Before COVID, Southwest Virginia Pioneered an Economic Recovery Plan

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

November 17, 2020

In order to recover from the pandemic, Virginia could take a page from an already functioning plan.

BLACKSBURG- On Oct. 30, Gov. Ralph Northam announced $30 million in funding to support workforce training for unemployed Virginians. The goal is to re-train and re-employ folks who lost jobs during the pandemic in “high-demand fields.” In Southwest Virginia, the strategy is old news. 

Onward New River Valley, a local economic development organization, lists advanced manufacturing, agribusiness, information technology and unmanned systems as its four target industries for the region, some of which are on the governor’s list too. But the region isn’t reshaping its economy in response to COVID-19. In fact, it has been a decades-long project.

True to Our Roots

Half a century ago, Southwest Virginia was even more rural than now, and defined by agriculture. Marty Holliday’s own property in Floyd County was once a tobacco farm, she said. Others hosted different crops, cattle or dairy cows, but the sprawling acres in between the mountains were almost all farms. 

Holliday is the executive director of the New River/Mt. Rogers Workforce Investment Area, which serves 13 jurisdictions in southern and southwest Virginia. She can draw a nearly straight line from the region’s agricultural roots to contemporary investment in skilled trades and advanced manufacturing. 

As family farms grew smaller or died out, Holliday said, the economy morphed into predominantly textiles and selling wood.

“And the interesting thing was, you didn’t need to do a lot of training,” Holliday said. “People who worked on their family farm transitioned into those hands-on industries pretty well.”

Women already knew how to sew, she said. Men who repaired tractors and did other work around the farm were also comfortable running a saw. 

Soon, bigger manufacturers like Volvo moved into the region. Again, Southwest Virginians were prepared to transition into new jobs. People who had sawed wood and assembled furniture could easily perform a variety of roles along the truck line. 

“Manufacturing has been the cornerstone of this region for a very long time,” Holliday said.

And while the exact skills required by the industry shifted over the years, she knows it’s not going away.

Jobs in retail and health care are abundant in the region, but wages are low. According to Holliday, around 75% of the jobs in the region require a two-year degree or less. She said while residents certainly need some folks with advanced degrees—doctors, teachers—it’s most productive to offer pathways to technical fields. 

The Rest Is History

Doug Thompson embodies the exact transition that the regional economy has undergone. Thompson himself was a farmer. In fact, it was on his farm that he learned metalwork. For a while, he ran a small business doing fabrication in Floyd County. Then he timbered for a few years. 

Twenty years ago, Floyd County High School Principal Barry Hollandsworth reached out and offered him a job. The rest is history. 

Today, Thompson teaches around 50 students per year in his welding program. He instructs another 20 to 30 adults through his classes at New River Community College. The class is offered twice a year, Thompson said. It almost always has a waiting list because the skill is in high demand. 

In conjunction with teaching, Thompson does boots-on-the-ground work to promote his program and its graduates.

“I’m not a chest-thumper,” said Thompson, but he knows he’s responsible for a lot of the growth.

“I have spent a lot of my time traveling around to businesses and promoting the commodity that our county offers, which is really good work ethics that I see here,” he said. 

Thompson has fostered partnerships with nearby fabrication companies, which have provided essential equipment and offered shadowing and part-time job opportunities to his students. 

Recently, the county government in Floyd approved a $14.5 million expansion for a Collaboration & Career Development Center (CCDC) at the local high school, where Thompson will have a much larger space. 

The CCDC is only one piece of the regional picture. Further south, Henry County features the Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre, which includes an advanced manufacturing training center. In Blacksburg, the Corporate Research Center at Virginia Tech hosts more than 200 companies, many in technology and software.

Current and Future Opportunities 

People who feared that automation meant the end of manufacturing were wrong, Holliday said. Nonetheless, “it has shifted into this advanced technology mode.” Holliday sees that as an opportunity—regardless of the pandemic, but especially in the wake of it. 

Places like the Corporate Research Center attract people to the region, although not necessarily to her home county in Floyd. More rural areas have other assets to offer, such as less traffic and idyllic views. However, information technology and similar fields still have a role to play in rural development, Holliday said. 

For one thing, the manufacturing jobs of yore are now more technological. People who know how to weld now run robotic welders. Self-driving trucks don’t actually drive on their own. 

To attract folks to the region, it needs infrastructure, including broadband connections. Real people operate the heavy equipment that lays the fiber. 

“The skill sets that people needed to be on a manufacturing floor…20 years ago, they needed a really strong back,” Holliday said. “Now they need a really inquisitive mind.” 

Holliday thinks it’s too soon to sketch out a plan for the post-COVID economy. But she knows the pandemic has spurred interest in working remotely. “So what we have is an opportunity to pull in these people who want to live in these more rural communities,” she said.

Kevin Byrd, executive director of the New River Valley Regional Commission, agrees. His organization recently received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to develop a plan for expanding the New River Water Trail. The kayaking route would offer docking points throughout the county. He said such projects are “frontline economic development opportunities” that help attract potential employers.

Southwest Virginia can offer “mountains, rivers, beautiful driving byways,” Byrd said wistfully. It has rural areas that aren’t far from corporate employment centers. “That’s another really big boon.”

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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