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Turning Tobacco Money into Tech Jobs in Virginia

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In journalist Beth Macy’s “Factory Man”, the slow demise of the manufacturing industry is  meticulously and beautifully chronicled. Despite its main protagonist John D. Bassett III’s personal success in beating back the tide of globalization and other factors that have contributed to the atrophy of the backbone of Appalachian economic drivers, the reality is that plentiful jobs that pay well and rely heavily on manual labor plentiful at furniture companies like Bassett’s have been disappearing at a steady clip for decades.

As the blue-collar work traditionally associated with the Appalachian region, and particularly Southwest Virginia, has slowly but surely dissipated, technology-based employment is increasingly being heralded as a viable gateway to job creation for a population ready to work but sorely in need of training.

Currently there are 33,454 tech jobs available in the commonwealth as a whole. These jobs make up former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s IT-focused “New Virginia Economy,” broadly defined by the former governor as a strategy that is  “diverse” and “cutting-edge” and capitalizes on “growth industries” like biosciences, cybersecurity, and healthcare and energy.

It’s tempting to evoke the notion of a Silicon Holler, a pristine natural area powered by clean technology jobs in IT and cybersecurity that not only have the ability to change the face of the Appalachian economy, but to transform the identity of Appalachia itself into a more rugged but organic kind of Silicon Valley.

And the potential is certainly there.

Last year the Virginia Tobacco Commission awarded a $190,000 grant to fund a new Cisco Networking and Cyber Security Academy in partnership with Old Dominion University and the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon. The grant was used to purchase proprietary CISCO equipment, and matching funds have been made available to provide scholarships to help students with the cost of tuition. The courses prepare and certify students for work in various aspects of cybersecurity from entry level to advanced levels of networking.

Deri Draper-Amason is a provost fellow and director of integrated learning at ODU’s College of Continuing Education and Professional Development near Norfolk. Draper-Amason has extensive experience in dealing with populations of workers who were previously heavily entrenched in manufacturing, like automotive and corporate pharmaceutical workers. She is trained in empowering these populations to thrive in the face of societal change. The networking academy targets displaced coal-miners, manufacturing employees and even retail workers.

“We are first and foremost looking at the displaced footprint. That is our primary focus right now. Even a novice who doesn’t know much about the internet will be able to thrive in this environment,” she said.

Brian Sword, 34, is a displaced worker who lost his job at Best Buy where he had worked for the last five years. He attended a recent orientation session about the academy at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon. As someone with a bit of self-taught skills in web design and programming, Sword is enthusiastic about his chances for securing employment at a good pay rate while staying in the area.

“I am looking for a job in support right now and then either pursuing networking or cybersecurity,” he said. “I’m willing to move, but I’d like to stay in the area. I’m just really close to my family,” said Sword, who plays music with his father in his off-hours.

That enthusiasm is echoed by state officials like Virginia’s former secretary of technology Karen Jackson who attended the POWER UP SWVA cybersecurity and manufacturing summit last November.

“Put Southwest Virginia on the map … say that you want to be a home for this, say you want entrepreneurs to come here and start in cyber and that you want to be a part of the conversation,” Jackson told the Bristol Herald-Courier.

Other potential cybersecurity students like Alice Hill, 44, who relocated from a paralegal job in Atlanta to care for her mother, see the need for tech jobs in the area too.

“This area needs something,” said Hill, who also has a law degree from John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. “I’m afraid that in this area if they don’t keep up with technology, they will fall behind.”

Hill is more skeptical of how quickly good IT jobs will be available to those who get certification.

“I don’t know how much call there is (for IT workers) until they bring companies to Abingdon.”

According to Draper-Amason, overseas companies from China have shown a strong interest in coming to the region, and providing a source of employment for trained workers in Southwest Virginia.

But Chinese investment in the area has been characterized by deals that ultimately fall through and leave municipalities in awkward financial straits. Numerous accounts of these broken deals have been reported by The Roanoke Times, including Chinese investment from furniture manufacturers to air pollution control devices.

During the state’s cybersecurity and manufacturing summit last November, David Matlock, the executive director of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, stated that there are about 160 jobs related to IT and cybersecurity in the area.

What Draper-Amason has had success with is getting Southwest Virginia in front of hungry tech initiatives that often bypass this part of the commonwealth. One such initiative is an internship program for experienced cyber security workers that has been popular with other areas of the state. In Abingdon the popular grocery store chain Food City has stepped up as an organization that is interested in fostering such a program.

“The region has been hit hard,” said Draper-Amason. “The people that live here are very resilient, have high integrity, they have the brain power and the skill power and the knowledge set to rise up and focus in on the IT and STEM industries. They‘ve been losing in the coal mining and tobacco arena and we are just showing them they can use their skills in a different way.”

Amy Loeffler (@gastropublica) has been writing about food and agriculture in Virginia since 2009 when she worked as an intern and reporter for Northern Virginia Magazine’s food desk. She was recognized by the prestigious Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writers in 2010 with honorable mention for a story about Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization that fosters friendships and leadership opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. Her stories have also aired on WMRA, the Harrisonburg, Virginia NPR affiliate.