Bridging West Virginia’s Employment Gap

June 26, 2017

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Bridging West Virginia’s Employment Gap

By Heather Foster

At a time when transitioning to West Virginia’s new economy and retaining young talent are of critical concern to decision makers and businesses alike, connecting private sector employers with West Virginia’s national service alumni, such as AmeriCorps volunteers, is a viable opportunity that could be a game changer for the Mountain State.

According to a recent report from the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research, West Virginia faces an uphill battle in keeping people in the state. Projections indicate the state may lose 20,000 people by the year 2030. Many of those leaving are educated young adults. By 2030, nearly one in four West Virginians will be at or near retirement age. However, according to the same report, there is still time to improve population migration patterns in West Virginia’s favor, and both public and business policies can make a positive impact.

“We’re an impact generation, drawn to social enterprise and a triple bottom line, eager to solve complex problems with new technology, ideas and creativity,” says Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, a statewide organization dedicated to attracting, retaining and advancing young talent in the state. “West Virginia has some complex problems that could benefit from the entrepreneurial minds of this generation, but many leave the state due to a perception that West Virginia is not open to change, innovation, new ideas or solutions.”

The problem is two-fold: businesses need a highly skilled work force to operate, and West Virginia either needs an influx of young professionals or a way to retain its graduates. An ideal solution would involve both a pipeline of qualified candidates and communities that draw young people here to live, work and serve.

An Available Talent Pool

Believe it or not, a pool of highly skilled, exceptionally qualified candidates does exist and is already available and present in West Virginia. As of October 2016, AmeriCorps had more than 1 million alumni nationally. Approximately 1,000 serve in West Virginia each year, creating a group of leaders primed for employment opportunities.

AmeriCorps members engage in community service through approved short-term and yearlong national service positions. Upon successful completion of their service, they earn a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award from the National Service Trust, which they can use to pay for higher education expenses or apply to qualified student loans.

In West Virginia, AmeriCorps members provide direct and indirect services to hundreds of nonprofits, schools and public service agencies. Each member supports an important community-based initiative and must successfully complete all the terms of their contract. Programs focus on K-12 mentoring, literacy, health and community and economic development initiatives. One program recruits military veterans who provide housing and employment services to their peers as they transition back to civilian life or into sustainable housing.

Mikel Herrington, acting chief of staff for the Corporation for National and Community Service, says AmeriCorps members possess the skills and characteristics that make them ideal to address some of West Virginia’s most pressing issues. “Their selflessness and willingness to answer any challenge inspires those they work alongside, as well as the communities they serve. These motivated, outcome-oriented and innovative young leaders are tremendous assets for all who call the Mountain State home.”

Serving West Virginia

In 2016, West Virginia ranked third in the nation for producing AmeriCorps members. Based on initial data from 2015, of the members serving annually in the state, about 90 percent go on to pursue a degree or find career opportunities as a direct result of their service. This pool of candidates is a significant, untapped resource for West Virginia employers looking for qualified applicants with real-world experience and proven results.

While some of those serving the Mountain State are natives, others come to West Virginia by choice—and they’re ready to stay. Based in Elkins, WV, the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area (AFHA) is a regional, grassroots effort to integrate central Appalachian forest history, culture, natural history and forestry management into a heritage tourism initiative to promote rural community development. AFHA recruits about 40 AmeriCorps members each year, and most move to West Virginia from out of state.

AmeriCorps not only makes AFHA successful, but it is also a magnet for drawing young talent to the state. Volunteers have relocated from as far away as Massachusetts, Oregon and Alaska to serve in Elkins.

“In our program, we are looking for college graduates with skills in conservation, cultural heritage and community development,” says Phyllis Baxter, executive director of AFHA. “We know it’s hard for people to find jobs and stay here. We see this as a way to buck this trend. We provide an opportunity for young people in the state. They bring talent and enthusiasm, and some even find a way to stay.”

According to AFHA AmeriCorps Alumnus Dustin Smith, service is not only a pathway to staying in West Virginia but also to building a professional resume.

“Before my time with AFHA, I would not have been qualified
for the job I hold now,” says Smith. “Because I made an investment
in my future by enrolling in AmeriCorps, I was able to develop the
professional skills that allowed me to smoothly transition from AmeriCorps member to full-time staff member with Woodlands Development Group. It’s also allowed me to discover and stay in an area I love. Elkins offers so many cultural, recreational and social opportunities, and I never would have discovered it had it not been for AFHA.”

Lessons in Leadership

West Virginia’s AmeriCorps programs provide an outstanding starting point for business leadership development. The skills volunteers gain—paired with their commitment, dedication and work ethic—make them prime candidates for private sector jobs.It should come as no surprise then that AmeriCorps alumni are already contributing to the future in some areas of West Virginia.

Amanda Gribble from the Preserve West Virginia AmeriCorps program is serving her second year in Morgantown. She is an entrepreneur with a small, local, organic foods business who participated in the launch of the new online news source, Zackquill.com. Gribble came back to West Virginia, in part, because she sees the chance to create a positive future here.

“My decision to stay in West Virginia is based on the belief that the Mountain State’s potential to produce a thriving local economy will only happen if we invest our time and energy in healing what’s been broken for too long,” she says.

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