Thousands are Leaving W.Va.; One Program is Trying to Keep Them Here
On a recent weekday, in a renovated building in downtown Huntington, 22-year-old Jacob Howell was among 20 people working at a laptop in a sunlit office. Senior web developers sat shoulder-to-shoulder with new employees at long tables. There wasn’t a cubicle in sight.
Howell, a Hurricane native, wasn’t sure where he might end up after graduating last year from Marshall University.
“I didn’t know if I’d be looking out of state. I didn’t know if there’d be something around here to do,” he said.
Then he heard about a fellowship program specifically designed to attract and retain young workers that want to stay close to home. Impact West Virginia was launched by Generation WV, a non-profit that seeks to build a talent pipeline for West Virginia companies. The firms that host the fellows agree to pay their salaries for a year, as sort of a trial run. He was one of seven chosen last fall.
People are leaving West Virginia at an alarming rate, and Impact West Virginia is trying the new approach as a way deal with the exodus.
"That's something special. You don't often get a job where you get a dedicated day a week to do community service."- Sara Cottingham, Impact WV fellow
More than 15,000 residents -- roughly 41 people per day -- moved away in 2016. The shift has put a strain on local businesses, making it tough for employers to find skilled, educated workers.
Howell was selected to work at Core 10, a technology company that develops software for clients in the financial services industry. The company is based out of Nashville, but it recently built an office in Huntington.
Howell said he’s committed to staying in the city, despite an increase in homicides and the soaring drug overdose death rate in Cabell County.
“If you just run from those problems, if you just turn to places that you think don’t have problems, when most places do have similar issues, it’s just gonna become a cycle, and more people are gonna leave, and those problems will just get worse.”
Natalie Roper, Impact WV’s executive director, said young people are “motivated to work in a community where they feel like they can have an impact.”
“They want to live in communities they feel a part of, and can feel a part of determining that community’s future.”
But the challenge, Roper said, is connecting those young people who want to make change in West Virginia with jobs that pay well and help them grow their careers.
“West Virginia loses too many young people to opportunities elsewhere, and we are threatening our tax base, our community capacity, and our ability to attract new employers is threatened,” she said. “We see attracting and retaining young people as the most important economic development strategy for West Virginia.”
Countless other groups have tried to keep young workers here by offering them training opportunities or volunteer gigs, like AmeriCorps. But most of these projects have been funded through the federal government or foundations. Roper wanted to take a difference approach by partnering with private companies.
One partner in the fellowship program is Downstream Strategies, a Morgantown environmental consulting company whose scientific research requires advanced training. Finding the right workers has been a challenge, said Marc Glass, one of Downstream’s owners and managers.
“We haven’t had a hard time necessarily recruiting people from outside the state, but I think we have had some challenges with retention, with getting people to stay here,” he said.
Downstream’s fellow, Sara Cottingham, arrived on the job with experience helping communities boost their economies through tourism. A Texas native, she applied for the Impact WV fellowship because she wanted to work at Downstream.
As part of her job, Cottingham, who has lived in West Virginia for four years, has helped four towns in the Mountain State study the potential for attracting tourists. As part of the fellowship, she and the other fellows volunteer with a West Virginia nonprofit every Friday. So far, she’s helped two groups, Philanthropy West Virginia and the Tamarack Foundation, with economic research.
“That’s something special. You don’t often get a job where you get a dedicated day a week to do community service.”
Cottingham said she hopes to be hired by Downstream Strategies or another West Virginia company when the fellowship ends. She says she wants to stay here and is even considering buying a house.
“One of the things I really love about West Virginia is that it’s possible as a young person to move here and make a difference, move here and find a community, more here buy a house. … In Austin, Texas, where I come from, I could never afford to buy a house. So those are all things that make West Virginia a place where I could stay long term and put down roots.”
Generation WV plans to expand the fellowship program next year: Eleven companies will offer 17 fellowship positions in 2018.
This story is part of the Appalachian Innovators series, which is made possible with support from The Benedum Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Commission.