Appalachian Virginia has a workforce problem.

“We constantly hear [companies say], ‘We’re advertising positions, but we can’t find people to fill them,’” said Evan Feinman. He serves as executive director for the Virginia Tobacco Commission. “It’s often hard to find qualified folks in struggling counties.” 

Virginia’s Tobacco Commission, launched in 1999 with the commonwealth’s share of a landmark national tobacco settlement, was designed to help rebuild the economy of 40 cities and counties in the Appalachian region of the state – rural areas that previously depended on tobacco as a cash crop. A company partners with a city or county, then approaches the commission with a request. The deal is simple: The company gets an agreed upon financial grant to offset business costs if they move into the area and hire a promised number of workers. 

That last part hasn’t been easy. From July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2020, the Commission’s Opportunity Fund gave out 181 grants to companies. Only 30 percent of those 181 met their employment quotas, according to Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. And there are a number of reasons why local economic experts say this is happening. 

Part of the problem is an aging population in Appalachian Virginia. Almost a quarter of residents are 65 or older, says the Appalachian Regional Commission. Another 20 percent are between 50 and 65. And as Baby Boomers and Gen X continue to age, that number will keep climbing. 

There’s also a skillset issue. Some of these jobs, like information security or electrical engineering, require at least a four-year degree. And that’s something often missing across Appalachian Virginia. 

According to U.S. Census data, only 10.7 percent of Dickenson County residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That number rises to 11.2 percent in Lee County. It’s 11.8 percent in Buchanan, 12.2 in Russell and 13.3 in Scott County. Washington County is an outlier with a slightly higher rate of 22.8 percent, helped by the fact 37 percent of residents in the town of Abingdon have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Across the entire region, no county has more than 27 percent of residents with a bachelor’s degree

And so, to fix the problem of an aging population and undereducated workforce, cities and counties are trying to find ways to bring people in. But in most of the region, local officials believe that effort’s failing. People need to be convinced to move here. And some groups are doing a better job at that than others. 

Who Are You Building For? 

Dr. John Provo sums up the issue with a story. Provo serves as director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement at Virginia Tech University. He and his group help communities develop economic recovery plans. 

“We were working with a county in far southwest Virginia, and they wanted to fill an industrial park,” Provo said. “They brought us in for a strategic planning session, and I said I think it’s great to have all these incentives for capital and job creation, but if you’ve got a declining rural population base, you’re building jobs for who?” 

The county, Provo said, had expected people to commute from surrounding states to fill the jobs at their industrial park. 

“It wasn’t because of their citizens not wanting to work,” Provo said. “It was the fact that their average citizen was pushing 60.” 

And that’s an issue a lot of cities and counties across rural Virginia face. Their average age is rising and the population is declining as younger residents move away. A June 2021 study from the Appalachian Regional Commission found Appalachian Virginia has lost 28,308 residents since 2010. The rest of the state, by comparison, gained 540,128. 

It’s not just because the areas are rural. Appalachian regions in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolin and Tennessee have all seen population growth over the last 10 years. In South Carolina and Georgia, Appalachian counties grew by 11 percent – faster than most metro areas. The difference, according to the ARC, is these other areas are telling a story, they’re offering things that draw younger workers in. The majority of Appalachian Virginia isn’t so good at that. 

“The argument in the past has been, ‘Well, they should be thankful to have these jobs,’” Provo said. “But younger talent have options now, in many cases more than previous generations. They’re going where there’s higher pay and more attractions.” 

In some ways, Provo says it’s how the conversation is framed that needs to change. Take Greensville County. The county encourages businesses to relocate there by posting on their website that the “cost of labor is significantly lower in the Greensville area, with average annual wages of just under $31,000 compared to Virginia’s annual average of just over $50,000.” But while that might interest a company, it’s hard to entice a worker to move to the county with that pitch. And with a shrinking population of just 11,391, the county needs people. 

If rural Virginia wants to fill open jobs and stop the exodus, Provo and others say local and state officials need to reconsider why someone moves into an area. And the Tobacco Commission has an app for that. 

