs.

We learned later that the runner-up was the Southern Virginia Mega Site in Pittsylvania County. What tipped Hyundai to Georgia? The most commonly cited reason was that the Georgia site was closer to being construction-ready, which has helped fuel Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s push to create more prepared sites in Virginia (something that former Gov. Ralph Northam had started pushing toward the end of his term).

In the official statement at the time, Hyundai cited four reasons for choosing Georgia: “Speed-to-market, workforce, and the state’s ability to meet the company’s carbon neutrality standards. Additionally, Georgia is home to an existing network of Hyundai subsidiaries and suppliers.”

I’ve written lots about the first point and some about the third and fourth — how under Kemp, Republican-led Georgia has become an unlikely center for electric vehicle jobs. A report by the Argonne National Lab last year identified Georgia, Kentucky and Michigan as the three states dominating the EV construction supply chain. I haven’t devoted as much attention to the second point — workforce. Today I’ll get under the hood and fix that (although with an electric vehicle there’s not really anything under the hood; they’re just big batteries on wheels).

Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper for Public Service, called my attention to one aspect of Georgia’s workforce advantage that I haven’t previously explored. This came as we had an email exchange about the recent Census Bureau statistics showing that the Martinsville micropolitan area — Martinsville and Henry County — had posted the largest wage growth in the state over the past year.

“Increased demand for domestic manufacturing and a tight labor market are likely two main factors that are helping wages in parts of Southern Virginia outpace inflation, even as wages decline in real terms in the rest of Virginia,” he told me. For nearly all of southern Virginia, the labor market is tight in part because its population is aging. With more residents turning 65 than 18, an aging population will in the future likely make it more difficult to attract large new employers or for current employers to make major expansions.”

That’s when he made another demographic point. “The Hyundai facility that Pittsylvania lost out on is being built in Bryan County, Georgia, where half the population is under age 35, providing Hyundai a growing pool of potential employees, compared to 36 percent under age 35 in Pittsylvania,” Lombard said. “Counties surrounding Bryan County have similarly young populations, while in every county bordering Pittsylvania less than 40 percent of the population is under age 35.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that an aging population makes it more difficult to recruit new employers. The very first report for the GO Virginia economic development council for Southwest Virginia raised that alarm back in 2017: Companies want to go where the talent pool is expanding, not shrinking. The website for Site Selection Group, a Dallas-based site selection consulting firm with a very plain name, also says very plainly on its website: “When considering a new location or adding capacity to an existing facility, companies should evaluate the metro area’s workforce demographics. Cities with an aging workforce may not be able to supply the pipeline of young workers that companies need to operate at full capacity. For example, hiring manufacturing workers to replace retiring workers is a particular challenge. While this will continue to be a challenge for many reasons, properly quantifying the millennial workforce is critical to any expansion or new location.”

Lombard’s observation caused me to look again at why Georgia has become such an economic development hotspot — and the challenges facing Southwest and Southside Virginia.

You can tell some things just by looking at this map from the Census Bureau that maps median ages by counties:

Median age by county. Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau.
Median age by county. Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau

Notice how dark Southwest and Southside Virginia are? That’s because our localities have older median ages. Now notice how light many of the counties in Georgia are? That’s because they have much younger median ages.

In Virginia, we tend to think of median ages being an urban/rural thing — younger in urban areas, older in rural areas. In Georgia, though, even many rural localities have younger median ages. Georgia has eight counties where the median age is 50 or older; Virginia has 22.

In Bryan County, which landed that Hyundai plant, it’s 34.4. In Fulton County, which previously landed a Rivilian electric vehicle plant that’s projected to create 7,500 jobs, the median age is 35.9.

In our Pittsylvania County, the median age is 48.4. Next door in Henry County it’s 47.8. Next door the other way, in Halifax County, it’s 46.6. In Danville, it’s 40.9 and in Martinsville 38.5. All but Martinsville are older than the state’s median, and all, including Martinsville, are older than those Georgia communities.

Kentucky is about the same age as Virginia; its median age is 39 to our 38.8. But look where its electric vehicle plants are going (I’m focused on EV plants not so much because I’m in love with electric vehicles but simply because that’s where some of the biggest manufacturing opportunities are right now). The biggest — a 5,000-job Ford plant — is headed to Hardin County, median age 37. An 2,000-job Envision electric vehicle battery plant is slated for Warren County, median age 32.9. A 400-job Ascend battery recycling plant is going to Christian County, median age 28.3.

This is part of what we’re up against: It’s easy to see a potential employer looking at those numbers and concluding that it would be easier for them to find a bigger long-term workforce in Georgia (or Kentucky) than here.

This is why one of the top priorities in many rural localities is to attract younger residents. To the extent that those younger adults expand the labor pool, they make it easier for older adults to find jobs, too.

Median age isn’t everything: Earlier this year, Volkswagen chose St. Thomas, Ontario (median age 42.7), over Pryor County, Oklahoma (median age 40), for its 2,000-job electric vehicle battery plant. On the other hand, the Ontario site also had the advantage of a Canadian federal government so desperate for a win that it helped put together a package with almost $10 billion in incentives — $13 billion in Canadian dollars.

Still, median age does matter — and I say that as someone on the north side of what would be considered a desirable median age. This fall, many localities across Virginia will be electing members of the county board of supervisors. Perhaps a question all those candidates should be asked is what they’d do to help attract younger residents to their community.

We know one thing Pittsylvania County is doing. In August, the board of supervisors approved, by a 5-2 vote, a 580-acre, 1,900-unit housing project near Tunstall. That was a controversial proposal. This is all a done deal now, and I don’t mean to pick at a sore spot for some people, but you can’t be for jobs at the Mega Site and against a housing project like this. Those workers would have to live somewhere. Approving that development, controversial as it was, makes it easier for the county to attract new employers, be they at the Southern Virginia Mega Site or elsewhere. The question is how easy it will be without those workers already there. 

Want more about Virginia’s changing demographics? We’ve collected all our coverage in one place.

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