The great rethink
Work-life balance becomes an economic factor
As we enter Year 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic, the overwhelming question has become less, “When will we return to normal?” and more, “What do we want ‘normal’ to look like?”
A year ago, as COVID-19 vaccines became more broadly available, many of us thought life in 2022 would be a lot more like 2019. But so far, it isn’t, for several reasons.
Some people didn’t get vaccinated — and that caused a strain on hospitals when new coronavirus variants spread. Also, parents of young children exposed to COVID were caught between a rock and a hard place, forced to stay home from work or to try to work remotely while the kids were occupied.
In Virginia, just as in other parts of the country, the economy began to bounce back in most sectors, with a 3.2% unemployment rate and 4.26 million people in the workforce at the end of 2021.
But a different problem developed: The “Great Resignation.” The labor shortage hit the service and hospitality industries especially hard but other sectors were harmed as well, including health care, education and law.
In Virginia, the labor participation rate hit a low of 63% in December 2021, reflecting the proportion of the civilian population ages 16 and older that is employed or actively looking for work, a significant dip from early 2020, when the labor force participation rate was consistently above 66%.
Even for people not leaving their jobs, there’s a change in mood. C-suites are buzzing about higher salary demands, bonuses and flexible time for employees, as well as making remote work a permanent feature. Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are changing the culture at many workplaces, too.
Despite the fact that inflation spiked to a 40-year high in January, Virginia’s economy is largely very healthy — as CNBC acknowledged in July 2021 by awarding Virginia its second-in-a-row coronation as the nation’s Top State for Business. The following pages are filled with big new economic development deals, from Wythe County’s glove manufacturing plant to Dominion Energy Inc.’s $9.8 billion offshore wind farm.
Even tourism is looking up, as well as the traditionally strong sectors of federal contracting and trade. Manufacturing opportunities are also emerging, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin is putting increased emphasis on making more industrial sites shovel-ready so businesses can move in quickly. Major transportation projects are also underway, including the largest project in state history: the $3.8 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion. Even economically challenged Petersburg is becoming a pharmaceutical hub, poised to make a real difference in the availability of generic medications nationwide.
Meanwhile, the state’s universities are starting to build new campuses and buildings to train future IT and computer engineering professionals to take jobs at Amazon.com Inc.’s HQ2 in Arlington and at other tech firms in the state. Leaders in Southwest Virginia, which has been economically struggling for decades, are making major progress in attracting tech and manufacturing companies.
Construction and commercial real estate, accounting, finance, insurance and other sectors are represented as well, both in articles and up-to-date lists and charts in this year’s Big Book. But you’ll also see glimpses of strain — hospitals still struggling to treat COVID-19 patients and law firms with larger workloads and fewer entry-level lawyers, symptoms of the nationwide rethinking of work-life balance.
As Elizabeth Chu, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority’s first chief transformation officer, who’s included in this issue’s “On the Move” feature, said recently, “Employees and talents are just being much more careful about companies and where they decide to work. I think it’s a generational shift, but I also think it is a broader shift.”