The coin of the realm in the new economy is who has the best-skilled workforce. A skilled workforce has always been important, of course, but it’s even more so now when jobs are more mobile — not rooted to a mine or a port or some other natural resource, but gravitate to wherever the deepest labor pools are. We have Exhibit A for that in our own state and in this case the “A” doubles as Amazon: Virginia didn’t offer the biggest incentives or the lowest costs, but it did offer what Amazon felt was the best pipeline of tech-savvy talent.
This emphasis on workforce — along with the clustering of high-growth fields in a relative handful of metro areas — has forced small cities and rural areas to respond in ways they haven’t had to before. We now have the state’s tobacco commission offering to pay off student loans for graduates in certain high-demand fields, notably science teachers and health care professionals. And the GO Virginia economic development board for the region from Lynchburg to the New River Valley has just finished a long-awaited “talent attraction and retention study” to figure out how we can upgrade our workforce. The opportunity for us: We have a lot of colleges here. So many, in fact, that we have a higher concentration of students per capita than some of the best-known high-tech capitals — Boston, Silicon Valley, North Carolina’s Research Triangle and Austin, Texas. The challenge: How can we persuade more of them to stay? This 75-page report provides enough insight to discomfort everybody. Here are six:
1. The real problem isn’t just with persuading more graduates to stay for a first job; it’s keeping them long-term. The report says “the greatest demand” that local employers face is when they seek “professionals with 5-7 years of experience, including managers or team leaders.” That’s because many potential applicants have simply left the region. This is also a chicken-and-egg problem, because many people leave because they “feel that the region doesn’t have as many opportunities for the ‘second job’ after graduation, or the next step in a career path after the entry-level position.” That means many leave after their first job, or don’t stay at all, “which contributes to this gap in experience” in the labor pool. Here’s one telling quote: “When one young professional was asked if he planned to stay in the region [he] stated that he expected to move because to get promoted he would have to wait for another employee to retire, which may be 10-15 years away.” Potential employees don’t see enough jobs; employers don’t see enough potential employees — and both are right. How do we fix this? Or do we simply accept this as just the way it is and will always be?
2. College students don’t know much about what’s beyond their campus. The report found that “45% of students indicated that they were not aware of career opportunities in their field locally.” This is both a challenge and an opportunity. There are also programs in place run by the Roanoke Regional Partnership economic development agency, the Roanoke Regional Chamber and other entities that attempt to introduce students to the region. The sobering reality: These programs may be too small, dealing with dozens or hundreds of students at a time when they really need to reach thousands.
3. Employers don’t know much about the talent available on local campuses. This street runs two ways. The study found that “nearly half of all the employers who were interviewed” — who tended to be larger ones — “have a staff member directly responsible for recruitment efforts but a smaller percentage of those actually have a strong relationship with the colleges.” We don’t know what that “smaller percentage” is. But if we have so many colleges in the region and recruiters aren’t connected with them, well, then it’s not just the fault of students for not knowing what’s job opportunities are available in the region. The report goes on to say that “an assortment of employers from manufacturing and construction have presented in higher education classrooms but very few offered work-based learning programs. One employer from construction noted that his company has offered internships in the past, but they only take on one intern per summer.” This feels a lot like a call to action. Or perhaps chastisement.
4. The lower cost of living isn’t as a big an attraction as we think. The report found that students often discount the region as a place to settle because “the wages are viewed as relatively low.” That may be true, but that’s offset by a lower cost of living. However, that part of the ledger doesn’t always factor in the minds of students who may never have had to consider such things before. Or maybe it’s just not as important as we’d like to think it is. “Graduates accept the trade-off [of higher living costs] if it means moving to a city that better aligns with their interests,” the report said.
5. Many local companies don’t pay enough. A lot of economic development reports are put together from the point of view of corporations, not workers, and their interests are not always the same. Here’s the rare report that suggests local employers could solve some of their recruitment problems simply by paying more: “If employers are serious about attracting and retaining new talent, the earnings must be competitive, otherwise employees will move to larger urban centers where compensation is higher.” This was a point that gets mentioned several times.
6. Some high school graduates simply aren’t employable. While the report was focused on college graduates, it didn’t stop there. Some companies that have “low-skilled, entry-level positions” say they’re having trouble finding enough qualified hires, too. Why? Because many applicants “still do not possess necessary employability skills.” That’s not necessarily the fault of schools; schools can only teach students who want to learn. This report doesn’t get into the details, but we’ve seen others who talk about how too many workers don’t possess what are today called “soft skills” — routine things like showing up for work on time and being able to work with other people. We could sit here all day and rail about whose fault that is. Or we could try to fix the problem, which likely means local schools get yet another “to do” item on their list.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at two other reasons why the region has a hard time attracting and retaining college graduates.