Merging Home, Heart And Opportunity In The Mountains
Editor's note: This story is the last in our series, “Plugging the Brain Drain” about young West Virginians deciding whether or not to leave the state.
Over this summer, Abie Reed will graduate culinary school, do a stint as a bread and pastry chef at a diner, plan a wedding, get married, and as if all that isn’t enough, build a house with her fiance -- a tiny house.
They’re planning to move into the tiny home at the end of the summer, and settle in while she takes a gap year to find mentors in the food industry.
“It gives us an opportunity to create a home and have our first house together and everything,” she said. “But if I can't necessarily find anything that I genuinely would like to be a part of, nothing would stop us from picking up and leaving.”
Her fiance works in Hurricane, West Virginia and has family in the area. They’re building the tiny home there and Reed said they will stay in West Virginia for at least the next five years.
“But after that, honestly, wherever life takes us, we're really open to going anywhere,” Reed said. “Especially because my sister is in England right now with her husband and then my parents live in South America. And so the world is open to wherever we want to go. We just have to make that decision.”
The food industry is just one of many industries that might require young West Virginians to move away. And whether youth want to become engineers, software developers, stockbrokers, actors, musicians, or chefs -- they look around at the state and see limited opportunities to advance that career, whatever it may be.
This was the situation West Virginia native James Rogers found himself in over a decade ago.
“When I first started my career, I wanted to be a chef,” He said. “And the best way to learn how to be a chef is to travel.”
Rogers spent 14 years working in restaurants, mainly in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
“I didn’t expect to move back,” he said. “And I'm not saying that I would never have moved back, nor would I have never chosen to move back. I didn't expect to because I've always liked high intensity, high paced jobs.”
After an injury in 2015, he did return. Last spring, he graduated from Pierpont Community and Technical College with a business management degree and planned to go back into the restaurant world.
That was right before the pandemic.
“The service industry really took a big hit,” he said.
Rogers reevaluated and is now going to school for accounting. He said he’d like to remain in West Virginia but will go wherever he can find a job.
“I've reached a point in my lifetime, where I would prefer not moving a whole lot,” he said. “I’ve moved 10 times since I graduated high school.”
After spending much of the last two decades living in busy metropolitan cities, he said West Virginia is convenient.
“I believe in West Virginia, we are provided with quick access, because we have a load of traffic on the roads,” he said. “We have a less dense population. So it's less stressful to go satisfy all your day-off routines…Whereas in a city it may take the entire day.”
He’s also got a large family in the state and the cost of living is pretty low.
Sam Clagg just graduated from the culinary arts program at Pierpont. He’s got a job lined up at a restaurant in Charleston, near where he grew up in Putnam County.
He said he’s always been a family man and would never want to move far away from them.
“My family dynamic is where we always communicate, we never stop talking to each other,” Clagg said. “I think that if I leave that I'll be leaving a part of myself.”
He plans to stay in the state, not just because his family is here or because he thinks it’s a good place to be a chef but also because he sees potential.
“You see big cities and stuff where they have these restaurants here dedicated for 50 years and stuff, but you don't see that here,” he said. “You see closed down restaurants, you don't see a community. They're trying to get together, but they just need some glue. And I feel like I'm that glue.”
Like many young chefs, he hopes to open up his own restaurant someday.
Clagg tells people who are leaving West Virginia to give it time and wait for the right job. He said some jobs do require leaving but he believes one can build a comfortable life in the state.
“I don't think I'm ready to live in a big city like Miami, Florida, or New York City, or California,” He said. “I don't think I was ever born to go there. I think if I stay in West Virginia, I will be working towards my strengths.”
The dozen or so young West Virginians we spoke with for our “Plugging the Brain Drain” series have a lot in common.
They recognize the state has issues, and want to see it get better. They have family here but don’t feel like they’re necessarily bound to stay. They think it would be great to find a good-paying job in West Virginia. But if there’s a job offer in Pittsburgh or Los Angeles they’re probably going to take it.
Their future plans aren’t set in stone, much like Reed and her fiance’s tiny home.
“We can literally just attach it to a truck,” she said. “And leave at any given moment.”