In his State of the Commonwealth address, Gov. Terry McAuliffe spoke of Virginia’s unique economic situation — we have jobs that remain unfilled because our workforce is not trained to fill them. Our commonwealth is also scattered with economically distressed communities that tend to go unrecognized, even as we boast a lower average statewide unemployment than many other states. These communities must be able to share in our commonwealth’s success.
I am proud to represent the Tri-Cities region in the House of Delegates, which is home to a diverse population of suburban, urban, and rural working-class families. I marvel at our resourceful, resilient citizens and communities. However, we do face challenges that — while not unique to us — still require action.
The Council on Virginia’s Future compiled data revealing Dinwiddie, Hopewell, and Petersburg have significantly less high school completion rates, and degree attainment at the bachelor’s level or higher. Petersburg and Hopewell both have significantly higher unemployment and poverty rates than the state average.
And today, with all of our technical advances, parts of Dinwiddie and Prince George County remain without access to high-speed broadband internet that would open the door to opportunities and competitive advantages that are necessary to thrive in our global society.
Similar stories exist outside of the Tri-Cities region. In Southside, Southwest, and the Eastern Shore people are older, poorer, and earn two-thirds of what Virginian’s do statewide. These areas have lower graduation and college completion rates. And with 19.7 percent poverty, as opposed to Virginia’s average of 11.8 percent, the average poverty rate in these areas is 67 percent higher than Virginia’s statewide rate. Just 54.2 percent of the population in these areas is in the civilian labor force as opposed to Virginia’s statewide average of 64.9 percent.
Though these communities face challenges, we recognize the potential they hold. In Petersburg and Hopewell, occupations in software development have been recognized as high-growth fields, noted for the opportunity to employ individuals at a higher salary.
Southwest is rife with opportunities for innovation in agriculture, and the vast expanses of land are fertile ground for harnessing renewable energy. The Eastern Shore contains similar opportunities to tap into its agriculture, horticulture, manufacturing, and maritime industries as well as a fast-growing tourism industry. And Southside Virginia, once home to a booming manufacturing industry, according to the Southside Planning District Commission, can capitalize on this foundation and pivot to technology and telecommunications, transportation, electrical equipment manufacturing, and printing and publishing, among other fields.
For several months I have been engaged in meetings with state officials focusing on how best to further establish workforce development initiatives that would empower communities and train people for sustainable, high-growth occupations. We have discussed steps to make Continuing and Technical Education Programs more effective, to enhance collaboration of local agencies within each city, and to offer more clearly communicated pathways to employment for students starting in middle school.
There are also several policy measures before this session that strengthen workforce development efforts. I am supporting a proposal that would request the Broadband Advisory Council to develop a system for rating communities where the most people can be served by increased broadband coverage for the least cost (HJ700).
Such a study would be critical for people in several parts of before-mentioned regions. Broadband access is critical for competing on a broader scale, and a continued failure to provide access will always leave these communities at a disadvantage.
I am also joining with my colleagues to support legislation to have Code VA serve as public-private partnership to establish and administer the Computer Science for All Virginia Students Initiative as a means of developing and implementing effective computer science training for public school teachers throughout the commonwealth. A program of this nature is critical to filling those highly-skilled jobs in the tech sector that are already available yet lack the workforce with the requisite skills to fill these roles.
Finally, there is wide support for legislation that will establish the Virginia Veteran Entrepreneurship Grant Program and fund. This program would provide grants to eligible providers of educational training, or other services to veterans in a variety of entrepreneurial endeavors. For many, financial independence through entrepreneurship is a viable and necessary path to achieving financial security. Our veterans possess a host of valuable skills that would allow them to thrive in a wide range of careers, including entrepreneurship.
The elements for success are there, and we must tackle the root causes of these challenges through meaningful initiatives that empower individuals. We must train a workforce that can work in sustainable, high-growth, highly skilled fields. And we must make sure that our communities have access to high-speed internet and basic tools for competing in our global society. Every corner of our commonwealth must be able to share in Virginia’s economic success.
Lashrecse Aird, a Democrat, represents the 63rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact her at DelLAird@house.virginia.gov.