On Sunday, we looked at a recent study that examined why the region from Lynchburg to the New River Valley has such a hard time attracting and retaining college graduates.
This always may have been a problem, but it’s a more urgent one now as the new economy takes shape — and the skill level of the workforce matters as much, if not more, than any industrial park.
The opportunity for us is 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. Those students represent one of our greatest natural assets. The challenge is to persuade more of them to stay after they graduate.
This study, conducted for the GO Virginia economic development board that covers the region, conducted six focus groups — one apiece for employers and recent graduates in Lynchburg, the Roanoke Valley and the New River Valley. On Sunday, we looked at six big insights that came out of those discussions. To re-cap:
1. The real problem isn’t just with persuading more graduates to stay for a first job; it’s keeping them long-term. The “greatest demand” is for professionals with 5-7 years of experience.
2. College students don’t know much about what’s beyond their campus.
3. Employers don’t know much about the talent available on local campuses.
4. The lower cost of living isn’t as a big an attraction as we think.
5. Many graduates don’t consider staying because wages here are lower.
6. Some high school graduates are so unprepared for the working world that they’re not employable even for “low-skilled, entry-level positions.”
Some of those problems are easier to solve than others. Companies could do a better job recruiting on local campuses. They could also pay more. Others— from the lack of “second job” opportunities to those high school graduates who lack certain “soft skills” or any skills at all — are more vexing. Here are two more things that came up in the focus groups that are also harder to solve:
7. We’re too white. The things that students identified as our advantages shouldn’t surprise us because they’re things we’re proud of— lots of outdoor recreation, easy access to bigger metros, and so forth. So what did they see as our biggest drawbacks? Some of those shouldn’t surprise us, either. Our location in western Virginia can be both a positive and a negative — a positive if you like mountains and think a 3-hour drive to Charlotte for a concert is no big deal, but a negative if that just seems too far to go on a regular basis.
Another commonly-cited drawback might come as a surprise to some residents: We’re too white. “This makes attracting diverse talent difficult, as many new residents are looking for a [community] in which to engage that shares their own culture, making it easier to feel at home,” the report says. “The lack of diversity can also promote a perception of a lack of tolerance, whether it is real or perceived.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this, and it’s not a problem unique to western Virginia. In 2017, the GO Virginia study of Richmond’s economy turned up this insight from an interview with human resource directors in the state capital: “The HR directors felt that they had to overcome a sense from people outside the area that Richmond was still the Capital of the Confederacy and not the ideal place for professionals who wanted to live in a vibrant, culturally diverse location. They said that if they can bring people here, the impression often changed, but that it is important to understand how important a role the overall brand of the region plays in the global competition.” Put another way, some may think Monument Avenue represents heritage not hate, but others think it also represents a hindrance to economic development.
How much do some aspects of our culture repel economic development? It’s hard to tell, but when prospects — be they corporate executives or potential residents — drive down I-81 and see that big Confederate flag outside Lexington, do we think that helps or hurts? Ideally, the question answers itself. If it doesn’t, then we have an even bigger problem.
Regardless, there’s this: Virginia Tech just admitted the most diverse incoming class in its history. Tech President Tim Sands has said that by 2022 he hopes that 40 percent of Tech’s student body will come from underrepresented minorities and first generation students. “We need to look at the demographics of the state and try to look more like them,” Sands told the Board of Visitors in 2016. Tech, as the biggest institution in our midst, is prime recruiting ground for new talent. But how appealing will we be if Tech’s future students look out and see a region that doesn’t look much like them? It’s unclear how to go about addressing this: Our region’s demographics are rooted in historical patterns that go back centuries. The first step, though, is understanding today’s demographic realities: Our communities increasingly don’t look like the rest of the nation.
8. We need a social director. OK, that’s not a serious proposal. But the report does highlight a big disconnect. Some graduates who stayed in the region “expressed difficulty in transitioning to life post-graduation when they no longer had access to campus activities, such as intramural sports or clubs. They indicted that finding more ways to connect in ways like they did in college would be beneficial to feeling at home after graduation.” Bigger cities don’t need to do this because there’s obviously more to do there. Sometimes the opportunities here are harder to find because they’re less obvious and less well-promoted to newcomers (or even longtime residents, for that matter). “This perception of lack of opportunity can be a barrier to recruiting young talent,” the report says. So do we need the equivalent of a college Rush Week to show off all the things there are to do?
And then there’s this: Many of the recent graduates interviewed complained that “there are not enough young, single individuals in the region to find companionship with compared to larger, nearby cities.” It wasn’t just young adults who complained about this, either. Some of the employers interviewed lamented that many of the young adults they have recruited have eventually left because “there are very few opportunities for meeting single adults across the region.”
So there you have it — eight problems. Now, who has eight solutions?