Special to the Mirror By Shannon Alexander, Robie Marsh, and Patrick Tompkins
They say all politics is local. The same might be said about workforce needs, particularly in a sparsely populated, remote rural region like the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
While our location has always been both a boon and a beauty, it comes with challenges, not the least of which is developing, recruiting, and retaining a high quality workforce that meets the needs of employers and contributes to economic vitality. Your Eastern Shore Community College, the ESVA Chamber of Commerce, and the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission are joining forces to address those needs.
Start with the challenges. The unemployment rate in Northampton is 3.5%, and in Accomack it is 2.7%. These are historic lows and a long-running trend. This translates into only 647 people on the Shore actively looking for work. That is a very small talent pipeline. Of those, some will find it challenging to gain employment because of limitations in education, ability, motivation, self-discipline, health, behavior, and experience. The challenge, then, for our three organizations is how to identify and meet the workforce needs of the Shore.
Part of the answer is more economic development. We all know people who leave the Shore because the pool of available jobs here is both shallow and narrow. Others are underemployed on the Shore through less than full-time hours, low wages relative to other areas of the Commonwealth, or jobs that do not fully utilize their knowledge, skills, and abilities.
Another part of the answer is visibility and recruitment. We need to vigorously identify employment opportunities, promote them, and actively recruit both on and off the Shore. There are many things to love about Shore life, and there are potential employees in declining rural areas who wish to remain in a rural setting if they can find the right job. We can draw to the Shore talented individuals who deeply care about the blessings of rural life.
Among residents of the Shore we need to increase the number of potential workforce candidates by making career opportunities more visible and more attractive. It is especially important for our middle and high school students to understand the range of opportunities available to them in personally and financially rewarding careers.
We need to recapture young women and men who graduated from school to underemployment or unemployment. And we need to draw off the sidelines those later in their careers who have lost work or are working in positions below their abilities and have stopped seeking better opportunities.
Training and education are also part of the answer. For example, we have a sizeable immigrant population, many of whom are filling relatively unskilled positions. We need to upskill them to raise the impact of their labor on their families and our community. As low skilled labor displaces other low-skilled labor, we need to develop the talent of the displaced.
But we are a small community, and our resources are limited. Northern Virginia can simply throw money at their employment challenges. Across the Bay, because there are dozens of contributing organizations it’s easier to develop dozens of programs and initiatives. Here, we must invest in programs where we have a high degree of confidence that they will meet the top workforce priorities of the Shore. We have to make a few bets with big payoffs.
And that’s why the ESVA Chamber, the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, and Your Eastern Shore Community College are collaborating to meet the workforce needs of the Shore. Step one will be a Workforce Summit hosted at the College on May 1. In this listening session, our organizations will learn first-hand from employers what jobs they need and what skills are essential to perform well in those jobs.
The work will not end with the Summit. As partners, we will follow up with specific employer sectors to learn more about their unique needs, develop education and training programs, and communicate regularly and widely what opportunities we create to meet Eastern Shore’s unmet workforce needs. We hope employers small and large, on and off Route 13, and from all workforce sectors will join us at the Summit in work that is vital to our community.
Shannon Alexander serves as Director of Planning for the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, Robie Marsh serves as the Executive Director of the ESVA Chamber of Commerce and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission, Dr. Patrick Tompkins serves as Vice President of Academic, Student, and Workforce Programs at Your Eastern Shore Community College.