Growing the talent pool
Roanoke region aims to retain students, attract workers
For tech worker Courtney Proffitt, summer 2020 was a transformative time.
After roughly a decade away from her native Virginia, she found herself in an Airbnb rental on the outskirts of downtown Roanoke. “I was ready to try a new city after 10 years in Charleston,” recalls Proffitt, who earned her master’s degree from the College of Charleston and stayed in South Carolina for work. “I just hadn’t really figured out where.”
Proffitt leads the request for proposals team for Benefitfocus, a Charleston-based software company that focuses on health benefits, enrollment and administration, and is now part of Voya Financial. Moving back to Virginia hadn’t been at the forefront of her mind; Proffitt grew up in Clifton Forge, about an hour north of Roanoke. But the pandemic drove her, like many people, to move closer to family and friends, and as a newly minted remote worker, she had the flexibility to live anywhere.
The Airbnb she chose was one of two renovated apartments in an older building on Campbell Avenue, she says, and she picked it specifically because of its walkability and cost. There was a coffee shop downstairs, a boutique fitness studio across the street and three breweries within three blocks — a stark contrast to the 45-minute commute she had in South Carolina just to meet friends for happy hour after her remote workday was done.
Living in Roanoke felt easy and natural, Proffitt says, and it didn’t take long for her to decide the move would be permanent. After about three months of Airbnb accommodations, Proffitt ended up buying a home in Grandin Village, a historic neighborhood a couple miles west of downtown Roanoke.
“It is the best decision I’ve ever made,” she says of relocating. “I think that I am in this area for good.”
For economic development leaders working to deepen and broaden the talent pool in the Roanoke and New River valleys, as well as the Lynchburg area, boomerang residents like Proffitt — people who grew up in the area who left for school or work and then returned — are valuable assets. They’re also encouraging local college students to stick around and trying to draw remote workers to the region.
“You create a talent pool in your region of available workforce, even if they’re working remote,” says Erin Burcham, executive director of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, a membership organization promoting the region’s emerging tech community. “The possibility that they could roll into a company in your region is so much higher if they physically are located in your region.”
Burcham and other officials are working strategically — and, in many cases, collaboratively — to develop initiatives and programs that not only highlight job opportunities in the region but also lean into a livability narrative that includes proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains and a lower cost of living compared with larger metropolitan regions.
“We like to say that we’re a unique mix of eclectic small towns and world-class universities,” says Katie Boswell, executive director of Onward New River Valley, a Blacksburg-based public/private regional economic development organization.
State legislators also are trying to pass a law to lure tech workers to the New River and Roanoke valleys and Lynchburg with $10,000 bonuses funded through the state’s GO Virginia economic development initiative. The budget amendment, which passed the House of Delegates, stalled in the Virginia Senate this year, but the idea has worked in other states.
“If you think about it, we’ve been putting together programs like this to attract capital for more than 50 years,” says John Provo, executive director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Economic and Community Engagement, which provides fiduciary oversight and administrative services for GO Virginia Region 2.
“We’ve had that debate in economic development for a long time: ‘Do people follow jobs, do jobs follow people?’” Provo adds. “But I really do think some version of this really is the next big thing.”
Although the $10,000 bonus initiative is still up to the state legislature, Burcham says, the idea has sparked conversations around the state about localities recruiting people, not just companies.
Meanwhile, economic development leaders are using digital marketing, summer programs and talent ambassadors to help tell the story of the Roanoke and New River valleys in hopes young professionals will come or choose to stay.
Region’s largest export
In March, the Roanoke Regional Partnership launched a jobs board on its Get2KnowNoke website, the organization’s talent attraction arm. It scours the internet for regional employment listings and highlights featured employers. Onward NRV debuted its online cost of living calculator in June 2021, which enables people to compare salaries from several metropolitan areas across the country with what would be comparable in the New River Valley. It includes a comparison of monthly household expenses.
“You may not be making exactly as much as you would be in the D.C. area or something like that,” says Boswell, but “your money goes a lot further here.”
Last year, Proffitt was recruited by the Roanoke Regional Partnership to be a talent ambassador. She’s one of several volunteers selected to be a conduit for anyone interested in relocating to the area. She appreciates the opportunity to not only discuss the benefits of living in Roanoke as a remote worker but to also talk up her hometown in Alleghany County.
“I have a lot of connections there, and they really wanted that perspective from a far-reaching satellite community,” Proffitt says of the regional partnership.
Like many rural areas, western Virginia has experienced a mix of slowed population growth and declining numbers over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census, and its population is getting older.
“If you look at natural change — that’s births versus deaths — much of our region is in decline,” says John Hull, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership. “But once you factor in migration, the migration is very positive. It’s a growth trend for the region. And so, we need to influence the equation to have even greater positive migration.”
