JMU-led pact seeks to increase labor participation
The Shenandoah Valley’s economy is rebounding, but the region is struggling with a poor labor force participation rate, even compared with the national rate of 61%.
In Augusta, Bath, Highland, Page, Rockbridge, Rockingham and Shenandoah counties, only 50% of potential workers are actually employed, says Jay Langston, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, calling the stat “abysmally low.”
To address this issue — and its underlying causes — James Madison University convened a conference in August, seeking input from more than 130 stakeholder companies and organizations, including the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, GO Virginia and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
Four overarching issues affect labor participation: transportation, workforce training, affordable housing and child care, says Nicholas J. Swartz, associate dean of JMU’s school of professional and continuing education. Four working groups created from the conference will tackle each of these challenges in coming months.
“A champion will represent each group,” Swartz explains. “They’re going to determine what the problem actually is, including the root causes and how to address them. I want to move the needle.”
Part of the work begun in August was establishing the Shenandoah Valley Collective Action Pact, an agreement signed by more than 100 organizations and businesses to collaborate on short-term and long-term solutions for the region’s problems.
Swartz hopes that other regional anchor institutions in addition to JMU will also take leadership roles in the pact, as some solutions may take longer to enact. However, improving child care options and transportation access are immediate issues that he hopes to see addressed soon.
One potential answer to the transportation problem, Langston says, may be found in the poultry industry, where company vans shuttle employees to and from work.
Housing also is a barrier, Langston notes, because while “manufacturers are strapped for workers, if people are going to take jobs, they need a place to live” that’s affordable.
Also, career opportunities in manufacturing need to be better communicated. “There are well-paying, good jobs,” Langston says. “The sky is the limit, but people don’t perceive those jobs in that manner.”
Laura Toni-Holsinger, executive director of United Way of Harrisonburg-Rockingham County, notes that child care availability — never great locally — has dwindled further in the past two years. She hopes private and federal stimulus money investments will bring long-term solutions.
Ultimately, says Swartz, “We really want this to be a model for other areas of the commonwealth.”
Virginia Business Deputy Editor Kate Andrews contributed to this story.