Most people generally know that the three major coal and natural gas counties of Dickenson, Buchanan and Wise are ranked as some of the poorest counties in the state. More specifically, they rank in poverty as follows: Dickenson No. 1, Buchanan No. 5 and Wise No. 11, out of 134 Virginia counties and cities.
The question then becomes: Can the labor base in far Southwest Virginia be trained for mid- to high-tech jobs that can be handled in satellite facilities? Do we have the high-speed Internet capacity and the DNA, to be blunt about the stereotypes that say we do not?
Yes we do. Wise County’s public school system is ranked fourth best in the same 134 jurisdictions in Standards of Learning (SOLs) in math, science and reading scores, while Dickenson County is ninth. Dickenson’s sole high school recently won a robotics state championship and placed ninth in world competitions, while two of Wise County’s three high schools have recently won statewide forensics competitions, with Wise Central winning two back to back.
Why concentrate on only three of the seven so-called coalfield counties? Because these three counties are the highest producers of coal and natural gas (95 percent or more of total state production) and were hit the hardest revenue- and population-wise when the latest — and some say permanent — downturn in production and jobs occurred.
Buchanan County, for example, has lost nearly half of its population since the 1980s. Dickenson is not far behind, and Wise has done some better due to having a few more alternatives, but its new housing permits issued last year were approximately a dozen. That statistic alone is shocking in a county of approximately 38,000 residents.
If Virginia’s leaders decide that unfilled mid- to high-tech state positions can and should be offered to the state’s poorest rural counties to incubate jobs that pay above-average salaries then — and only then — will smart, young, rural-based people have options other than outmigration.
In time, if the governor’s office by executive order combined with the General Assembly in 2020 decides to do so, these chronically poor communities can start to build a tech economy. These jobs, depending upon levels of complexity, pay three to 10 times more than minimum wage and will steadily help replace jobs lost to alternative energy sources, automation and exhausted natural energy reserves.
Bluntly put, Virginia’s current procurement procedures and urban-based bias leave Virginia’s more remote, rural counties in the cold. With high-speed Internet already in place (the most powerful fiber capacity known to man sits waiting along the major highways in the aforementioned three major coal counties) many state agency jobs can be fulfilled in the hardest hit parts of the commonwealth. The state need not look outside its boundaries for solutions to a shortage of high-tech workers. Accelerated apprenticeships here, where we call home, can fill the void.
If good-faith efforts such as these are made, then the state’s only regret will be that this not so radical of an idea should have been implemented sooner. The question is how far can the governor go through executive action and how much will the state legislature need to do to give poor, rural children a chance at good jobs and the option to reside in places they call home? One thing is for certain, when these young folks prove their worth with public sector jobs, the high-tech private sector will follow.
Giving our young talent this chance really isn’t that much to ask.
Frank Kilgore is an attorney in St. Paul, Va., and has for decades been involved in economic development, conservation and youth development programs. He can be reached at [email protected] .