It was heartening to see last week that influential Virginia business leaders all the way to Richmond are taking notice of the potential of our region when it comes to creating jobs and preparing a strong workforce.
Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, came to Abingdon to hold a roundtable discussion with area educators, business leaders and politicians on ways to boost the post-coal economy through initiatives such as workforce development.
They met at the United Way of Southwest Virginia in Abingdon to share ideas of what could stimulate the region’s economy, which until recently depended mostly on coal mining.
Having a stable, trained and ready workforce is considered one of the most important elements for attracting industries in the new economy to relocate or expand in our region, bringing jobs that go beyond tourism and service occupations in creating a stable economy.
“I came here because, as we have done our research, this seems like the kind of place that has worked successfully against the barriers that so many other small towns have,” Barkin told the roundtable participants.
“Education is strong,” he said. “Technology has been deployed. You’ve got a hardworking set of people. So what I’m trying to understand is: What are the remaining barriers?”
Barkin also discussed the United Way of Southwest Virginia’s youth workforce development initiative, Ignite, designed to promote careers by connecting schools and students with employers and employees.
Losing mining jobs has led to reductions in affiliated trades such as welding and general construction, said participant Brian Austin, superintendent of Lee County Public Schools.
“To a degree, we’re mourning a loss of an industry,” Mary Trigiani, senior vice president for strategic planning and development at New Peoples Bank, told the group.
Participants suggested that collaboration among localities throughout the region is also necessary to attract business and industry to Southwest Virginia, with the area speaking as one voice to promote itself.
“Our product has to be regional,” Trigiani said. “That’s the story that’s going to attract people.”
Barkin agreed with that concept while pointing out the area’s “cute towns” and assets like the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
Another challenge is to keep our young people in the region so they can become part of the necessary workforce, rather than having them leave to seek better futures elsewhere, Barkin said.
“Part of my objective is to be able to put forward what it takes to win,” he told the group. “... There’s a better opportunity to tell the story, particularly to future employees — people who are leaving town who may not see the opportunities that are going to be here and may want to come back.”
The sad fact is that many of our would-be future workers don’t see those opportunities ahead in Southwest Virginia because, for the most part, they really haven’t materialized yet.
Many young workers who do get the training they’ll need for the jobs that could secure their futures probably won’t be patient enough to wait very long for those opportunities to arise.
But even though some may give up and move away, the push to develop a workforce for those willing to stay must remain our top priority. Without a ready and able workforce, our job recruitment efforts will be in vain.
Our region has some key advantages that many other areas don’t. First and foremost is an unmatched quality of life created by our geography, which provides ample outdoor recreation activities and unmatched scenic beauty.
We have a wonderful story to tell both to our young people and our prospective employers. The key will be to get that story out to where the right people will hear it.