One issue, according to a 2019 study funded by GO Virginia, is that college students simply don’t know what opportunities are available to them post-graduation.
“They assumed that they had to go to Northern Virginia or Raleigh or Atlanta to get that big job out of college,” Burcham says.
Because the area is full of students — not just those who attend Radford University or Virginia Tech, but a total of 25 higher education institutions with local presences — that population is important to reach, local economic development officials say. And some are from other parts of the state, including Richmond, Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
“If you go from Blacksburg through Roanoke to Lynchburg, higher education … really is our largest ‘export,’” Provo says.
Growing students’ networks
The NRV Experience internship program, a summer initiative launched in 2020, helps broaden college students’ experience in the New River Valley by showing them what it might be like to live and work there after graduation, Boswell says.
Participants meet over the course of seven weeks to network with peers and mentors and go on excursions in Floyd, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski counties, which are hosted by local tourism directors and economic developers. Part of the program emphasizes professional communication, networking skills and leadership, Boswell notes.
Get2KnowNoke has taken a new approach toward its eight-week Onboard | ROA summer program, which also offers a blend of career development and livability experiences, by opening it to students and young professionals between the ages of 18 and 25 who are working in the Roanoke region; that includes recent graduates and remote hires, says Julia Boas, director of talent strategies at Roanoke Regional Partnership. The program is not just about encouraging young workers to move to the region, she says, but helping them develop connections there — a key factor in retention.
The region requires more workers to fill jobs in local industries — including manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, higher education and health care — and Burcham says the technology sector is especially primed for new hires. “We are really at a place where we need more talent — more very specialized technology, biotech talent — in order to keep our clusters of technology growing and thriving.”
One example of the area’s evolving technology ecosystem is Blacksburg-based Torc Robotics, a homegrown tech company that produces self-driving vehicles and is now an independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck AG. Torc, which is developing commercialized automated fleets of freight-hauling semi-trucks, expanded to the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg in 2021, a move that was expected to create 350 jobs when it was announced in 2020.
Also, Carilion Clinic, the region’s major health care system, is growing. A new cancer center adjacent to Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences and Technology campus is in the works, and Carilion is converting a downtown Roanoke building into biotechnology incubator labs through a public-private partnership including Virginia Tech, Roanoke city government, Virginia Western Community College and pharma and consumer goods company Johnson & Johnson, which will run its virtual residency program there.
The renovated Jefferson Plaza building is expected to open in late 2024. As part of the $15.7 million grant funding the project, Burcham says, plans are in place to focus on another issue highlighted in the GO Virginia study: employers’ desire for more experienced employees.
“Many of our employers wanted a professional at the magical three- to five-year mark,” Burcham says. “A lot of them just didn’t have the capacity to take on a lot of recent graduates, just because it’s so training-intense.”
The Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council is developing a program aimed at preparing college students and new graduates for hard-to-fill positions by helping place them with local or remote employers and connecting them with peer and professional networks, Burcham says. The first cohort could launch by 2024.
“Our thought is if we can physically keep students on graduation day and nurture them and help them continue to grow in their careers and work in a remote capacity,” Burcham says, “then once our biotech companies and our technology companies need that type of talent, they’ll physically be here.”
Roanoke/New River Valley at a glance
The Roanoke Valley region, in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, includes Alleghany, Botetourt, Franklin and Roanoke counties, the cities of Covington, Roanoke and Salem and the town of Vinton. Part of the Great Appalachian Valley, the New River Valley includes Floyd, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski counties, as well as the city of Radford and the towns of Blacksburg and Christiansburg. The combined region is home to Virginia Tech, Hollins University, Roanoke College, Ferrum College and Radford University.
Roanoke Valley: 329,376
New River Valley: 182,876
New River Valley major employers
Volvo Group North America Inc.
Roanoke Valley major employers
Wells Fargo Bank
HCA Health System
The largest city along the Appalachian Trail, Roanoke is also convenient to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The neon-lit Roanoke Star and Mill Mountain Zoo are must-sees there, as is the Taubman Museum of Art. While in the area, catch a Salem Red Sox game or take a boat around Smith Mountain Lake. While tailgating at Virginia Tech, make time for a movie at Blacksburg’s 1930s-era Lyric Theatre. And then head to Giles County to re-create scenes from “Dirty Dancing” during themed weekends at Mountain Lake Lodge, where the movie was filmed. You can even stay in Baby’s family cabin.
Top convention hotels
The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center
300 guest rooms, 63,670 square feet of event space
The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center
147 guest rooms, 23,705 square feet of flexible meeting space
Mountain Lake Lodge
96 guest rooms, 9,035 square feet of meeting space
The Highlander Hotel Radford,
The Liberty Trust, 54 rooms
The River and Rail
Farm to table, localrootsrestaurant.com