Pay For Talent 

In 2019, the Virginia Tobacco Commission did an economic survey of the 40 cities and counties that make up their service region. They looked at jobs that are hard to fill, some that stay posted for long periods and some that just never get filled. The group took that data and created a talent attraction program. 

“If someone will move to the region, take one of those [hard to fill] jobs and be civically engaged, we pay [a portion] of their student loan debt,” Feinman said. 

Kimberly Archer was one of those people who signed up. The Liberty University graduate learned about the program while working in Petersburg and decided to come home to Amelia County. 

“I thought it was a great opportunity,” Archer, a fourth grade at Amelia County Elementary, said. “It came at the right time.” 

If you take the deal, you agree to stay in the area for at least two years. You also have to do 50 hours of community engagement – that could be building Habitat for Humanity houses or working with a Rotary Club – the type of service is completely up to the applicant. In exchange, the Tobacco Commission pays off $12,000 of student debt. 

Once that first term is up, an applicant can re-sign up to three more times. Each time, they’re agreeing to the same deal. By the end of it, they could have up to $48,000 in student debt paid off. 

“Our hope is in those years you’ll put down roots, you’ll buy a house, you’ll love the community and you’ll stay,” Feinman said. 

So far, Archer has. She’s spent her 50 hours on a variety of projects in Amelia. She works at the recreation center, helps with the high school cross country team, volunteers for the prom and works the concession stand for high school football games. She sees it as a way to keep teaching her students. 

“The [same students] come to the football games and to the recreation center. They see me working and helping out,” Archer said, “so I think it helps instill in them that community service is important.” 

Since 2019, $7.6 million has been paid out to 299 recent college graduates who joined the program. The first group was chosen in October 2019. A second round was selected in April 2020. The third round moved to the area in May 2021 and a fourth group will be selected on March 31, 2022. 

The program is limited to people who seek employment in certain high demand jobs. Currently the grants are available to people who teach middle and high school science, math, technology, computer science, career and technical education. Also physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, electrical engineers, industrial engineers and information security, network and computer systems analysts. 

The only issue, according to Feinman, has been getting the word out. 

“We’re not a marketing agency,” he said. “We let companies know, we let the chambers of commerce know, and we let local officials know, but getting the word out has been a challenge.” 

But in the “Tobacco Region,”social media posts and other advertisements for the program are few and far between.  Economic development directors and chamber staff in 15 cities and counties didn’t return our requests for information about how and/or if they plan to promote the project. 

Look at Floyd

As Feinman said, the money is limited for his program. But there are success stories. 

“Look at Floyd,” said Beth Sims. She serves as economic development director for Franklin County. “Floyd has become a maker’s community, creating small wins that keep adding up. Rural communities need to leverage what we have.” 

While most of its neighbors have been losing residents for decades, it’s the reverse in Floyd County. The 1970 census was the last time Floyd reported a loss in population. In the town of Floyd, you’’ll find more than 70 different artisans designing, building, cooking or performing. The town and surrounding area has also become a music destination, especially for bluegrass and americana, thanks to Floyd Fest. Combined with 75 percent broadband coverage, soon to be 100 percent, and you have a lot of what attracts younger workers to an area, Sims said.  

Communities need to ask potential workers what they need in order to relocate, Simms added. Maybe it’s better public transportation. Maybe it’s childcare. Or maybe, Sims said, it means companies consider changing their shifts. 

Empire Bakery Commissary in Rocky Mount, which produces cakes and cookies for retailers nationwide, added a $10.4 million expansion in 2020. But they were struggling to fill the new positions that resulted. They learned some people couldn’t apply because they had no one to watch their kids after school. So, Empire created a 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, 5 days a week. Sims said they filled all the positions within a few days. 

It’s like the line from Field of Dreams, Provo says. “If you build it, they will come.” He suggests communities and companies consider changes like the ones Empire made, changes focused on the needs of workers. 

Brian Carlton is a 20-year veteran of digital and print media, with work published in the Associated Press and BBC Travel. A nine-time Virginia Press Association award winner, Brian has been recognized for investigative reporting, column writing and public safety material while running newspapers in Waynesboro and Martinsville, Virginia.