Over the last 20 years, about 15,000 Southwest Virginia graduates have abandoned their hometowns to look elsewhere for decent jobs.
This fall, Gov. Tim Kaine launched a Web site to jump-start a program aimed at reversing the area’s "brain drain."
It highlights local high-tech job opportunities in an effort to bring back those who have migrated to other parts of the country.
The Return to Roots program, in the works since 2000, is funded by a special-projects grant from the state’s Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission and covers the counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise and the cities of Bristol and Norton.
It’s a joint effort among three agencies – the Workforce Services Division of the Virginia Department of Business Assistance, which primarily helps in recruiting and training prospective employees for companies advertising new jobs; the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, which has worked to diversify the local economy; and the Virginia Economic Bridge, designed to encourage economic development and technological advancement.
Officials with Smyth County and the Lenowisco Planning District Commission are involved, too.
In recent months, Northrop Grumman and CGI, two technology-centered companies, have announced they’re moving to the area and creating jobs that are more high-tech and better-paying than the region has attracted in the past.
"We haven’t had the kind of jobs that people want to come back to," said Rachel Fowlkes, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon and a member of the Return to Roots committee.
"With the announcement of 700 jobs at Northrop Grumman and CGI in Lebanon, we know it’s going to take the whole region to pull together and come up with that work force."
Holston Medical Group also has announced plans to build a multimillion-dollar medical facility that will offer new jobs in Scott County, while Crutchfield Corp. in Norton is expected to create new positions.
The objective of Return to Roots is to match the skills and qualifications of natives interested in returning home with the needs of the new and existing companies looking for skilled workers.
A databank allows companies to post vacancies and those interested in the positions to post their résumés.
Although the Web site, returntoroots.org, was launched Sept. 18, the career search and job listing capability has been active only since Oct. 16.
Over the holidays, a series of six postcards will be sent to local residents in hopes that those who are home visiting their families will get the message. The first postcards went out Monday.
"If we can just get a few of those folks back, we will have done a good service," said Project Manager Shannon Blevins. "It’s a tremendous difference in their lives to be able to be around their families and raise their children here in such a great area, … and everyone that comes back makes a difference."
Blevins, who works in the Workforce Services Division of the state Business Assistance Department, said it’s important for employers to engage in the process as well.
She’s helping officials with Northrop Grumman and CGI connect with former Southwest Virginia graduates who could help fill the 700 jobs they’re bringing to Russell County. At CGI, 110 vacancies already have been filled.
Although officials in several targeted counties have yet to see any effects from the campaign, thousands of online visitors have shown an interest in returning to Southwest Virginia. In less than two months, people from as far away as Arizona, Montana and Texas have registered with the site.
Smyth County Administrator Ed Whitmore said a number of companies across the region are hiring for skilled positions, including software developers, engineers, information technology consultants and help desk/customer service professionals.
Because many people hoping to relocate might be just one half of a dual-income family, those with Return to Roots also hope to raise awareness about vacancies in other fields.
"We have an ongoing need for teachers, doctors, you name it," Whitmore said. "Southwest Virginia’s economy has been crying out for a metamorphosis, but now that the big jobs have arrived, the area doesn’t seem to have enough skilled workers to fill them."
In addition to connecting employers with prospective employees, the Return to Roots committee has worked with community colleges to create high-tech degree programs needed to train those who want to live in Southwest Virginia but don’t have the skills needed for the jobs.
For example, a 34-week online program for those interested in starting over in the information technology field, a program first developed at Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands, has been added to the curriculum of several community colleges in the region.
"We’ve also got colleges at the higher education center offering bachelor’s degree programs in software engineering, programming, programming in C++ and in Java 2E and network systems engineering," said Fowlkes, the Return to Roots director.
Whitmore said that when companies come calling, Return to Roots wants to be able to show them "a work force in exile, dying to get back."
"The fear is that the companies will go fill them somewhere else if they can’t fill them here," he said.
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